Lakeland Arts Recaptures the Lost Art of Hand-Painted Victorian Wedding

By Ladonna Rodriguez
Photography by Alexa Sarduy, Terrie Nelson, Dustin Prickett and Emily Loeppke

Emily Plank. Remember her name. Why? Because Emily Plank is something of an artistic enigma. Present-day Emily is busily checking off boxes: photographer, watercolor artist, acrylic painter, and most notably, artist of hand-painted wedding dresses.

Emily has loved all things art for as long as memory serves her. She attributes some of her passion for art to her mother’s creative talent in singing and some to her great-great grandfather, who was a merchant and folk artist in Tennessee beginning in the 1920s. From Buckeye trees, he hand-carved “The Buckeye Family” sculpture, a near life- size composition of four figurines, which took over three years to complete. Using only a pocket knife, axe, sandpaper and paint, he created the wood art, which featured the four distinct characters standing facing forward.

So, the artistic gene was already firmly rooted in Emily’s core, and she followed that passion when attending college. After initially pursuing a degree in pre- med studies, she quickly switched to her calling—fine arts. Her studies of the fine arts required that she touch on all forms of art, and so she learned about printmaking, photography, painting and art history, all of which would lead her to the path that she is on now. Emily is a contrarian among artists—that is, she is equally strong in both her artistic senses and her logical, critical thinking, and as she notes, “both sides of my brain are constantly at war.” Her artistic nature is complemented by her sense of structure, form, planning (curiously, she “likes spreadsheets”), and the need to problem solve.

Some twelve years ago, while in college, her roommate discovered that Emily was a budding, talented photographer and insisted that she photograph her wedding engagement photo, a stepping stone in her career path. After several years of taking family and engagement photographs, she then delved into wedding photography. Emily found herself the photographer du jour among her contemporaries.

While Emily was doing a photo shoot for The Southern Swan, a local boutique owned by designer Olivia Jacoby, it was brought to Olivia’s attention that Emily painted with watercolor. Olivia relayed that she had noticed a trend of hand-painted dresses in a national wedding magazine and that she would like Emily to create something to display in her boutique. Olivia designed a blue and white floral scheme, and Emily didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to create a beautifully hand- painted one-of-a-kind design. Building on her experience with Olivia, who was the catapult for the direction of Emily’s career, Emily then designed and created a second dress, and, working from sketches, brought a beautiful floral design to life with brush in hand. Emily wore this dress to a function, and admiring eyes noticed and inquired.

When her local florist friend Molly Harvey (Shaw) was getting married, she enlisted Emily to hand-paint her wedding dress, and, trusting in her, invited Emily to let her creative juices flow. When painting flowers on a dress for an imminent wedding, one doesn’t have the opportunity for a “do-over”—you don’t get a second chance to do it right. Unfazed, Emily began the process, first with the planning stage (the critical thinking half of her brain), and then the creative in her took charge. After some twenty hours of painting and a mere day before the wedding, Emily had created a stunning, one-of-a-kind dress for her friend’s wedding. She painted it with a combination of acrylic and gesso, important mediums in the process so that her design adhered to the fabric. Delicate clusters of soft, romantic flowers in tones of blue, yellow, and Emily’s favorite color, pink, (specifically, pink peonies) were softly brushed onto the bulk of the blank canvas wedding dress. The hand-painted work of art that was the bride’s gown coordinated beautifully with the decorations for the wedding. To say that the bride was pleased was an understatement. To say that social media noticed was a definite understatement! With over 7 million views of that wearable art, which led to over 40,000 new followers, Emily has become a trendsetting, well-known artist in her Lakeland hometown.

Recently she painted another wedding dress, this one with a request from the bride to include butterflies, birds, and peapods. Later, Emily was notified that there was indeed a “pea” in the “pod,” and the bride decided that following her wedding, and in preparation for the little one’s arrival, she was going to use a portion of the specially painted dress to create a bow, which would be framed and displayed in her little “pea’s” nursery, creating an heirloom with a story certain to be passed down.

Emily noted that hand-painted dresses date back to the Victorian era, when it certainly would have been a luxury and a statement of wealth, and today she is among a growing group of artists reprising that long-lost art form. But Emily’s passion for art is not limited to dresses; she also puts her brush to canvas, ornaments, eggs and even champagne bottles. She also enjoys painting landscapes, human and pet portraits and florals.

Emily is present at many weddings, as she captures the day with what is called “Live Painting,” in which the artist paints on canvas during the wedding and reception, detailing a special moment, perhaps the exchange of vows, or the first dance, creating a truly beautiful and original memento.

Emily noted that film is trending again, rather than digitally produced photos, and she loves to edit her photos to look like film. She sees hues in film that are not easily achieved by digital means, another example of her artistic eye. What a welcome embrace it is to return to the nostalgic times of printed film, of organic flower designs, of painted canvases, and indeed, of hand-painted wedding dresses.

While celebrity is finding its way to Emily, she seems at ease and unaffected by the attention. So, why remember the name “Emily Plank”? This young millennial is certainly someone who is carving out her own path in a brilliantly successful manner. Emily’s mottos include: “I’ll try it, how hard could it be?” and “I’m impressed by what people find impressive.” With humility and grace, and among the myriad forms of art successes in her life, you’ll probably be finding the name Emily Plank on cards, hand-painted artwork, bound journals, and yes, the perfect wedding dress in the not-too-distant future. From a recent social media reel Emily posted, she used the following quote: “The flower does not dream of the bee, it blossoms, and the bee comes.” …and so the bees come.