Erin M. Riley, Tyler Alumna, talks about being an emerging artist

Erin M. Riley graduated from Tyler with an MFA in Fibers in May, 2009. She currently lives and works in Philadelphia. Since graduation, she has had well-received solo shows at the Bambi Gallery here in Philly as well as Artspace in Richmond, Virginia. Additionally, she has participated in several group shows around the country and in Australia. She has also completed residencies at Emmanuel College, Boston, Massachusetts and the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, and is scheduled for a residency from January to March 2011 at the McColl Center for the Visual Art, Charlotte, North Carolina. She was just awarded a prestigious residency from January to March 2012 at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Omaha, Nebraska. She is a 2011 LEAP Award finalist and her work is featured for sale in the Store at the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh. Her work is currently on display in a 3-person show at Guerrero Gallery in San Francisco through December 4, in a show which has been featured with positive reviews at both Juxtapoz online and The World’s Best Ever online.

Her current work is inspired by the internet generation and the images presented by its people. She frequently finds her images on Facebook in order to find pictures of young adults in precarious situations. She uses imagery that might be shocking and excessive, that the subjects might find to be temporary, fun and fleeting, and weaves them into tapestries to solidify the event in yarn. She is remarking on the generation of excess by documenting images that are thought to be yesterday’s dirty laundry but which might linger on the internet, or in the mind forever. Her tapestries are woven on a Macomber floor loom with hand dyed wool yarn. You can see her work at

I interviewed Erin via email to see what she thinks about her life as an artist since graduation.  Here’s our interview:

Kari Scott You’ve been out of school for just about 18 months, and you’ve had 3 solo shows, plus the really important current 3-person show at Guerrero Gallery in San Fransisco (not to mention all the group shows plus those on the horizon). Do you feel like you’ve “made it” yet?  If so, what was the turning point for you?  If not, what will it take?

Erin M. Riley I am not sure if artists today actually “make it” but I have felt a growing momentum. I feel like everything changed while I was at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Being an artist is somewhat of a illogical choice and it was starting to lead me into a super broke and strapped for everything life. At MacDowell artists are the whole reason the place is open, there are numerous people who run the place smoothly and all so that artists can have a nice clean place to live and work, three meals a day and an amazingly warm community for two weeks to two months. I guess I realized that this is my life and I better get the most out of it, and that there are people out there who’s jobs are built around helping artists. I’m not sure what it would take for me to feel like I have made it, maybe if I won the lottery.

KS You seem to have really concentrated on residencies, including your upcoming one this winter in North Carolina, plus the one you were just awarded next winter at Bemis.  Do you find you are your most creative during a residency?  What about them works for you?  Is it worth slogging around your loom and yarn?  And do you have a really understanding employer, or do you keep quitting and finding new jobs?  How long can you keep this up before you feel you can pay for your living with your art?

EMR When I left school I thought residencies were the most amazing opportunities and they are, you are getting paid to make art and given a place to live! Only I am not a writer, I cannot just pack clothes, my laptop and take a flight out. I bought a pickup truck and I have a smaller loom now that is much easier to transport, though I have moved my Macomber all by myself before. I have found a rhythm to residencies even though I have only done two so far, the first few days are my emotional “I just moved my studio” adjustment period and then it’s time to think and make. I am really productive in residencies, when I can concentrate I get into a really good schedule.

The best part of residencies is having time to take a nap or straight up chill out (give my back a break from weaving). During normal life I do not do that, and eventually I would burn out at the rate I’m at. Chilling out a small bit is part of it for me. I have a day job that I am not scared of losing, even though I really am scared of losing it; I am a good worker and never ask for time off when I am here. I think eventually residencies might lead to grants, but grants are the one thing I am doubtful of. I am not sure I could ever make enough work to survive off of it unless my prices were higher.

KS Do the residencies cut into your social life?  Is it something you’ve done and are ready to move on? What’s next, do you think?

EMR I have never had much of a social life and leaving for months at a time doesn’t help getting to know people anywhere. Sometimes I think I could just work less at a day job and work more in my studio here and it might be the same thing. But its a different environment and an opportunity to meet people and have your work seen.

I think I am going to do residencies as I get them and make as much art as possible anywhere I am. I am going to stop applying to 7 month or year residencies and concentrate on having a productive life and a happy head (ha ha). Or maybe not. I like letting my life get lead where it wants to, applying only costs 20-40 bucks and your life could change in a letter or email!

KS This last show at Guerrero seems to have generated some buzz and great press.  It may be too soon to ask this question, but does that help you make other contacts?  Do people contact you via your website after they see your press?  Are the curators knocking on your door yet?

EMR Any buzz really helps everything, I am finally getting better at returning emails and keeping up with people. I have had a few emails that are encouraging but nothing crazy or unlike what I usually receive. The show with Aj Fosik and Ben Venom is up until December 4th and then who knows what happens! Well, then I have a show for my residency at the McColl Center for Visual Art.

KS I noticed you took down your tally of applications/acceptances (Erin used to have a tally on her website that showed what she applied for and what was accepted).  Are you getting accepted more, or are you not having to apply as much now because stuff is happening without applying.  Or did it just become too depressing or too much work? Do you feel the application fees are worth the payout eventually?

EMR I took that down because it got kind of confusing to keep track. I was starting to get opportunities without applying to things, galleries emailing me. The main point of the tally in the first place was to prove that you have to apply to things if you want to get them. And that rejection is 75% of the time. I was always hearing artists complain that they never got into shows or residencies and then they would complain that the applications were too hard. There is a whole lot of paperwork that goes along with getting opportunities and it sucks but you get better the more you do.

I have changed the way I apply to things. Before, if I qualified I would apply no matter what; now I remember which galleries deny me, where I know my work wouldn’t be accepted, if I would want to do a year long residency. I also don’t have the kind of money to spend 35-40 bucks a few times a month. There are many people behind applications, and in most cases the application fee is helping pay their hourly wage, deal with mailing costs, printing costs, and not every place can do all this for free. But, there are many places out there that are scams, so I just try to apply to legit places. Honestly I am not sure I will ever see a return on the amount of money I have spent on being an artist, but I sure that money would never make me a better artist or a more productive one. Might just keep me full.

KS If you could give one piece of advice to someone graduating soon, what would it be?

EMR Well I would say keep making art! Remember that as a student you made art on a semester schedule and don’t be hard on yourself in the real world if you slack a little in the winter or slack a little in the summer. But seriously, quit slacking and keep making art.

I would also say be organized, be smart, know your art and your audience. Take advantage of the opportunities that exist!

KS Thanks, Erin! We are so proud of you!


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