Interview with Erin Robinson Grant, by Jennifer Palmer

Published: Vol. I, Issue I
Date of Interview: July 15th, 2014

I noticed you have done numerous artist residencies in unique locations. Would you mind discussing some of your experiences at these residences, and did these locations outside the United States influence your artwork?

It’s been very interesting traveling and spending time outside of the US the past few years since the economic downturn. I feel like I’m this weird ambassador having to constantly explain America’s baffling behavior around the world (especially concerning healthcare, those were great conversations). I think what really attracts me to being anywhere but the US is that I feel like I’m an “other” here all the time being a woman and not quite comfortably fitting in with other artists. Being away sort of feels like a double negative where I can suddenly relate to everyone because I’m completely different, so it’s sort of the logic: “If we have nothing in common, we can have everything in common.” I had a really great experience in Fukuoka, Japan in particular for this reason. I don’t speak Japanese, so during my opening I had to have various people involved with the residency program translate to visitors what my intentions were with my video pieces, and then translate their questions to me. It was really great though because I felt like it was an inverted game of Telephone, where instead of making things confusing it distilled the conversation into these very core ideas that got at the heart of what I was trying to do.

What advice would you give artists starting out?

The biggest road block I’ve seen among my friends and other young artists coming out of school is that they waste time trying to compete with mid/late career artists for these super competitive exhibitions, residencies, and other opportunities and end up getting horribly discouraged and depressed because of the constant rejection. I think this happens because being in school, your professors encourage you to apply to these super prestigious things with the implicit attitude that if you’re a worthwhile artist, you’ll get accepted. But really, schools want students to apply to these things so that if one out of 20 students end up getting a big opportunity, it makes the school look good—never mind wasting the time and effort of 19 other people. I think too often people go into an art career outside of school with the idea that you’re either amazing and it’s self-evident so you’ll immediately start getting a lot of opportunities and have a complete career, or you should stop because you can’t make all your income from your art right away. The reality is it takes awhile to get the ball rolling on a successful art career, and starting out you just need to get your work out there. So it’s important to find opportunities that aren’t as competitive, and gradually build up connections and experience to make you more competitive and also help you figure out who your audience and patrons will be. I think the other, rarely articulated half is that you have to think of being an artist like being a business owner, and the business of your art is not going to be profitable right away—you need to wrangle with how you’re going to fund your practice until it starts making you money. For me, it’s a 9 to 5 day job. Others can lean on family while they work on it. Still others do some sort of profitable freelance work.

How did education play a role in your development?

Until I studied abroad in Australia and Ireland when I was 22, school was very stressful to me mainly because everything was so competitive. I was especially sensitive to this being that I’m from a lower middle class family and I was attending a private art college by virtue of my ability to earn scholarships. Even getting these though, it felt like there was a never-ending array of hurdles that I had to jump in order to just maybe do something that I really cared about in life. When I went abroad for the first time, I was finally able to see past the winner-takes-all mindset that permeates everything in the US, and realize that I could be successful as long as I was able to find my niche and people to support me. Having had that realization before grad school I think really paved the way for me to focus on my own voice as an artist and not get too distracted by school politics or trying to vie for opportunities just for the sake of prestige.

Did you always see yourself as an artist?

I actually feel nervous calling myself an artist in a lot of instances, because I feel like too many people get caught up in the idea of having an artistic identity instead of making work and having something to say, and as a result it ends up reflecting poorly on people who identify that way. I think I’ve always known I wanted to make things, but it would probably be middle school/early high school that I committed myself to going to art school and having an art practice, and this was really a result of the encouragement of my art teachers who saw in me not so much talent, but rather a drive and persistence that was absent in a lot of other students.

Who influenced you as an artist?

Now that I’m older I feel extortionately fortunate that I had truly great teachers throughout my primary education who not only taught me things but really, truly believed in me and helped me to build the foundation of my self-confidence and resilience. Too often in art education, teachers and professors put too much emphasis on making things a certain way instead of teaching you how to be self-critical so you can go out into the world and function artistically and intellectually. I’m infinitely grateful to my high school art teachers Terry Jackson and LuAnn Lamie for teaching me self-discipline and how to explore creatively. I also think of my geometry/calculus teacher Deborah Osborne who saw my talent in math. Since being out of school and living on the West Coast, I’ve encountered so many people who want to think of me reductively (such as, oh you’re an artist, that must mean you can’t be logical or you can’t hold down a job). Ms. Osborne really understood how the idea of a right brain/left brain binary is completely false, and that my multiple talents meant that I could produce truly original things in this world.

What colors are you drawn to and why?

No joke, my favorite color has always been purple (although as my husband found out, don’t give me a purple popsicle because grape is not my favorite flavor). I think when I was younger I just really liked it because it was the darkest color on the color wheel, and that made it seem more complex. I think as I’ve grown older this has morphed in to an attraction to the red/purple/blue section of the color wheel, and mainly because those are fleshy/bloody/bruise-y colors. To me they’re intimate; those are the colors that we are made of in all our icky biological complexity.

Do you like to collect anything?

Heh, I’m still sort of a sucker for super cute plush toys. I actually still have several stuffed animals from my childhood up on a shelf in my studio. Part of the reason I keep them around is to remind me of the sensibility of play, and how being silly and letting your mind go is part of synthesizing new ideas.

What is your most important artist tool?

My camera and laptop are the two things that come with me on any artistic adventure and really allow me the mobility to travel and do art residencies. Besides my video work that is part of my practice, those two things enable me to research, document, and promote myself as an artist and really thrive professionally. Even if one’s practice doesn’t involve photography or video directly, I really can’t imagine how any artist could function today without either of these.

What is one item you could not work without in your studio?

I realized the other day actually that a sink with running water is critical for a lot of my work. For example, right now in my studio I’m making several large papier-mâché sculptures, and I need water to make the paste, to wash my hands, to rinse my brushes as I coat the dried pieces in medium and paint, to rinse out the various cloth rags, and so on. I think when I get down to the business of making art objects it just always ends up being very messy and sticky regardless of what I use, so it’s not even really the stuff itself in the art that ends up being critical—instead the staples of water and soap end up being indispensable.

Could you describe your artistic process?

For me it’s never a question about what I portray or what idea I need to express. I feel like I have a huge library of imagery and ideas that I have loosely categorized in my head, ready for picking and pairing. Things also have to sit and stew for a bit before they come to the foreground and become fruitful. I’ve never seen something and immediately said: “That’s it, I need to make art work about that!” Many times, I’ll embark on a process or work with a medium that I haven’t used in awhile as sort of a form of play for me, and as I engage with the process I start retrieving and assembling the ideas I’ve been sitting on. Even if I make something and have to toss it, I’ve finally come to appreciate how that time and struggle ends up paving the way for the better idea or piece of work.

How has your practice changed over time?

The biggest change for me the past few years has been adjusting to not being in school and just maintaining my practice on my own terms. It’s been a huge relief actually being able to dictate what I make and when, and having deadlines revolve around art exhibitions instead of assignment critiques. It has also been really revealing to me the past few years how individual artistic concerns change so drastically when one is making work for the public at large instead of an academic audience. I feel a lot more human and a lot less anxious making work now.

What three artists should everyone be aware of?

From my perspective, the big three artists that people need to know about would have to be Gerhard Richter, Marina Abramovic, and Louise Bourgeois. These are artists that I admire not only for their work, but also for their integrity and professional practices.

Do you have a favorite art exhibit, gallery, or museum?

I really want to visit Pittsburgh again to see the Andy Warhol Museum and The Mattress Factory. I remember going on a day trip from Cleveland to visit those two art institutions with a couple of friends in undergrad and just being awed at both places. They truly are rust-belt hidden gems.

What is your studio like?

It’s a complete mess, but it’s wonderful that way.

The artist’s workspace.

If there was one thing you wanted people to know about your work, what would it be?

I would say about my work: “Don’t get caught up in the individual pieces, but look at the whole.”

How do you prepare yourself for one of your performance pieces?

I never formally rehearse for a performance. The main reason is that in my mind, what differentiates performance art from theatre or acting is the fact that it exists for a finite amount of time in a specific place, and therefore has to engage with the conditions that are present, so I feel that rehearsing would stilt my ability to respond to changing conditions. When I do go to perform, I have to concentrate very hard to get in the correct mindset. I always liken it to your mind being a two room house—during the performance, you take everything out of the front room and throw it in the back room and lock the door. Since one can’t control people or the environment present, you have to exert a very harsh control over oneself, so you need the frontal part of yourself completely reduced and clear. I would say that of all the aspects within my art practice, performance is definitely the most stressful. It is, however, also the most overwhelmingly meaningful thing I can make because it exists on that bleeding edge of artwork/artist/viewer.

There is an aspect of your work that is a bit grotesque yet beautiful at the same time. Are you looking to have the viewer attracted to an image, and at the same time taken aback by the imagery?

I think that perfectly sums up the intentions of my work. So much having to do with our bodies and nature revolves around the beauty of the whole and its disgusting inner workings. Just the concept of that push and pull between attraction and repulsion has fascinated me for a long time.

How do you want the audience to react to your work?

I feel very successful when I make a viewer very uncomfortable at first, but then after spending some time around the work he/she comes around and fully embraces the push and pull of the subject matter. I think a lot of times people are very sheepish at first, in discussing my work with me, because of how uncomfortable it is. And that to say that to me is somehow insulting, although I really love beginning a conversation with that admission since it’s very forthright.

How has your work evolved since being in Vol. I, Issue I of DIALOGIST?

I’ve been taking on bigger and bigger projects, and digging myself in deeper and deeper holes. When I create work now, I’m not just focused on a piece in and of itself, I’m thinking of the totality of the exhibition how everything will relate to one another.

What project or projects are you currently working on?

Right now I’m working on a variety of strange papier-mâché creatures for an upcoming show in October entitled Curiousaurus.

Detail, work in progress.

Whose work interests you right now? What artists/poets/presses/galleries put out work that you find exciting?

My husband and I were just looking at David OReilly’s work again last night after watching Her. His work is insanely smart and he’s not afraid to work in popular mediums (I was super excited to see that he had directed and produced an Adventure Time episode). I’m also currently finishing up Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which is terrific for the biting, candid way it portrays the hopelessness of the Midwest (I’m from Indiana originally). And Nathalie Djurberg not only makes these wonderfully morbid/playful clay-mations, but also creates wonderful engrossing installations that have really been an inspiration for the past few years.

Where do you see American sculpture/painting/drawing/photography headed right now?

I really feel like art exhibitions are becoming less about displaying these individual paintings, sculptures, photos, etc. in a white room. More and more it seems that people want to come into an experience, where the pieces are part of a whole installation. A really great example of this was a show that I saw in San Francisco last year of ROA’s work. While there were individual pieces for sale, the whole space was covered with art objects, constructions, and of course paintings and drawings by the artist. It was truly fascinating, and made me stay in the space for a very long time.