by Nancy E. McCarthy
In 2022, at age 62, Monti Emery made the nail-biting decision to start an artistic career. For decades, as Emery adeptly climbed the corporate ladder, he found ways to weave his illustration skills into his work. But he yearned to create art full-time and had been seriously thinking about it for a couple of years.
“There was an awakening in me that brought with it a clear sense of purpose, a fresh sense of confidence and a new understanding of what type of value my art could provide,” Emery explained.
Before making the leap from the corporate world to the world of art, Emery started a small side business producing high-quality greeting cards. The cards featured his hand-drawn black and white illustrations depicting Finger Lakes Region scenes. Several retail outlets, including Watkins Glen Promotions, Cheshire Union and Bully Hill Vineyards’ gift shop in Hammondsport, began selling the cards. “The response to my illustrations was way more positive than I thought possible,” he said.
“When I first saw his work, I was impressed. I’m a huge fan of black and white illustrations,” said Will King, director and curator of Bully Hill’s on-site museum and gallery.
Emery chose a pseudonym for his art that captured the spirit of his new artistic journey: Bodhi Mountain. In Buddhism, “Bodhi” means awakening or enlightenment. “After years of daydreaming about following my passion, I awakened to the very sincere possibility it could be made real,” he said.
Additionally, “Monti” is Italian for mountain, which dovetailed perfectly with Emery’s love of mountainous landscapes. Together, “Bodhi” and “Mountain” carried deep meaning for him.
It’s how he signs his artwork.
Emery was 2 years old when his family moved to Elmira. Growing up, Emery and his two siblings enjoyed outdoors activities with their parents such as skiing, boating and fishing. Feeling a deep affinity for the region, Emery and his wife Theresa live in nearby Big Flats and are raising their family there.
Emery was always drawing or painting as a child. Inspired by his father who enjoyed painting oil landscapes, Emery first painted with oil, then acrylics, before discovering pen and ink illustration. It became his preferred medium. In the eighth grade, he won his school’s annual art award for one of his landscape illustrations. Early on, his career goal was to be a professional artist.
After high school, Emery enrolled in the Buffalo State University’s fine arts program. During the first year, intimidated by his exceptionally talented peers, Emery lost confidence in his abilities. At the end of the year, he left the program. His career path would instead encompass industrial design, engineering and operations. He eventually achieved a BS in industrial design in 1994.
“I felt the degree was the perfect blend of engineering and design: combining the study and application of both form and function for commercial and industrial products,” he said. Emery excelled in this field and earned several U.S. patents for equipment and machine inventions.
Throughout his professional career, Emery honed his technical illustration skills by merging illustration into his day-to-day work such as including illustrations in power point presentations and creating engineering and product sketches.
With management as the next logical step in his career, he pursued an MBA and in 2011 took an operations position with World Kitchen in Corning. When he left to pursue art full-time, he was its plant engineering manager and leading a team of 200 employees. “My stress level was at an all-time high,” said Emery. “I began to wonder how I had gotten so far away from that young man who just wanted to be an artist.”
Singing Creek Cards
Emery named his business Singing Creek Cards as a tribute to Sing Sing Creek, a nearby trout stream. “My wife and all five children have been extremely supportive. Every day I am grateful for my family,” he said. Emery and Theresa have three children and he has two children from a previous marriage.
In addition to greeting cards, he sells framed full-size prints and takes commissions, too. Incredibly intricate detail is the hallmark of Emery’s work. When considering a new subject to illustrate, the more opportunity for complexity means the greater the inspiration. At the suggestion of his wife, he began adding a touch of color to some of his black and white illustrations. More recently, he added full color photorealistic drawings to his body of work – blending hand-drawn pen and ink illustrations with digital painting (see sidebar for the artist’s process).
“As time went on, I thought we really should have a show for Monti and display some of his larger pieces as we were only selling his cards,” said King. In August 2023, Emery was the featured artist at Bully Hill’s Walter S. Taylor Gallery. Patrons were drawn to his iconic Finger Lakes scenes and Emery was the gallery’s best-selling artist of the season.
In addition to exhibits, Emery participates in several art shows. Last year, he won awards at Corning GlassFest and the Hammondsport Art Show. Local resident Tom Longstaff and his wife Debbie came across Emery’s work during the Hammondsport show this past summer. The couple, looking for art to decorate the walls of their home, was captivated by his vibrant full-color prints; they bought four of them. “We liked the idea of prints of local places that show how beautiful the village is,” said Longstaff. “His work is unique and different.”
The Arts Center of Yates County in Penn Yan is the sponsoring organization of the Keuka Arts Festival and also hosts a “Celebrate the Season” holiday group exhibit November through December in their Flick Gallery – among many other events and exhibits. Emery has participated in both.
“His work is clean and precise and a refreshing change from paintings and photographs,” said Kris Pearson, executive director of the Arts Center. “Painters think of color and light and proportion in their paintings, but drawing focuses more on design – line and perspective. It’s an area in which Monti is obviously very talented.”
Being a full-time artist includes various part-time tasks. The fun, creative side of drawing new illustrations for cards and prints and commission work pairs with behind-the-scenes work of preparing for shows and exhibits, delivering re-stock items to retail outlets, packing and shipping art ordered online and book-keeping. His new work life is exceptionally satisfying.
“I hope my story can help inspire others to pursue their passion and not give up on hopes and dreams – no matter how long those unfulfilled dreams have aged,” said Emery.
The Full-Color Pen and Ink Illustration Process
Emery’s signature colored pen and ink drawings begin with a hand-drawn black and white illustration. He takes reference photos of various subjects and scenes to determine a balanced, interesting and relatable composition. Emery may combine different subjects into one composite scene or begin with a completed scene from a picture he took.
“The foundation of my work is in the details,” said Emery. His illustrations are intentionally complex. Using Sakura Micron pens on high quality marker paper to get precise, non-bleed lines, Emery free-hand sketches or utilizes a drawing light board for tracing (or both) depending on the intricacy of the images. The completed illustration is scanned into a computer and color is added using Krita, a digital painting program.
His scanned illustration is placed on one layer. He creates a second “paint” layer for color work. “Similar to oil painting, I am able to freely paint colors, build-up tones, add shadows and highlights on that second layer.”
From start to finish, a colored illustration takes about 50 to 60 hours to complete. Some new customers mistake Emery’s illustrations for photographs. “After explaining to them how much work actually goes into each piece, and the fact that I am consciously trying to achieve a high level of accurate detail, they seem to have a new appreciation for the effort required,” Emery said.
Visit singingcreekcards.com for more information.