From the Delta With Love: Special education teacher paints abstract art


Emory Ryals and an original painting. Photo by Sloane Reid.

Sloane Reid
Oxford Stories

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta teaches people things from a unique perspective. Emory Ryals, a 23-year-old artist and teacher, credits what she refers to as the “nothingness” in the Delta for her creativity. Little did she know what the nothingness would ignite.

As a teenager, Ryals moved to Oxford, where she attended high school and remained for college. Here, she became “exposed to a lot of art.” However, Ryals always knew she was interested in art, describing her love for arts and crafts at her childhood summer getaway, Camp Desoto in Mentone, Alabama.

Her mother, Suzanne Ryals, noticed Emory’s artistic side at a young age. “Growing up Emory loved to write,” Suzanne Ryals said.

However, she did not start painting until her junior year at the University of Mississippi. Watching her roommate Morgan Fyfe paint inspired Ryals to begin. During this time, she “fell in love with the abstract part of art.”

Unlike Ryals, Fyfe grew up painting. “My parents let me take art lessons from a local artist,” Fyfe said. She continued painting during her school, and it eventually became her career.

Fyfe knew Ryals was interested in writing, but suddenly “there was a lot more paint in the house,” she said. “My favorite part of Emory creating art is that she started painting out of nowhere,” Fyfe said. “… She just bought some paint and started painting because she wanted to.”


A framed abstract. Photo by Sloane Reid.

Ryals describes painting as “a way for [her] to take care of [herself] better and to escape.” Art became more important and frequent in Ryals’s life, and she called her work Emory Art.

“Sometimes it was a closet, and sometimes it was an empty room,” Ryals said, describing where she paints.

Emory Art is painted on different surfaces, including birch wood canvas, stretched canvas, and birch wood rounds. Although it’s more difficult painting on wood, she said, “The paintings that do work out on wood always end up being my favorite.” Her abstract paintings range from large canvases to tiny wood rounds, and most include bright, cheerful colors.

“On the back of her paintings, she includes a line [of] poetry or scripture that inspired that piece of art,” Suzanne Ryals said.

Soon after the start of her painting career, the public became interested in her work. Ryals has an Instagram account (@emory__art), which contains over 130 pictures of her art displayed in different places – often bedrooms, dorms, or home office spaces. Ryals’ art has hung in Oxford’s Uptown Coffee and at the Double Decker Festival.

The Double Decker Festival takes place each April and brings an influx of tourists to Oxford’s Square, the town’s hub of arts and culture. Ryals had a booth for her work, and said it was the “most honorable thing [she had] ever done. It showed me that it was worth it.”

While Ryals appreciated seeing so many friends admire and purchase her work, she said the customers made her feel a greater sense of professionalism.

Shortly after Double Decker, Ryals moved back to the Mississippi Delta. “I missed the quietness of the Delta,” she said. She majored in special education, and now works in special services at Madison Palmer High School in Quitman County. She works in the science department, mostly in biology.

Even though she is back home in the Delta, many pieces of Emory Art remain in Oxford. It can be found at Jones at Home, an interior design store on the Square.


Jones at Home Interiors. Photo by Sloane Reid.

No matter where she is or what she is doing, Ryals believes art is important and a means of self-expression. With abstract art, there is “no right or wrong answer,” she said.

Suzanne Ryals said art enables her daughter to “begin a conversation with someone she has never met, and by the end of the conversation, it seems as if they have known each other for years.”

Promoting self-expression is crucial for young people, especially high school students.

“I want to be a teacher, but want to incorporate art in some way,” said Ryals, who will keep painting because she “want[s] to be genuine and reach others in an honest way.”

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