Originally featured in Issue 16 of Create! Magazine
A lifelong resident of Pennsylvania, Erika Stearly makes paintings of the spaces where people live. Her paintings, which are both fictional and biographical, have recently been included in invitational exhibitions in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Dallas, TX and were featured in a solo exhibition at the Boxheart Gallery in Pittsburgh in early 2019.
Ms. Stearly has received numerous awards in support of her work, including artist grants from the Puffin Foundation, the Black Rock Arts Foundation, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she completed her MFA in 2014. She was the 2015 Emerging Artist in Residence at Penn State University, where she taught painting, and a 2018 Visiting Faculty Fellow at Kutztown University.
Editor Ekaterina chats with Erika about her story and how she came about painting interiors.
Kat: Were you always interested in art? What was your early work like?
Erika: I have been painting and drawing for as long as I remember. When I went to Kutztown University and was painting, it felt like we were always painting still lifes. At the time, I was really interested in painting objects when I was learning about the elements of art and how to render a work of art.
There was a period of time when I started depicting rooms. I still thought of it as a still life arrangement, but one we could walk around in. It’s a still life you get to experience. There is a distinction between where the objects are and the viewer is.
Do you remember the first room you decided to paint?
I participated in a summer intensive at Tyler School of Art. I painted a room that I have been in, but I was trying to paint it from memory. I had used a bunch of collage items to approximate what I wanted in this room. It’s a pretty awful painting, but it’s pretty meaningful to me and I still keep it around.
I need to collect a lot of materials to come up with the paintings I wanted to create. At the time, I was collecting Ikea catalogs and other sources which resulted in the paintings feeling very plastic and pristine. They didn’t look like the houses my friends and I were living in.
After that, I started making paintings of actual spaces. I posted on Facebook that I was working on a project and asked people if I could come and take pictures of their house. And people would invite me over and I would paint their homes. I started naming the works after street address. And I’ve been doing this for the past ten years.
Recently, I’ve been looking on Craigslist to see ads of homes and images of lives in spaces for inspiration.
How do you keep things fresh in the studio?
It’s very malleable on my end. I don’t think art should be scary or confusing to people.
When I paint spaces, even if they get gestural or fluid and suggestive, but people can still recognize objects. Once they get a clue, whether it be a chair or a window, they are able to figure out whatever else is going on. They are able to make sense of the images and come up with their own story.
I can get people to be interested and engage with my paintings even on that level, even if I’m thinking about something else entirely.
Do you think about something specific when creating the spaces?
I don’t think of anything very profound, the process is very meditative for me. I listen to a lot of podcasts or storytelling.
How do you stay inspired and are able to stay so prolific?
I built a traveling studio kit, actually several different versions of it. I will paint in libraries, or any place that you can have your own table.
Also, I color and paint at the bar. I have a small palette, paintbrush and a handful or markers that I keep with me.
When I was in graduate school, I had a lot of studio time but it would sometimes be long periods of time before I see another human being, so this was a great way to socialize. People are very kind and curious, and sometime I will invite them to come color with me.
What’s in your studio kit?
Bathroom disposable water cups, Palette, Markers, Paint
What are you excited about at the moment?
The initial idea for me was that I was going to go to grad school, be a professor and teach, but over the past few years I have learned that I’m meant to be on a different path.
When I decided that I’m definitely not going back to academia, I made a goal for myself that I was going to sell a certain amount of work and I have already hit that goal. I’m so proud of myself!
I’m super proud and excited for you too! It’s the best feeling in the world to take control of your art career.