ERIN M. Riley
Interview by Sarah Neubert
Erin M. Riley's masterful tapestries blend technical skill with deeply personal subject matter. It is impossible not to react when you see Erin's vulnerable, provocative, unapologetically honest work. I've loved following her career as she's done the hard work, spoken her truth and been embraced by both the textile community and the world of fine art. She's kind, open and humble, and we are extremely lucky to have her as an instructor at the 2017 Weaving Kind Makerie. At the WKM, she will be teaching tapestry blending and, I hope, giving us some insight into the power of personal expression.
I read in another interview that after your mom read your diary as a kid, you started making art to express your feelings in a language that no one else could understand. Do you feel like art is still your diary? Even with its expressive (and often explicit) content, do you still purposefully hide secret meaning in your work?
Yes, she read my diary. So I changed from a daily diary to stream-of-consciousness journals with no names/details, and started collaging and sketching. So I was either reading books in class or journaling. My work is layered and complicated, but as an artist you lose control of interpretations as soon as it leaves your studio. So I make my work with much intention; it's personal and revealing. It's almost like I don't have to keep secrets now, so I say everything, but with images.
Even when I was exploring painting, I was still collaging, stitching, and mixing up the surface of the works. I have been a sewer since I was a young kid; beading, latch hooking, and textiles are something I am drawn to. Surface is interesting to me. Tapestry was an interesting way to make pictures as the surface - no real substrate besides warp, just completely created.
Some of your work deals with compulsions like trichotillomania and obsessive grooming. Does the precision of your work help to satisfy a compulsive need?
Yes, for sure. When I am completely stressed out and distracted, I find myself plucking at the loom but I keep my tweezers in far corners of my home so that it's a journey to get them. I don't often do it but in lieu of deeper destruction, I pluck; weaving does hold that place when I am saner. My hands are often distracted, busy, and thus not focused on inflicting pain on my body, just being productive.
What else has weaving helped you heal from?
There is a lot of addiction in my family, so coping with the struggles of trauma, unknowns, and the general tumult of life, I disappear in weaving. It helps take my mind out of my body and allows me to be physically present, working rather than stewing over things I cannot control or change. In many ways, it's my control, my obsession.
How do you feel when you're weaving?
It's a very out-of-body experience. When I am working on a show, I weave for 12-14 hours a day, every day for months at a time and often I end my days in the early hours of the morning. I rarely speak, and have surprised myself when laughing or reacting audibly to something I am listening to. It's great to be so distracted by weaving that you detach from reality.
On average, how much time a week do you spend explaining your work? How does it feel someone really doesn't "get it"? How does it feel when they do?
I don't really explain my work much. People rarely ask why I make the work and rather tell me what my work is about or why it's offensive or bad. I make my work for myself, but it is nice when someone tells me they relate to the work, or it allowed them to see something differently. That's always great. Approval is not my goal. In fact, it's awesome when people disagree because they are so often basing their judgement off of closed-minded assumptions, and the conversation allows both of us to grow.
How do you ride the line between tapestry and fine art? I know that you sometimes get pushback from the weaving community because of the subject matter you deal with, but what about the larger art world?
Tapestry is a categorization that explains process. My process is important to me, but it's rarely important to uninformed viewers and thus, my work must stand on its own without the extra credit of it being a tapestry woven by me. I have streamlined my hanging so that galleries understand it and collectors do too, but it is still a learning curve when it comes to selling and pricing. I am super stoked that I am able to exhibit with both textile artists and in contemporary fine art gallery settings, but it just means I have to know twice the lingo and keep up. Textiles will always be undersupported and underrepresented but we have to keep pushing it and keep our standards high.
What about your status as a woman? How does that affect the way your work is viewed?
It's a similar situation. Women are so often taught to bury their ego, and the nature of textile art is calm, meticulous, exacting. This doesn't lend itself to self advocacy or holding much space. I honestly don't think my gender has much to do with it, but more my medium and content.
Every risk-taking artist has family and friends who knew them before the work. Do you think the people in your life have changed their perceptions about you as your work has evolved? Has it opened up any interesting or difficult conversations?
The very purpose of making my work is to stand up for the little kid in me who was obsessed with sex, perversion, darkness, and truth but lived everyday with a self hatred and shame because of it. My true self was online, chatting with weirdos and writing erotica, it was being sexually attracted to all genders, interested in body modification and ritual. I was also never exactly normal so I'm pretty sure this is no surprise. The first time I truly got in trouble was for calling sex hotlines in 6th grade and racking up a $100 phone bill. I make the work and the reality I live because as a young person, I never saw sexually adventurous femmes in the world. Secrets aren't good for your energy, so I bare all, even if it's hard to look at.
How do you stay true to your vision?
I don't have Facebook, and before that I never had a close relationship to family. I also don't have much of an interest in "success". Sure, paying my bills is cool but I am not trying to make commercially viable work. I never would have gone to art school if money was my ultimate goal.
Why are you excited to teach at the Weaving Kind Makerie?
I am passionate about teaching, but due to my exhibition schedule I am not normally able to fit it in. I wanted to be a part of the retreat because of how awesome of a community you have built and how open, interested and willing the people involved are. I am a super nerd, and I want to add to the community things that I have learned throughout my life of weaving.
What's the one thing you've learned through weaving that you hope every weaver can experience?
The humbling power of the loom. I am so thankful to be able to learn something new everyday, to make a mistake everyday, to never be perfect but to know the bliss of doing something well.