Is there a better reflection of a culture than the creatives living in it? From painters to photographers to poets, the voice of our moment is often told most aptly and timelessly through what they create. The same goes for Erin M. Riley. She has taken a look at both her own and the collective consciousness of the individuals of today and laid what she sees for all to witness.
She creates tapestries depicting occasionally controversial subject matter involving adult movies, guns and drugs. Her work has been featured in magazines and shown at numerous galleries both in her home country of the US as well as internationally.
Having just recently come across Erin’s work, I was full of questions- hard, silly, and serious. I reached out to her at the end of 2015. This is the conversation that followed.
Interview: Part 1
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you first learn to start weaving?
I found weaving in college. I was interested in sewing and painting, and the fibers major was something that sat perfectly between those two. I could learn construction alongside fine art sensibilities. Weaving was a process I had no knowledge of and I connected instantly with it.
From there, how did you progress into having a specific style?
I learned “tapestry” early on and was weaving abstract pieces while also making lots of paper collage work out of found and family photographs that used the silhouette a lot. These eventually led me to combine the two, making simple drawings that I translated into tapestry using a very limited color palette. This progressed, and eventually, I was using found and photographs I was taking for the work.
Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.” How does the medium you choose to work with inform the subtext of the image?
Weaving is just another way to arrange color on a 2-dimensional surface. I am an image-maker. Think of me as a painter who uses yarn.
I know you told me before, but how long does each piece take you, roughly, and do you ever get halfway done with a piece and scrap it?
I have only stopped two pieces, one because I had to move my loom and another because it was too small to get the detail I wanted. My work takes from a week to a month to weave, I work 12-14 hour days, every day, and I also mix and dye my colors, plus all other prep.
I am really fascinated by how much work goes into each one. A lot of other artists do similar work to yours by designing it digitally. Can you explain the process of creating one of your works?
There is either digitally woven work or work that is hired out. I work from images, so I collect or take photos for an upcoming piece, blow it up to scale, and start a line drawing that will be pinned behind the warp on the loom. I collect and prepare colors for the pieces and get everything ready to start weaving. After that, it’s just a slow and steady process of weaving the image from the bottom up. Historically tapestry is woven side to side, but I weave bottom to top.
Weavings: Guns & Drugs
Interview: Part 2
Why do you choose using images of guns and adult movies rather than flowers or other imagery traditionally seen in tapestry?
These are the realities of life, of my life. I’m not a very optimistic person, so flowers aren’t exactly my style.
A lot of the topics your work focuses on are quite controversial. Do you get any negative feedback from people around you? Your family? Strangers?
Yea. People hate dealing with hard subjects. But I come from a vulnerable place. I am bearing my soul to people and am open for dialogue. It truly sucks growing up surrounded by denial and naïveté, especially when it comes to drug addiction, criminal behavior and the like.
I think if I did what you do, my family would not know what to think. What does your mother think about your work?
My mom has been fine with my work, maybe. I have no idea. I think she is just glad I didn’t kill myself in high school and don’t bug her for money now. She used to tell me to change my website so people didn’t have to see fellatio or sperm, but I don’t think she looks anymore. The adult stuff is another level, but the only time I got grounded in life was for calling sex hotlines in middle school, so it’s all there if you put the pieces together. What bugs me about society is that we throw parties for babies, we kiss them and pass them around, but because my partner’s sperm in condoms and I weave them, it’s somehow different and grosser.
Critically, I would say that your work with adult images comes from a place that further upholds the male gaze. Do you, as a woman, feel you have a responsibility to subvert depictions of the female body?
The vast majority of adult movies are made for a male viewer. Even “lesbian adult movies” on the mainstream websites perpetuate actions, views, and activities that are purely for a person with a dick. This is not uncommon knowledge. So as a woman who has been attracted and sexually aroused by women since I can remember, this is a balancing act. I mainly watch girl on girl adult movies because the likelihood of them doing something that is actually pleasurable to a woman is higher, although there is so much that is just meant to excite men. As a woman, I feel like I have a responsibility to educate myself on misogyny, feminism, and the sex industries that I engage with. But I want to be sexy. I want to be desired and sexually fulfilled. I think my only responsibility is to be conscious of the injustices against women and understand the differences between sexism, exploitation, and sexuality.
Interview: Part 3
Most of my questions are quite critical, I think. I really want to understand where you are coming from. How do you feel about people relegating weaving to craftwork?
In grad school, this was a conversation that killed the “crafts department,” which I was part of. It was an ongoing and boring conversation about Art VS Craft. It’s all opinion. Elders in the craft world who are scared of becoming irrelevant are hung up on staying in this royalty position in which “time spent” gives you “street cred.” Young people today are coming across textiles, ceramics, jewelry, etc. and making work from the perspective of an outsider artist and being successful because they do not have 40-50 years of ancestors of a medium weighing them down. Weaving is a beautiful medium and can be used in so many different ways. It is a craft. I find the word “craftwork” only to be demeaning because of its connection to women, but I reject that. Just because something connotes “something, a lady does” does not make it negative. That is just the misogyny of the art world in play.
Where is the role of craftwork in fine art?
Most things in fine art are made by hand; we all develop our craft and mediums in various ways. Some people jump around; other people use the same medium forever.
Do you consider yourself an artist and do you think a title such as ‘artist’ is beneficial or restrictive?
I guess I am an artist. I make the things that I want to make and for no other reason.
Interview: Part 4
The themes of your work seem to relegate women’s bodies to object status. Is this intentional or a comment or something else?
I am interested in the difference between photographs taken in which men think the woman is sexy vs. the woman in the photograph feels sexy. Nowadays, we are much more comfortable self-publishing photographs of ourselves or sending photographs to partners; we are aware of how to take the most flattering photograph and are generally implicit in the sharing. I am interested in the desire to be objectified/respected/desired/equal. Sexuality is something in which our roles are often turned on their heads.
What would you say to someone who says your work relies on shock tactic rather than artistic value?
People often refer to my work as sexy, exciting, salacious. Sure, on a base level, all of my work lends itself to those things, but that is not the intention. I don’t look at a crashed car and think it is exciting, nor, as a woman, do I look at a nude photograph on the internet as purely sexual. Being a woman in today’s society means calculating risk at every turn, every comment, every picture, every “like” implicates us into a greater scheme of judgment. That being said, I am interested in discussing hard subjects, and therefore, if I get people’s attention and allow them to reevaluate something in their lives, that’s great.
I particularly like your latest tapestry with the bloody tampons. What are your thoughts on our current culture that stigmatizes menstruation and other natural female functions?
So much about being a woman is hidden. We have medicines, tampons, salves, antibiotics, all of which negate society’s need for our vaginas to be pristine vessels. I always found it frustrating to balance “being sexy” with “bleeding for 5-7 days a month,” so it suits me better to bring it all out in the open. If you want me to suck your dick, you’ll have to accept that I get my period.
Do you do commission work and, if so, how do you approach a piece like that? Does the client give you a topic or specific image?
Yea, I have done a few. I only really work from images that are along the same lines as the content in the work I am making and relate to my bodies of work. The clients always provide the image.
Are there any topics that are ‘off-limits’ to you?
Probably, but I haven’t run into them yet. There are topics that are really difficult that I want to work with but don’t think I could emotionally handle working with for days at a time. But maybe in the future.
Anything exciting coming up in the near future?
I am continuing a series of large works (243 x 243cm) that I started this year and hope to show some of them in 2016.