Erin M. Riley is on her work break today—which isn’t really much of a break. “I was in the studio all day. I finished up a tapestry and will be starting on my next ones,” she shares.
See, aside from being an up-and-coming artist already featured in Juxtapoz and The World’s Best Ever, Erin also has a day job. She works part time at a bowling alley, which together with her residency stipends and art sales, pays the bills.
This is the thing about Erin: She readily admits to never having much money, being rejected at times for her unusual medium and themes; yet still embraces her passion for tapestry weaving and makes the most of it.
Her work delivers that same hard-hitting reality check. Getting inspiration from what we hoped were yesterday’s long-forgotten snapshots, Erin turns out traditional, often bittersweet, tapestries for today’s generation, the likes of Facebook Drama, Keg Stand!, and Wet T-Shirt.
I am an overthinker, I worry a lot, and I am a pessimist. When looking at these images, I am thinking about date rape, alcohol poisoning… I am thinking about how the subjects got themselves into that situation and how they have been affected by it.
Growing up was the low-key experience you’d expect for a middle child who preferred to be alone. “I was a very weird kid in high school. I never went to keggers or hung out with people who did,” she shares. “I read a lot and made most of my clothes.”
Then, two big things happened: She learned to sew during a middle school Home Ec. class, and she took her first weaving elective in the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Things moved pretty swiftly from there, with Erin selecting her major in Fibers and signing herself up for every weaving class the college offered.
“My first pieces were reminiscent of 60s tapestries, very abstract,” she says. By her second solo exhibit a year later, Erin discovered the cartoon method of basing tapestries on an image, and her works took on a radically realistic twist. She began weaving any image she could get her hands on: childhood photographs, her own drawings, and most recently, images found on the Internet.
This at odds pairing works out seamlessly in Erin’s mind, and even more seamlessly in her tapestries. A muted spectrum of dyed yarn in pebbled gray and café latte are interwoven with pops of hot pink and blood red in an old-meets-new gestalt that just works.
Erin’s selection so far has been strikingly au courant. Bong hits, brutal car crashes, and girls in various states of undress are all methodically hand-woven line by line into grainy tapestries. “The fact that personal images are available to the public is what I find most disturbing,” she explains of her virtual voyeur approach. “I choose the images I do for their inherent lack of thought for the consequences, the ones you would probably delete.”
Why people are the way they are fascinates Erin, as does reality TV, online message boards, trashy websites. “I’m interested in just how little coercion is needed for this kind of sharing. How I myself have been coerced into sharing such images with exes and gone completely out of myself to please men.”
I never really thought about offending people with my artwork because I never come from that perspective. I knew my work was getting risqué or scandalous, but in the end, it’s a tapestry and there are no faces, never mind genitals—not like we don’t all have genitals!
Aside from that tidbit, Erin’s pieces are pretty far removed from her personal life. “I do not drink and I’m not much of a socializer. But I know many people think I am because of my work,” she notes of her through-the-looking-glass standpoint. Other responses, particularly from the older set, are ones of awkwardness, as well as a few stale tales about getting drunk and doing drugs. “Younger people, probably used to seeing this kind of imagery, are more inclined to converse about it.”
And in an industry where the ability to still shock is enough to get one’s foot in the door, Erin’s first sale ended up being to prominent indie art figure and gallery owner Faythe Levine. “It was a shocker,” says Erin, who, at that time, was fresh from her thesis show and “trying to figure out life post-graduate school”. Faythe would later write about Erin’s work in FiberArts magazine (Spring 2011) and host the young artist’s 12th solo exhibition Jailbait in her Sky High Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
A second “life-changer” was Erin’s second Artist-in-Residency at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Finding herself leading “a super broke and strapped-for-everything life”, Erin found solace in the rich artistic history of her new environment. Alone and at 4am, she would walk through a pitch black forest from the studio to the main hall, fix herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and retire to her dorm building.
“There was just something about that walk, being the only person awake, and being given such comforts by an organization built on supporting artists: a nice, clean place to live and work, three meals a day, and a warm community,” she says. “I finally felt like being an artist was attainable—that I was an artist, this was my life and I had better make the most out of it.”
I weave on a Macomber floor loom. I’ve never woven on a tapestry loom and I think I have great shoulders from it. But it takes absolutely forever and does my back hurts most of the time.
Weaving is the center in Erin’s life these days, which she supports through more artist-in-residences (a total of five in three years), the odd part-time job (her latest being at Whole Foods and a bowling alley), and a mash-up of solo and group exhibits (44 to date).
Weaving at its core is very simple: a process that Erin starts by tracing the image onto a clear sheet, projecting it onto a wall, transferring it to a large piece of craft paper, and finishes by laying it under her warp as she weaves.
These days, Erin can whip out a piece in five to seven days. “That’s if I work for 10 to 14 hours a day,” a schedule she actually prefers. “But I can only weave one tapestry on the loom at a time, so I am continually working on that piece until it is finished.”
This lexicon of “looms”, “tapestries”, and the archaic images they conjure up provide the perfectly shocking foil for Erin’s more perverse subject choices. In her pieces, random fleeting images are recaptured, blown up, given the time of day. And the results are captivatingly beautiful.
WORDS BY KATRINA TAN.