SMH ‘My Best Worst’: Em Ingram-Shute
Feature by Lissa Christopher.
Three weeks after returning from a “tough” trek to Everest Base Camp – an achievement that’s a testament to how fit she was at the time – Em Ingram-Shute was badly injured in an accident.
Her neck and shoulders sustained most of the damage and “it was just debilitating,” she says. “I went from someone who was incredibly fit and very healthy to, well, I couldn’t make my bed or put the washing on the line or anything for many years.”
She suffered incapacitating pain (and even had some of the nerves in her neck cauterised in an attempt to block it) and wound up losing her job as an auctioneer.
“Everything was diabolical,” she says.
Around the time of the Everest trek, Em had just started to look into Buddhism and meditation, and the pain from her injuries motivated her to really lean into it. She did a mindfulness-based pain management course with Vidyamala Burch “who is the most amazing woman and really showed me that pain isn’t solid and how to explore pain” and wound up meeting her current partner at a Buddhist centre. “It was a complete life change,” Em says.
The positive shifts didn’t end there.
Em had started working at an ethical book and gift shop, and her role involved collaborating with overseas artisans to make goods to sell. “I realised that if I wanted to be a bit more effective, I really needed to learn how to draw,” she says.
She did a number of short art courses and then, during a week-long drawing workshop with artist Maryanne Wick, had a remarkable experience that she was probably open to because of her mindfulness training.
“I just felt this mark coming out of my body and just wanting to drive out onto the paper,” Em says. “It was quite magic, really. I couldn’t believe it and I just thought well, this is it.”
She promptly reduced her work hours and enrolled to study art at TAFE.
Fast-forward a decade or so and Em is a practising sculptor undertaking a master’s degree at the National Art School in Sydney. Last year, she won the school’s John Olsen Prize for Drawing, Brandon Trakman Prize for Art History and Sculpture by the Sea Prize, and had her first solo exhibition, at Dominik Mersch Gallery.
“I left school at 15,” says Em. “I never thought I would be someone with a bachelor’s [degree], let alone doing a master’s, let alone winning all those prizes or having my first solo show.
“My meditation practice, Buddhism, my art and the National Art School … I couldn’t really ask for more and while it’s quite convoluted that accident led me to where I am now.”
Em’s neck and shoulders still give her grief, and it looks like she may have to have more surgery, but she’s notably sanguine about it.
“I know from my previous experience that what you think is adversity can actually propel you in another direction … I just think well, where is it going to lead me? You just don’t know what’s around the corner or where it’s going to take you, you really don’t.
“Lives change. You have just got to be open to the experience that something else is manifesting, and not see life as solid or the mind as solid. Those are the things I’ve learnt.”
You can see some of Em’s artwork here.