In many ways, Erica Brown is the ideal artist for the 21st Century. She’s balancing her status as a new mom with a full-time job and full-time work as an artist and guess what? She’s a success! She may not be rich or famous, but she’s finding her way and remaining true to her own process www.ebcbrown.com. She’s also very natural and approachable and a fantastic ambassador for contemporary art. Our interview below presents ample proof.
MICHAEL: Hello Erica, Your work is very cool. It's lovingly and organically abstract. I see bold life and decay with rich color. Love it. How do you describe your work?
ERICA: I am very glad to be talking with you. Thank you for your comments about my work. How do I describe my work? Your comments sum it up well: " It's lovingly and organically abstract. I see bold life and decay with rich color." I’m flattered that you connect so much to the heart of my work. Unfortunately, I myself, often fumble at the right words to describe my work. I long for my work to speak for itself. In the context of meeting a stranger who has no idea who I am and what I do and my work is not present, I usually keep it basic: "I paint abstractly, inspired by nature with an emotional aspect" and then I hand them a business card. In my artist statement, I focus on the creative process and say:
"I work on many paintings at once, going from painting to painting. It becomes a sort of maddening dance for me. I am very process-oriented and I find my paintings as I paint them. I am incredibly inspired by nature as well as the conflict between nature and man-made things. Daily, I take in images around me and they become mixed with the emotional and spiritual aspects of my life. What comes out is a new creation born of observation, passion and empathy. Painting with encaustic or sometimes mixed media, I wrestle with them until they sit quietly and finished amongst the wreckage of my studio."
MICHAEL: That’s a nice description of the process.
ERICA: While this presents a realistic picture of how I do what I do, I fear it still does not answer the question adequately. My hesitation to speak well of my work in any respect beyond publicizing events may be a handicap in this instance. Let me try to overcome it.
My work is abstract, emotionally-evocative and inspired by the conflict between nature and man-made things. Often the structure of my pieces reference the degradation of man-made things by the processes of nature. This serves as a catalyst to ingrain an emotional and spiritual dialogue. This dialogue is often very personal and is sometimes represented by handwritten text, slightly distorted to express the feeling presented, but holding back specifications. I wrestle with and find my paintings as I create them. This process in of itself often gives an emotional resonance to my work. While my pieces are very personal, I value so much the connection between the viewer and my work, that I most often use vague titles to keep them more approachable.
There are overarching themes- the struggle to find hope, the battle of lightness over dark, etc. I pour a great deal of my heart into my work. When I speak of the wreckage of my studio after a group of paintings have been completed, emotionally I am usually a wreck as well. This is not helped by sleep deprivation - full time mom, almost full-time bartender and full time artist.
MICHAEL: Erica, I must say that exercise was fantastic. It’s very much like the writing process for me; the constant search for the right words and correct way to characterize things. Full-time mom and bartender? Cool. I'll get to that in a moment, but first, tell me about your encaustic process. What do you like so much about it?
ERICA: I stumbled upon the encaustic medium about 10 years ago. In art school - Tyler School of Art - I was never quite content with just painting in oil or acrylic and I was always looking for something new to experiment with. I took a ceramics elective and my professor was using wax instead of doing high-fire glazes in her work. While I was a little anxious about using a blow torch (my, how things have changed!), I decided to try it out. Being painfully 2D in my creative process, I started to tie it into my paintings by layering oil with the wax. That was when one of my professors recommended that I try encaustic. I fell in love. I figured it out mainly on my own, but have had some help along the way via books (thank you Joanne Mattera) and fellow encaustic artists.
MICHAEL: Cool. And so, how do you actually use it?
ERICA: While not an aggressive person by nature, I am an aggressive painter. I want to dig in, carve, build up and then physically remove. The encaustic medium allows me to do all of these things. It also grants me an immediacy of action, because the layers of paint dry so quickly. And if I'm not happy with a how a painting is progressing, I can turn the blow torch on high, turn it into a puddle on my floor and start on the panel renewed but working from the previous paintings remains. Often in my process, I am still given to unexpected things (which I almost construct) that keep me intrigued and on my toes creatively. Also, it works well with my process oriented studio disposition. Again, I work on several paintings at once. I work in a manner that inadvertently lauds the mediums archaic roots; no fancy tools, usually just several pots rotated on a burner, cheap brushes, carving tools and a blow torch. I try to allude to texture and depth while actually keeping the paint rather thin on the panel (this helps to avoid damage). Also, I polish my work so that it has a particular luster that I have had trouble matching in any other medium. It wasn't until about three years into this love affair that encaustic became the new (old) big thing to try as a painter.
MICHAEL: So your work is a form of healthy aggression. How else would you say this shows up in your work? Does this boldness show up in your use of color? Painting routine? Number of completed works?
ERICA: Hmm. I guess in some ways it does show up in those aspects; more so since I've become a mom. When I take the time to work in the studio (usually 5-6 nights a week), it’s a knowing sacrifice of sleep and it means I have to try to find energy a lot harder the next day. Without time to waste, I focus on my pieces a bit more so. I produce less than I used to (about 25-30 a year as opposed to 50), but I feel better about those pieces and have less desire to re-work them later. Also, I have been drawn to a more vibrant color palette. This seems to be a positive byproduct of not having time to waste in perhaps what was once too many washes of color. I need to achieve the desired affect more rapidly. Most often, I find this adventure of being a professional artist as humbling. It feels like I achieve whatever goals I reach by the skin of my teeth and with a lot of Grace given. I know I always have a lot of room to grow and learn.
MICHAEL: Welcome to the club. What did art school do for you? How are you different as an artist as a result of art school?
ERICA: Tyler School of Art had profound effects on me. The intensity of the classes drove me to find "that" artist within myself and at the same time it greatly validated the worthiness of being an artist. I learned so much that I feel confident in saying that I would not be at all where I am now if I hadn't attended art school. And perhaps that art school in particular. I learned how to train my brain to critique my own work, I fell in love with art history, I was forced to try to practice and therefore, greatly appreciate other disciplines of fine art. I learned soundly all of the basics, was forced to learn how to work on a deadline and so much more. I was encouraged to find my "voice," and shown by the example of my professors what it is like to be a professional artist. Tyler required their professors to be active in their own art careers. I am barely paying off the student loans for attending art school, but I will still adamantly say that it was worth it.
MICHAEL: Again, I understand. The colors in your work seem quite organic and natural. In other words, they don't seem contrived although I'm sure you do a lot of mixing and searching for the right combinations and tones, No?
ERICA: Thank you. I am often inspired by the color combinations I see around me; moss growing on a brick, yellow leaves fallen on blue slate, etc. These images excite me and sometimes subconsciously work their way into my pallet. Sometimes I become obsessed with certain color combinations and I have to be careful not to let them become a crutch. I am constantly learning and growing in my ability to use color. I want to continually challenge myself in this respect so that my work continues to grow. My color choices are often made in the heat of the moment by combining different pigments. I suppose this might help them feel less contrived. It also can make it difficult to replicate.
MICHAEL: I'm constantly telling artists that I love it when they work really large scale. Your work is also perfect for grandiosity, No? I even see installations in some of those paintings.
ERICA: What a cool thought. I have always been painfully 2D, but an installation might be something to try one of these days. I would love to work on larger scale paintings. Unfortunately, there are some practical things that hold me back from doing so. My studio is pretty small and large paintings take a lot of paint which means money. Also, with the encaustic medium, the panels get heavy and it is not wise to work too large. The largest I usually work is 48"x48". This can be overcome by using several separate panels joined together to create a larger piece. Hopefully, someday I’ll be freer to work on larger scale pieces and figure how to make it work. I did a mural project last summer (in acrylic) that was on all four walls of a larger sized restroom. It was awesome. I was utterly obsessed with it. I had to tear myself away from working on it at the end of the day.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world and art market and how the function today?
ERICA: What do I think about the art market? I am one of thousands of artists in the Philadelphia area trying to do this and that can be rather daunting. While it stinks to give up 40-60% in commission to a gallery, it can sometimes be worth it. Overall, I think that the value of owning an original piece of art has been diminished. People can go to home goods and buy something to match their décor, but it’s not an investment. I do not do prints. Every painting I create has its own importance in the larger scheme of my work. If you own it, you have a part of "me" as I existed there and in art history.
MICHAEL: Given all of the challenges artists face, why not just pack it in and go to law school or pursue an MBA?
ERICA: Man, I'd make a terrible lawyer and I really can't imagine working in the corporate world. But more to the point of your question - Michael, I just can't. I started out on this crazy adventure because I felt called to do it. That it was/is what I am supposed to be doing. That good will come of it in the bigger picture beyond my own personal experiences. I've spent ten years sacrificing and working hard to get this far. How can I just stop now? Perhaps the challenge itself is enticing. It’s the philosophy that the best things in life don't come without a struggle. Since I found out that I was having Annaleah (who is now 18 months), some people have told me that I wouldn't be able to continue or that I should take a sabbatical. It continues to weigh on my heart sometimes. Should I give up this dream, my calling, to pursue a more stable and lucrative career (if I could find one)? But what is the alternative? I might bring in more money, but I would emotionally shut down to a certain extent (how drastically I don't know) and my daughter grows up knowing that in a way her mommy gave up her dream for her. That's terrible! Every time I get to the point where finances are tight or I'm not sure I should continue on or I'm just discouraged, something happens. A collector calls, a commission falls into my lap, my work gets into an exciting exhibition or a stranger from far away calls wanting to buy a piece they saw on my website. Or it can be as simple as somebody sharing with me that a painting means something significant to them. How can I stop? Not to mention that my daughter seems to be quite a fan of my work. She can pick out my paintings in a show with 50 other artists, walk up to them and say "Mama." I am also blessed that a great deal of friends and my family find the idea of me stopping heartbreaking. What a blessing! Things can be hard. Often it is a struggle in just about every respect. But it's beautiful in its own way. To follow your passion, your dream, money can't compare to this. In these things I am rich.
MICHAEL: Fantastic. You do indeed have a gift that must be expressed. This has been great Erica. Keep going! Thanks.
Check out Erica and her cool work at www.ebcbrown.com.