What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I grew up in a tiny town amidst the trees and lakes of Northern Wisconsin. The majority of my time was spent discovering and communing with nature. Summers were savored with long walks in the woods, building forts, riding bikes down our three-mile driveway, and swimming and fishing in our lake. Winters were spent building snow forts, sledding, ice skating, hockey, ice fishing and drinking hot apple cider. These formative years of my life created a deep-rooted connection with the natural world and the cycles of life and death.
I was also raised within a strict Catholic family. I followed the dogma of the church until I came of age and discovered my own thoughts and beliefs about the world. What I came away from Catholicism with, was a profound and genuine desire to contemplate and understand the mysterious world around me; but rather than feeling like I have the answers, I have grown comfortable within the realm of not knowing. These two aspects of my childhood shaped my relationship with the natural world. They created a desire to understand the world and contemplate the purpose of being alive.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
Conceptually, I make artwork that contemplates existence and the threshold between life and death, and what is known and unknown. I depict the complex yet often subtle energies that animate living things. Using plant life as a symbol for all living things, flowers breathe and push and pull energies along the threshold between life and death. My installation work draws from the same ideas, while bringing the artwork into the physical space of the viewer. Gallery walls serve as the metaphorical threshold between what is invisible vs. visible, intangible vs. tangible, mysterious vs. known.
Visually the work has a fluid, organic feel, and vacillates between realism and abstraction. I like the use of illusion with the intention of throwing off the perceptions of the viewer, so there is a process of discovery in looking at the installation pieces.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
Right now I’m working on a large-scale installation project as well as some small canvas works. I like the variation in that the installation work can be very physical, working with 4’ x 8’ sheets of Duralar, pouring paint, cutting and hanging elements from a ladder. With the small canvas pieces I can sit at my desk, hold the canvases in my hands, and paint the delicate detail work. For most of the pieces, I begin by pouring layers of paint. I find this part of the process to be freeing; it feels like play. It forces me to release some control over the final outcome, whereas with other elements they are much more tight and planned. Getting the super smooth, blended surface with acrylics takes time, especially when I am working with a transparent material like Duralar and making it opaque with paint. Often times I need to paint both sides of certain shapes so that they will look solid from all angles.
I tend to structure my studio work around available time. As a working mother of two, I focus on efficiency, and make the most of long and short studio sessions. I like having multiple projects going on and find the variation interesting and motivational. I like the play and connections between the two different modes of working.
How did your installation work come about?
I had been making oil paintings for years and at a certain point, I felt like they weren’t enough. They weren’t able to have the impact I sought, and so I started putting the paintings inside small sculptural boxes, with windows and little lights. They were intimate and voyeuristic. This is the work that I went into grad school making. One day I was talking about impact and the question was raised; why not turn the gallery into the box? Pushing the scale of my work definitely changed its relationship to the viewer. For my MFA thesis exhibition I turned the gallery into a labyrinth, where viewers walked through a maze, while viewing paintings that were inset into faux walls. The paintings were viewed through a variety of distortive lenses. With each passing wall, more of the paintings were revealed until the viewer was able to walk through a wall and into the center of the labyrinth where three large oil paintings were in full view. Upon exiting the space, viewers experienced each wall with a new level of understanding. This transformative process that the viewer went through was really appealing to me. The installation was able to provide an experience for the viewer, and play with the relationship between perception and understanding.
What inspires you?
The beauty of the natural world inspires me. I enjoy observing things, thinking about the structure of how things work and the connections between it all. I am inspired by questions and thinking about the unknown. It makes me uncomfortable and frustrated to not have the answers, but I don’t want to just ignore it.
In the studio I like the challenge of working with new materials, growing technically and am coming to enjoy the uncertainty of making installations. Of course, I am always inspired by other artists! There are so many amazing contemporary artists–some of my favorite installation artists include Yayoi Kusama, Cai Guo-Quaing, and Jacob Hashimoto; painters Darren Waterston, Sharon Ellis and Inka Essenhigh, and for drawing I admire Julie Mehretu, Mark Sheinkman, the sketchbooks of James Jean.
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?
- Dedicate yourself to your work. Get in the studio, even when things aren’t going well, even when you’d rather slack off. If you’re a maker, then go make things.
- You will make a lot of bad art. Like your handwriting, your artwork is an extension of who you are. Keep working until what you are making feels right, until you feel like you have found your groove.
- Once you have been in that groove for a while, then get out of it. Be curious. Explore materials and techniques. Push yourself.
You can see Erika’s work in these current exhibitions: