A Conversation with Artist Erin M. Riley

Erin M. Riley
Drunk Girl, 2010, 36" x 27"

For several years, Erin M. Riley has been making people feel uncomfortable in the fine art world using the unlikely medium of hand-dyed wool. Her hand-woven tapestries have made us confront isolation and addiction and think about our family histories. Erin demonstrates how the the callous, unforgiving internet is woven into many of our sensitive social interactions. In fact, she finds the imagery for her tapestries of young people using Google image search and Facebook.

Erin is currently a McColl Center for Visual Art artist-in-residence. She has exhibited throughout the country and her shows have been featured in Juxtapose Magazine and on She earned a BFA in Fibers from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and a MFA in Fibers at Tyler School of Art. She lives in Philadelphia, PA but is a bit nomadic, traveling to residencies and living in different cities for months at a time, all in the name of her art. Considering the subject matter of her work, it was ironic that we had the conversation below using Facebook Chat.

Sarah Terry: Is this a good time to do the interview?

Erin Riley: Yes it is. I’m just in my studio.

ST: Do you have set studio hours for the residency?

ER: Yea, I have to be in the studio 11-4 Monday through Friday and sometimes Saturdays.

ST: It would be nice to have that structure. I kind of wish I had mandatory studio hours!

ER: It’s interesting, I am not a morning person and 11 is early for me.
I tend to stay here until 3 or 4 am. Some of the people here are morning people, so I envy them.

Erin M. Riley
See a video of Erin weaving on her blog.

ST: Have you seen the tapestries at the Bechtler in Charlotte? Do you know if those artists (Calder, Picasso, Miro etc.) would have woven them?

ER: I’ve been cooped up here so i haven’t been to the museum yet, but no way. I’m sure they sent them out to a tapestry studio. It seems to be a rather common thing nowadays for artists to send their work out to be woven into tapestries. There was an exhibition of pretty well known contemporary artists, including Kara Walker, in NYC recently that was the same concept. William Kentridge also did that and they were incredible, huge, like 10 feet wide and 3 or 4 women weaving at a time.

ST: Wow. Does that kind of work pay well, or does it pay nothing (translating someone else’s work?)

ER: I don’t think it does, it’s just like any sort of manual labor. The artist makes the thousands and the weaver makes a wage.

ST: Weaving seems like hard work. I was reading how your back is always hurting and your fingers bleeeeeed.

ER: Yea! Haha. I’m in rough shape. Here my left wrist is killing me more than it ever has. It’s slight but I definitely worry about the long-term effects. I’ve been taking my vitamins, doing some exercises and drinking lots of water. We will see what happens. There are weavers out there who have been doing it for years.

ST:Do you mind if we talk about your Facebook series for a second?

ER: Sure.

ST: I love your idea that young people think of images posted on Facebook as a fleeting thing. They really are archived FOREVER. I think people think it just goes away.

Erin M. Riley
Puke, 2011, 41" x 46"

ER: Yea, I mean it’s all about how people represent themselves and how society adapts to make things feel normal.

ST: Like the notion that posting nude photos of yourself online is normal.

ER: It’s pretty bizarre that it’s normal for young people to get trashed really early in their life constantly.

ST: I bet you've found compromising photos of some really young people.

ER: Most of the girls have this deer in headlights look. They are posing, and yet there is trash in the background, or toys, or something that shows their age.

ST: The way that you capture those details in your tapestries is really interesting.

ER: I cannot imagine being 14 and being in the position of being asked to reveal my body and trust someone with that. I mean backyard stuff or kids experimenting, sure, but this is something that sticks around. And most kids have cell phones now.

ST: Do you ever have people think that your work is distasteful without realizing what you are actually doing?

ER: Yea, I think my work can be viewed as misogynistic or violent or promoting the behavior. I’m working on another piece from a drug bust and this guy came in and started joking like, “Oh you have any of this coke around?” and talking about guns and I’m not sure why. He thought I was weaving guns and drugs in the positive. Probably because that’s how he sees them.

Erin M. Riley
Loot, 2010, 36" x 25"

ST: Yeah the viewer brings a lot to it, and sometimes not what you intend as the artist.

ER: Yea definitely not, it’s interesting.

ST: Your work is very edgy and uncomfortable, and you have been declined from exhibiting at a lot of galleries (probably) because of that. Any advice to young artists who might be experiencing the same thing?

ER: I’m not sure, I mean I have also been declined because of my medium. I’m really stubborn so rejection letters are just one fact of life. It’s not something I take personally. I’ve been lucky to get some great support and it comes from being persistent and true to what you want to make. I started to make my best work once I got out of grad school and realized this is what I’m going to be doing with my life and I better like what I’m making.

ST: It also comes from being really tough through the financial part of being an artist....

ER: Ohhh yeaaa. It sucks!

ST: Yeah. Tell me about it.

ER: I mean, I’ve never had any money, but it’s really trying to be broke all of the time. Its pretty cool when I get huge things but then reality hits and I can never really be excited for long.

ST: I think it is so crazy that you can be doing all these shows and prestigious residencies and still be struggling to pay your cell phone bill, or whatever bill.

ER: Especially knowing that if I chose to make beautiful things, like rugs, and really focused and dedicated myself to that I could make tons.

ST: Can you get paid well for rug making? I had no idea!

ER: I know people who live off custom rugs. It’s a random thing!

ST: But it wouldn’t be your art or your vision...

ER: Nope. And I’m not one to do anything half-way, it would be hard to kind of focus on that and kind of focus on art.

ST: Can we talk briefly about your work about addiction before we wrap up?

ER: Sure.

ST: Your Mack Truck metaphor works so well, especially the ones where they are intertwined with other cars. Do you think people struggling with addiction realize the effect they have on everyone else?

Erin M. Riley
Portrait of a Father 2, 2010, 36" x 32"

ER: No. From personal experience, huge no. It’s an inside thing, they are struggling and it’s their battle. I’m not sure my sisters understand how messed up I am because of how they have behaved or how much I worry about my mom's health. It was just about them fulfilling their desires.

Weak Side, 2010, 36" x 18"

ST: I don't think any addicts ever understand how they effect the ones they love or even think that the addiction effects their family at all.

ER: Yea it’s hard. I have come to a point where I understand more what’s going on and can empathize.

ST: Do you think, in a way, that you are addicted to weaving?

ER: Yea! I’ve got my own addictions. Self sufficiency, being a loner, not drinking, being vegan. I do it all for the emotional control it allows me. Or lack of emotion it requires.

ST: So do you know where you'll be heading after your last month of the McColl Center residency?

ER: Not yet. Back to Philly for sure, but I don’t know what else. I have 12 applications out, so in the next few weeks we will see what else I’ve got going on.

ST: Is that stressful or exciting? I would probably be stressed!

ER: Yea, it’s stressful. But kind of interesting. Better than going back to my day job, but I will do that if necessary.

ST: What is your day job?

ER: Whole Foods Market in the bakery.

ST: Haha! I work at a grocery store at night and do my art during the day.

ER: Yea, it works!

ST: I feel like the economy is slowly starting to recover, I just hope people will buy art!

ER: Yea! I’ve been selling art! It’s wild!

ST: Really!? That is exciting!

ER: I’ve been able to sell it through a gallery in San Francisco and sometimes people contact me directly.

ST: Awesome! Are you getting closer to being able to pay bills and stuff? I feel like that is my #1 monetary goal right now with my creative stuff- Not buying a car or anything fancy, just paying bills.

ER: I can pay my bills, and while at McColl i have paid off one and a half credit cards.

ST: That really is huge and awesome.

ER: My life goal is to not have a credit card payment. I pay as much as rent in credit cards a month and I’m sick of it. But it’s always been for big stuff, I’ve just always had a lot of bad luck.

ST: Hopefully it only gets better from here though. I am confident that your work will keep getting noticed!

ER: Thank you. Yea things are pretty cool, I’m in the upcoming FiberArts Magazine so that’s something to look forward to. I am really excited for the things to come.

ST: What are you working on today? Can we see what you've done at the McColl Center?

ER: I am working on a tapestry of a drug bust. (7 shot guns, some coke, bullets, etc.) I have updated my website with the 6 tapestries i have woven at McColl and am trying to do a few more [while I’m here].

Erin M. Riley
History 4, 2011, 41" x 25"

ST: Well, I know you have a lot to do, so thanks so much for doing this interview!

ER: Yea thanks for talking. I’m thankful for the opportunity. Have a great day!

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