Ember Barrett, known in some circles as MC Barrett, has created a name for herself in the online and video game art community. Recognized for her ability to create fantastic, yet grounded, lived-in worlds with her remarkable linework, some have referred to her as the modern-day Moebius, referring to the influential illustrator and conceptual artist. She’s been asked multiple times to give workshops, inspiring other artists with her techniques and insight. As a child, however, Barrett never dreamed she would make a career out of her work.
An Artist Emerges
Barrett spent her childhood drawing. Both of her parents supported the family as technical illustrators in the aerospace industry. She would frequently visit their garage to tinker with her parents’ drafting equipment. “I could totally just go out there and explore and find new stuff,” she remembers. “It definitely had an impact … It was my own exploration. I had a lot of time to explore illustrations and machines.”
Throughout childhood, Barrett’s father remained supportive of her artistic endeavors, feeling genuinely saddened when she would scribble out a drawing before its completion. However, she never saw an artistic lifestyle as a viable one.
An Aversion to Risk
For the young Barrett, being risk-averse was a virtue. “When it came time to choose a career,” she remembers, “I thought, ‘I can’t make a living on art. It’s not possible; that should be a hobby.’” Internalizing this anxiety and attempting to find a more traditional career led to even more dread; she believed everything in her life had to pass through a “legitimacy filter” everyone else had created for her. It was only until a few years ago she was even able to come out as transgender, believing that, too, would not pass the filter.
In 2001, Barrett came to see life differently after she met professional artist, and eventual mentor, Kristin Perry. “That year, I decided that I didn’t want to do any of this shit anymore,” she recalls. “One weekend I drove home … halfway through the drive I figured, ‘This is what I’m doing,’ and resolved to come out as an artist to my parents.” Hesitant, her parents agreed to enroll her into art school.
Studying art at the University of North Texas came with its own problems. The lack of teaching technique and disapproval of certain subjects created a stifling and often annoying learning environment. Classrooms were littered with signs explaining the subjects students were not allowed to produce: fantasy, science fiction, unicorns or dragons. “So, I painted a space ship,” Barrett smiles. “The teacher said no, but I painted a space ship. And I passed.”
Using the Process to Understand
Barrett has an astonishing ability to constantly soak up her surroundings. “When I draw, it’s like all these little things that I’m excited to share … Partly, drawing is just where I can read my own brain sometimes.” A blank slate can be quickly filled with her thoughts. “My brain is filling the holes in with things I remember … What I expect to find there. It’s like excavating something … Like remembering a little secret.”
Part of expanding her artistic internal catalog, and one of her favorite things to do, is to consume cannabis, put her headphones on, and walk — absorbing the textures, lights and shapes of her surroundings. “Things just become more brilliant and interesting,” she laughs.
While some folks may feel that cannabis makes them slower or less active, Barrett feels it can help her process. “It helps me zone in, especially if there’s a lot going on … If I’ve got enough things [on the page], I can put on headphones and [go]. Sometimes it’s a funny story! And the part of me that would say, ‘People are going to think that’s dumb, that doesn’t fit in this world,’ switches to, ‘It’ll fit! They will not be able to refuse it!’”
One of the most compelling aspects of Barrett’s process is the obvious thought she invests in every detail of her work. When she creates engines, she imagines the motion and functionality of each piece; she strives to treat each character she creates with respect. “I’m less concerned with what their impressive architecture looks like … But I want to have enough of that to be able to find my way to where they sleep. What’s on their nightstand?”
At the moment, Barrett describes herself as rebooting, taking time for herself and her personal life. “[Maybe some] are wondering, ‘What’s she doing? I haven’t heard from her in a while. I heard she’s transitioning.’ I’m not feeling pressure from not being an artist … I know I’m drawing. I draw every day.”
Barrett has never been one to seek attention for her art. Though prolific, she mostly keeps her pages to herself. To date, she has produced just two books, “Cars and Rockets, Mostly,” and “More of This Sort of Thing,” both created with a little push from friends. After coming out as an artist, and now as transgender, she continues to pursue art that she wants to create for herself — not what others expect or demand of her.