Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

A Visit with Erin Riley

Erin M. Riley in her studio

So, I’ve been living in NYC since October and one thing that was high on my list was to meet tapestry phenom Erin M. Riley. I was finally able to meet her in February. If you don’t follow Erin’s work, you should! (www.erinmriley.com)  She is one of very few young artists working in traditional tapestry technique, but her work is far from traditional beyond the mechanics. Her work is proof that the technique can be relevant in the 21st century. Her success proves that it is not the medium that holds us back, it’s more likely the message (or lack thereof).

The best artists aren’t afraid to say something insightful about the time that we live in.  Erin’s work has its pulse on the reality of life in the age of social media, the #MeToo movement, and the opioid crisis.  She is an incredibly thoughtful artist. She sees the ironies of her time all too clearly.  Some of her pieces contain an encyclopedic view of this life, containing all these themes at once, as represented by objects on a table as if dumped from a handbag. What gets dumped can include such things as nude selfies, sex toys, potato chips, prescription drug bottles, tampons, hypodermic needles, condoms, and the like.  She notices that her existence can include flirting with someone with suggestive texts at the very same time she is upset about news of the latest mass shooting.  Erin remarks that these actions/states all blur together to become “kind of the same.” Her jumbled tabletop renditions of disparate items give equal emphasis to each component. She skillfully takes the genre of the Still Life, not generally associated with textile,  to a new level.

“Lost,” 2019.  48 x 35 inches. Copyright Erin M. Riley. All Rights Reserved.

She is hyper attuned to issues around sexuality and gender. She is aware of painful truths because they have touched her life via her relationships with family and friends if not herself. I often wonder what it is like to spend so much time, artistically speaking, weaving about sad or disturbing themes like drug addiction, sexual violence, or car accidents. Maybe if I were younger, I would find it easier to do, for it is the nature of the world the Millennials grew up in: media inundation. It’s not that weavers in the past did not tackle disturbing themes – think Hannah Ryggen or Muriel Nezhnie - but this is different.  Erin’s work brings a sense of “everyday tragedy” that is intensely private but no less powerful. 

Your Heroes are Our Villains, 2017. 48 x 54 inches. Copyright Erin M. Riley. All Rights Reserved.

Erin’s tapestries make us see how the internet age has changed the very nature of our experience of living in the world. This is no small task and for this reason I hold Erin in the very highest regard as an artist. I see Erin’s body of work as her therapy, activism, empowerment, and mindfulness all wrapped into one.

I was a little nervous to meet Erin. I heard she was very welcoming (she is), but I really did not want to waste her time. And I was a bit star struck to be quite honest. I felt kind of old and frumpy, and although I am old and frumpy, I don’t generally feel that way. I didn’t ask very many questions. I took almost no photos.  Maybe it felt a little weird taking detail photos of her woven body with her standing right there?  There certainly is that ‘gaze’ factor when you are in the presence of these tapestries because they are way larger than life. Whatever the reason, I did more listening and looking around than questioning. All I wanted was a window into her process.

Erin’s large loom. Note the bruised woman in the tapestry above the loom.  Her braid reminded me of  Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga.”

Erin has three looms in her studio, all floor looms; one 48”, one that appears to be at least 8’ wide, and one small portable loom that she only uses during residencies.  She had two projects going at the same time, one on each loom, both just getting started on the day I visited.  In one corner, there was a cartoon in progress pinned to the wall.  She uses a projector to project a digital image onto the wall, where she traces the major lines onto the paper.  She does not add any more detail to her cartoons than this. This is mind blowing given how much detail is in her work! I did not see small full-sized images of what she was working on anywhere near her looms.  It appears she literally fills in all the details and color references intuitively, without a more detailed plan. (wow face emoji!)  I asked her if she unwove much since her cartoons are so sketch-like. She said, “very rarely.”  The girl has mad skills.

A full size cartoon as traced.

The cartoon under the warps.

If you follow Erin, you know that she is unbelievably prolific.  She can weave a 5 by 8-foot tapestry in less than a month, and regularly does so.  How?  When she is in ‘work mode’ she only sleeps in 4 hour increments. She will work at the loom until she gets tired, sleep for 4 hours, then go back to work until she gets tired again. She virtually weaves around the clock. This schedule is understandably very hard on Erin’s body.  When she finishes a piece, she is so exhausted she has to sleep for a couple days and recover, but then it is back to the looms. But if you only have a year to weave enough new work for a solo gallery show, this may be what you have to do.  The gallery system demands to be fed a steady diet.  

The donated yarn pile

Another thing I noticed was her “yarn wall.” It was not this colorful and impressive feature that I see in the studios of many of my peers. Erin’s stash was far more utilitarian than visually gorgeous; just a miscellany of cones on shelves. Much of what she weaves with is gifted to her by others, and she can, and will, use just about anything.  A huge pile of fat yarn in autumn colors sat on the floor, given to her by someone who didn’t want it anymore. She was unplying the chunky orange yarns for use in some bricks she was weaving. 

Erin’s workbench. Sorry for the blur! Note the dildos on the upper left. These have appeared in her work. If only the 17th c. Dutch painters had glass dildos….

I’m so glad I got to meet Erin, and I certainly hope it will not be the last time our paths cross. When she has her next big show at PPOW Gallery in Chelsea, I just might use that as an excuse to return to NYC for a visit.  Follow Erin on Instagram @erinmriley.

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