I begin each of my paintings with a compositional idea in mind and a narrative derived from my day-to-day experience. The narrative may be based on a personal exchange or driven by an object in my studio. Recently the narrative in my work comes from the act of giving and receiving flowers. I am interested in the action that takes place on the canvas involving the viewer. Are they, the audience, being given flowers? Is the figure on the canvas giving or receiving? I am also interested in the historical significance. The action of giving flowers is a tradition we still partake in for the birth of a child, a gift for a lover, the death of a friend. It is a way to communicate a deep emotion that we may not have the words to express. In that way, flowers are a way to visually communicate just like a painting.
The medium of oil paint and the physical process of adding and subtracting materials allows the process to dictate the evolution of my work. I do not begin with a finalized image in mind but rather a compositional idea typically involving the relationship between figure and ground. Each revision of the piece leads to a more activated image and surface leading toward the final image which is something I could not have imagined or anticipated. - Erika Hess
Tell us about your education - what did you find the most valuable from that education.
I went to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio to study art as an undergrad and I couldn't have asked for a better experience. I studied with Glen Cebulash and Diane Fitch, wonderful painters and minds. It really felt like a bohemian experience of living for your art. I was surrounded by a great group of artists who pushed each other to excel and I lived in the studios. I went to Boston University for grad school to study with John Walker, Dana Frankfort and Richard Ryan. It was the perfect fit for me. I just wanted to paint and that was what the program was about, being in the studio making work.
The most valuable part of my education was working with and meeting my professors and peers. I met a lot of wonderful painters who I can still invite into my studio today.
Where are you located currently - what do you like about where you are?
I moved back to Boston a year and a half ago. Being back in Boston has been great because I know painters in the area. One thing I have learned as an artist is you need other artists around you. Boston has a lot going for it in the way of the arts and it is also a short trip to other great art locations like Providence, RI, New Haven, CT and of course NYC.
Do you work from a studio? Tell us a little about it.
I do. This is the first permanent studio I've had and I love it. I've always rented space. There are definite ups to renting in a studio building which is a built in community. I miss that part but the security of having a studio that will be here for years feels wonderful. My partner and I bought a house and the basement, which has a huge wonderful window, is my studio. There is also a workshop space that we have a chop saw in so I can build stretchers.
What is an average day like for you?
7:00-Up with my daughter, coffee/yoga/work emails 11:00 nap time for her and studio time for me. 1:00-Up with my daughter-errands 4:00-nap time for her and studio or work time for me. 6:00- Take a walk and meet my partner. Dinner/bath/time to read and go to bed. Of course we mix it up but this is pretty typical.
How do you balance making art and motherhood?
When I had my daughter I was really stressed that I would stop making work. As a woman and an artist there is always a whisper in the background that you can't have a kid and be an artist. I mean it's such a trope in the art world. I've continued making work and the bottom line is pretty banal. For me it's about time management and just getting in the studio even if I'm exhausted.
What are you challenges as a mother artist and what have you learned?
The biggest challenge right now is getting large chunks of time to work. Right now I work in 2 hour blocks if I'm lucky. It makes it hard to get into a large painting so I scaled down in size. That has made work much more manageable. I remember an artist saying that your art comes first and you should move hell or high water to change circumstances for your art. I'm the complete opposite. I believe in living a full and authentic life and that your work adapts to your life and your life adapts to your work, it's symbiotic.
What is your favorite medium and why? What do you most often work in?
I work in oil. I love the color you can get with oil and how juicy it is. It's a pretty forgiving medium and I love how you can build the surface. I've been working in oils for over a decade and I'm still fascinated with them.
As an artist - can you share your art making process with us? What inspires your work?
I work in a series. Typically the series comes out of a simple idea like figure/ground relationship or a shape. I look at a lot of paintings and many times something I see in someone else's work, whether it be a master work or a peer's painting will influence what I am working on. I think it's important to keep looking at paintings.
What are you currently working on - tell us a little about it and what influenced it.
Right now I am working on The Flower Bearers, a series of paintings of people giving and receiving flowers. This is the most personal series I've made in a long time. In one year a great painter I went to grad school with passed and my daughter was born. There was a show for my friend who passed where we were asked to paint flowers. He had painted amazing flower paintings that are incredible. I started painting a piece for the show and it was an intense time of reflection on life, birth, death. I was struck by the role flowers play in major life events. When my daughter was born we were sent flowers, when you lose someone you receive flowers and flowers of course have historical weight in the way of painting. It's something that has stayed constant from past to present even with the implementation of digital media.
Do you feel that becoming a mother has influenced your artwork?
Yes, in a couple of ways. The first is how I go about making. Because my studio time has been cut back I literally have to get in the studio and go. Before I would slowly ramp up and had the luxury of self doubt. Now when I'm in the studio I paint, sketch from master works/my work or stretch canvases.
The second is in that the figure came back into my work. I was trained figuratively and the figure left my painting around 2008/2009 and I began making abstract work. Over the past 4 years the figure has slowly been creeping back in and once I became pregnant I was so involved with the body the figure came back full throttle.
Do you have any words of wisdom for other mother artists out there trying to balance it all?
I'm still pretty new to this so I think there are probably mother artists out there who could give me advice! I do have advice for mothers to be or women thinking about having kids and are artists. Don't fall victim to the idea that you can't have kids and still be an artist. I think this idea is another anti-women sentiment meant to control women. Also as my undergrad prof Diane Fitch once said to me, "Sometimes you have dirty laundry." I still think of that.
If you as a mother artist could have one thing - what would it be?
Time. But I would have said that before I was a mother artist!
Do you think that female artists are taken seriously in 2015?
I think that while we are in a time where female artists are taken more seriously we still have a long way to go. There was an article by Jerry Saltz that came out relatively recently, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Bad-Boy Artists" . While it is an interesting read I think we can see the problem just in reading the title. Women artists are always measured and compared to the "norm" which is cis male artists. Therefore women will always be put into the position of less than and cannot be seen as innovative.
What do you want to be remembered for as an artist?
I want to be remembered as a great painter who challenged herself, challenged others, was curious, and supported artists around her.
Erika b Hess