With imaginative illustrations ranging from the poignant to the celebratory, the new children’s book Marisol’s Dress takes readers on a journey alongside a young girl forced to flee a life she loves in bright and beautiful Cuba. Inspired by her mother’s story of emigration to the United States during the Cuban Revolution, artist and writer Emily “EMYO” Ozier weaves a delicate balance of bravery, sadness, hope, and triumph with her words and impressionist art.
Even as EMYO brings the sights and sounds of Cuba to life, she allows Marisol to shine as the little girl says goodbye to her homeland and parents. EMYO beautifully depicts Marisol’s struggle to come to terms with what she left behind and learn to focus on what she does have: her courage and creativity. With the simple tools of paper and pencils, Marisol unlocks her creativity and joy by filling her once-empty room with paper dolls. EMYO’s daughters helped create the paper dolls collaged on that illustration.
A native of Memphis and a mother of six, EMYO celebrated the book release at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens on November 17 with an evening filled with Cuban fun and food, art, book readings, a Q&A session, children’s paper doll activities, and more. Additionally, the book’s original artwork is displayed in Dixon’s Mallory Wurtzburger Gallery through January 2023. Meet our new FACE of Memphis, Emily “EMYO” Ozier!
What drew you to the art world?
I have always been creative ever since I was little. As a child, I drew pictures all the time. I especially loved drawing big families. And I LOVED making paper dolls.
I never really painted until I got to high school at Briarcrest Christian School. I had an amazing art teacher who was a big part of my life. She was the first person to put a paintbrush in my hand and allow me to create on canvas.
What has been your biggest challenge in pursuing art as a career?
Someone once asked me if I was living my dream, and I said, “Absolutely! Except I didn’t know you could grow up to be an artist.” I thought that was only possible a long time ago or happened to people in books. I didn’t even really dream that this would be something I could do as a career.
My biggest challenge has been needing an additional 12 hours every day to get it all done! Because of this, I rise early to get my day started, finding that I can use the time in the early margins as uninterrupted studio time. The sun is not up when I start. I put on my painting overalls, have my coffee, and watch the sunrise while I’m working. I greet my day with art.
Your Cuban ancestry is significant to you. How do you feel your background sparked creativity in you?
Both my Cuban grandparents were very creative. My grandfather was a doctor but painted colorful, bright miniatures his whole life. I still have several of them. My grandmother’s art was her sewing. She made beautiful dresses for my mom, me, and even our dolls. She had that creative outlet even when transitioning to a new way of life in a new country.
There’s something about Cuba that is in my DNA — the color, vibrancy, warmth of culture, love of gathering together, and of course, the love of sunshine is very much a part of me.
What inspired you to write Marisol’s Dress?
I wrote it when my oldest child was the same age as [the lead character] Marisol. It wasn’t until I had a daughter that age that I was able to understand what it would mean to put a child on a plane without me — to have to tell her that I didn’t know if I’d see her again, that she was going to another country to start a whole new life without me.
When I looked at my little one, I thought about how traumatizing that would be and how it would impact her forever. It gave me a completely new understanding of my mom. I saw her with fresh eyes, now that I was a mother, and could imagine how frightening it really was. I wrote the story as a picture for my mom — of seeing her and her story — not knowing if it would become anything more.
Ten years after I wrote it, an editor approached me. She said she was familiar with my work and asked if I’d be interested in writing and illustrating a children’s book. I told her I had a story written, but I didn’t know if it was what she was looking for. I sent it to her, and she said, “This is it.”
What do you hope children learn from reading the story of Marisol?
I hope that children are inspired to look at their neighbors and friends with fresh eyes of empathy. If anyone has had an experience like Marisol’s, I hope they are moved to be curious and wonder what it would be like to have those experiences.
I would love for kids to see how creativity can be a tool amid their own difficult times. Marisol used creativity to find courage and calm when she couldn’t control her circumstances. When you are a child, there is a lot you are unable to control. Children today probably haven’t experienced “a Cuba,” but they have gone through loneliness and isolation with COVID. Creativity helps bring hope in the middle of circumstances beyond our control. Kids need tools and resources to face hard things. And grown-ups do, too!
Is there anything more you’d like to tell us about the book?
Yes! I’m donating a portion of the proceeds to World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization that works to bring sustainable solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, including the plight of refugees. When Marisol fled Cuba, she was a part of more than 800,000 Cubans who came to the U.S., including 14,000 children. It is still a problem in 2022. The United Nations estimates that there are 26.6 million refugees displaced from their homes this year.
Switching gears a little, what do you love to do in Memphis?
I love to go on outings that get me out of my normal paths and take me on creative, inspirational journeys. If you look at my website, I have a list of my favorite creative dates to take with friends and family. For example, I recommend visiting the Dixon, one of my favorite places to spend an afternoon, then going to Las Delicias right across the street for a Torta and one of their famous margaritas. Walking the Mississippi River, paddle boarding, picnicking at Shelby Farms, biking to brunch, and Overton Park Shell Concerts are all on my list!
What do you do for fun and relaxation?
I really love to read. I send out an EMYO journal every month with my book recommendation for the month. I also share what I’m reading aloud. For the past eighteen years, I’ve read aloud to my kids every day, gathered around the table. It is a really important way to build a love of reading and stories in children’s lives.
I love to be outside, and I love to gather people around tables for food and conversation.
What is your best piece of advice?
Marisol teaches us that when life gives you lemons, make paper dolls. When difficult times come, do the best you can with what you do have.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups, my painting overalls from American Eagle, circa 1996 (I wear them every day), and my library card (that may or may not be blocked right now because of all my fines).
All photography by Emily Holmes unless otherwise noted.
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