Studio Visit: Erika b Hess

Erika b Hess is an artist living and working in Massachusetts. Her work can be seen in PLEAT's July 2018 exhibition as well as erikabhess.com

Please describe your work.
I primarily work with oil on panel and focus on color and thin layers of paint to build the paintings. I always work in a series and have multiple works going at one time. I typically have one series of inventive paintings and another series from observation. I've found that each way of working feeds the other. When I work from observation there are always little surprises that pop up, a reflection I didn't see when I started, the way a value wraps around the edge of the canvas to frame it. I use this to fuel my inventive work. I think of my work as a self-portrait even when I'm not in it. The work responds to my experience of being female and the struggles we deal with as humans such as loneliness, the memory of our childhood, aging, death, and birth. It sounds like a downer, and sometimes making the paintings can be intense such as the work responding to Syrian refugees, but I'm mainly interested in examining these emotions and states of being through a positive lens; as a transformation we go through that connects us to others. We all feel lonely, we all age, we all die and we all feel joy when beautiful things happen in our lives.

What internal and external factors motivate your conceptual choices?
Internally I have been responding to the birth of my kids. My first child was born three years ago and it really changed how I view my life and made me even more of a feminist. This is why my work primarily deals with women, from the color choices I make to the narratives I am interested in. I've always enjoyed working with saturated color and am interested in how it is used by women for self-adornment and how it is used by marketing companies to pander to women. In terms of narrative, my work with flowers and postcards goes back to the flowers that were sent to me by women when I had my first baby.  I wanted to make work that responded to this exchange and have the viewer question who is giving and who is receiving. This lead to my paintings of flowers and postcards from observation. Those pieces were painted while my child slept. Each time I would place my baby in their crib I would run to my studio and make a one-shot painting. That was the external rule. That series really benchmarked my time over a summer and of my kid growing up. This relates to the major external factor that impacts my work right now which is time. I have scaled down in size over the past few years in order to really get into the work.

Who are your artistic influences and what have you learned from them? 
So many! Glen Cebulash and Diane Fitch were my undergrad professors and taught me the bones of painting. I am so grateful for that understanding of painting and its history. I studied with John Walker and Dana Frankfort in graduate school and they impacted my paint application, scale and color choices. That is when I started using the supersaturated pinks that still come into my work. Melissa Meyer, Shirley Kaneda and Lisa Hoke, all amazing artists in NYC. I worked as an artist assistant for them and it was such an education to see how they ran their studio and to see their success as artists was powerful for me. Other artists whose work I have been impacted by, Joanna Greenbaum's color and mark , Michelle Grabner's ideas, and Sharon Louden's books. 

How has social media affected your studio practice?
Social media has had a major impact on the work I create. From 2011-2015 I worked in art admissions where I traveled all over the country meeting art students and talking about their portfolio. It was great to travel but I didn't have time in the studio and I was away from my friends. I started making ipad drawings and became really involved in talking about painting on twitter. It was like having my studio, and friends who were interested in painting, with me all the time! It was a great dialogue and it was wonderful to connect with artists all over the country. I think that is the major upside to social media for artists, being able to connect while you are alone in your studio or wherever you might be. Socal media has also expanded my studio practice to include co-founding an art space, an idea that came to me from seeing a friend's post about an artist collective she was going to join and starting a podcast. So overall, it has expanded my idea of what an artist community can be.