Erin Loree visited Sachaqa Centro De Arte in our early days, we hadn’t even built our eco-village at that point and were renting studio space and accommodation in the village of San Roque De Cumbaza. Since leaving Peru Erin’s career just keeps getting better and better. She has had great success and impressive solo exhibitions in some of the greatest galleries in Toronto. It is a great honor to have this interview with Erin and to ask as many questions, which I have been meaning to ask for years.
Where are you from? What is your background? Can you please tell us about your art career?
It’s truly an honor to talk to you today our friendship has grown in interesting ways over the years and you always inspire me to be a better person and to be a more honest person. So I’m really happy that we’re going to have this conversation. I grew up in a small town a few hours east of Toronto and I moved here to get my (BFA) Bachelor in Fine Art, with drawing and painting as a main focus in 2007. I’ve been here ever since and love it but you know it’s getting time for me to leave, so I’ll reconsider when the time comes. Since I was old enough to hold a crayon, the creative side of me was nurtured from my parents. My dad’s a musician and artist, and we used to draw for hours on the floor on bristol board. He taught me how to see the world and to translate that into my drawings. He also was very interested in humor and used to draw lots of cartoons and caricatures. So, learnt how to be imaginative in that way with such great artistic influences from my family, from my aunts, uncles, cousins and everybody.
My whole life until the last year of my undergrad at OCAD University, I was drawing realistically and atomically correct. Making sure to plan everything and there was absolutely no room for spontaneity, or any kind of evolution in my process, it was really stifling and felt very limited. So, I spent a few years in extreme discomfort trying to move out of that. Trying to place the figures with some interesting, abstract, painterly amorphous backgrounds or landscapes but I hadn’t quite let go of the figure yet. What ended up happening was a couple of days before my last year at undergrad; Which is obviously the most important year because you’re supposed to make a body of work that’s cohesive and based on research; Then I broke my third metatarsal just a few days before that year started. So everything I thought was going to happen just went totally out the window and had to learn to rely on help for literally everything. It was super uncomfortable wasn’t able to get my own coffee, buy art supplies, stretch my own canvases or anything. My bone wouldn’t heal, as was too stressed out with university life. So I started painting dozens and dozens of these small self-portraits. Always using references at this time, they were very tight and I tried to achieve a kind of likeness of the person or myself. Over time as emotions and tension built up within me, as a result of not being able to really express myself fully, or move around physically; I started to loosen up a bit and was looking at a lot of artists that really use paint liberally and freely. Artists who were trying to capture the essence of a person as opposed to their external appearance. Artists like Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Cecily Brown, George Kondo to name a few and then eventually Allison Schulnik, Kim Dorland and Harold Klunder. As soon as my cast came off, which was four months later, I felt this extreme sense of liberation and that was the moment I stopped using references and source material altogether. I actually still have the two paintings where I used a photo as a reference, they’re really special to me because they mark that shift. After that moment my focus became about the process of painting. Since then it started to become very apparent to me that there is such a value in the unknown and in uncertainty. I never want to know what’s going to happen with the paintings, whatever it may be. I’m primarily an oil painter and work out of a studio here in Toronto. The work generates more work, with no references around me and each painting informs the next. Each painting reveals different questions, different curiosities, that I’m able to then grapple away with and then the next painting. So, they’re all related and all connected by a thread. My work ever since then has become about, not just the image but also the surface and how the material itself can communicate meaning. Actually one of my favorite artists ‘William Kentridge’ a South African artist talks about the uncertainty of an image. How the uncertanty is so much closer to how the world really functions. You can see the world as a series of photographs and facts or you can see it as an eternal or constant process of unfolding, or becoming. Which relates to the way I see the world.
Which goes back to my first experiences with meditation, back in 2012. It was actually the summer right before I went to ‘Sachaqa Centro De Arte.’ I had never meditated before and went to this 10-day silent meditation retreat. Meditation is a way of self transformation through self observation, a real inner journey. You’re not allowed to talk to anybody, to look at anybody, to do exercises, to write in your journal, for the entire 10 days and you meditate for about 10 hours a day. Totally dliving into the deep end with that one and what it showed me was that everything within me, in my body and in my mind, in a constant state of flux. So you train yourself to become aware of every sensation as it arises and passes in your body and every thought that arises and passes in your mind. The sensations, thoughts and emotions are interconnected to one another and are in this constant chain reaction. Basically what you begin to understand is that there is experientially within your own body and mind. That everything is impermanent and because you see this within yourself, you can’t help but recognize how the universe functions, even though we can’t see it. Our senses are limited in that way, we can’t see the full spectrum of color; Everything is vibrating, everything is moving, everything is changing. There are no separate processes everything is connected to everything else. It’s this beautiful seamless transition of matter, of energy. I really want my work currently to reflect this view of reality and I think that it inevitably does. How I achieve that is by working with oil paint wet into wet and I’m constantly adding paint and removing paint. So on the surface of the panel or the canvas itself there is this recycling and renewing of paint, material, energy, form and of meaning. I love that the meaning is also in a constant state of change and it’s revealed to me as I move through the process. Afterwards, in reflection, sometimes the meaning of the work doesn’t even reveal itself to me until years later. I love that actually about the process, because if I knew what was gonna happen, or what a painting was going to mean, then there’s no reason to do it.
My experience at Sachaqa in the rainforest helped to inform this view of the world. It was the first time I had ever been surrounded by nature for so long. I really got a chance to witness these cycles; The cycles of life and death, birth, decay, growth, renewal and all of these different processes in the natural world. So there was a sort of interesting synchronicity within events happening externally and internally and I carry this awareness into my practice.
You have done an enormous amount of work, you are such a hard worker. I stumbled across 2012 series and all of those pieces are just so powerful. What was going on in your life at that time? Can we re-live your experience through those paintings? It seems like quite a transformative time.
2012 is the very first year I uploaded artwork on my website and it was a big year. The beginning of a long eternal transformational journey, that I have been on and continue to embark on, day after day. 2012 was the beginning of a new chapter creatively and personally. Where I began to embrace the process, as opposed to the outcome of something and so surrendering to the unknown. The pieces in the 2012 series are called ‘Inner Strangers.’ It was a personal journey of finding a way through painting, of externalizing different fragments and undigested, unresolved aspects of my own experience and translating them into paintings. Often strange and humorous and whimsical characters. To me at this time I was really going through some serious darkness. A lot of experiences I had managed to compartmentalize and avoid for basically my entire life, were beginning to surface. This was extremely uncomfortable, which is often a part of the transformative process, of course. The paintings healed me and used a lot of really bright vivid colors to communicate a darker subject matter. All of the paintings from 2012 are in vertical format, which mirrors the body, so you can see from head to foot.
The flow of brushstrokes, energy and movement going from top to bottom and back again. Then there are a bunch of these different self-portrtraits, that are often showing the breast or the head, in some very loose and abstract interpretive way. At this point especially with the portraits, the head is situated on a very hazy luminous gradation of colors in the soft diffused background. The head itself is full of thick interwoven strokes, of pain, it’s very messy and chaotic. I was caught up and entangled in thought processes and wasn’t as connected to the body, only in my head and was trying to get out. You can see there’s a lot of spill out pain, of color, of materials. There’s a painting called ‘Sooner Or Later,’ which depicts a sort of darker foreboding figure, with just a dark face, set against this bright orange background and you can see spilling out of this character’s heart all of this black sludgy liquid. The title ‘Sooner Or Later’ speaks to the emotions and experiences that we suppress or become repressed. The inevitability of the outpouring, the coming out in often unpredictable and untimely ways.
This entire series was extremely meaningful. The painting ‘Dissolution’ was inspired by experiences in meditation. Where you feel this sort of rushing of energy through the body and you literally feel the physical body dissolve. This series was really all about letting go of an identity. Grappling with grief and feelings of separation. So you know even before this series I was doing a lot of drawings and paintings, were you actually see heads or bodies ripping apart from one another. It looks quite painful and is psychologically painful. So this was the beginning of an honesty, a spiritual journey and a journey to self-awareness and self-knowledge. These paintings are very special. There’s also a piece in this series called ‘Purge’ a dragon like character. It’s ‘5 X 4 feet‘ and you see these strokes coming out of the mouth and then there’s this drag of a dry brush through the painting, spiraling out and around the central form. It looks unsettled and wheezy and you’re unable to see clearly and there’s a disorientation about this image. You see the brush and that spiraling of strokes happening in a lot of my earlier works.
I’m reading this book right now called ‘No Boundary’ by ’Ken Wilber,’ it talks about how the meaning of a work of art often emerges years later, sometimes ten or eleven years later. How we are multi-dimensional beings, operating and inhabiting different aspects and levels of consciousness, at all times. For example, if you’re asked the question, who are you? How do you respond to that. The way you respond, depends on the state of consciousness you are inhabiting in that moment. He talks a lot about the rainbow spectrum of consciousness, which is clearly relating to the chakras, the lower to the upper chakras. How you would answer the question, who are you? Depends on where you draw the line of the self, within a ‘not self’ boundary. Not self, is the outer boundary of the organism, considered not you, is foreign and considered other. Then within the body you could draw the boundary line between the body and the mind. So that you are your mind but you’re not your body. People with illnesses and diseases relate to themselves as being separate to the disease and the disease is something foreign attacking them. So there’s this divide within their body in that sense, within their minds, within their own psyches. They can draw the boundary line between different aspects of the self, that you accept and don’t accept. That you reject and don’t reject. So there’s this compartmentalization within the self. It just depends on where you draw the line and the line is very fluid and flexible. It’s constantly being redrawn based on the state of consciousness you’re embodying in that moment. The experience of unity consciousness is often off. Which can be triggered in a multiple different ways like through meditation, or through taking psychedelics, or creating an artwork, or in intimate relationship, or where you see yourself as one with the entire universe and in these situations the boundary line actually dissolves.
What I realized about the ‘Inner Strangers’ Series and actually used that phrase inner strangers to describe the parts of the self that we are not willing to, or able to confront, or look at. It’s so fascinating, this idea that wherever you draw a boundary line, also becomes a potential battle line. So whenever there is a separation within you, something foreign, there becomes a possibility of conflict, a battle begins. Which enhances the possibility of disease or disharmony. This idea added a whole new layer of meaning to the series ‘ Inner Strangers’ because my work is never planned. What’s most important to the artwork itself, is to live as interesting and full a life as possible. As it’s inevitable that everything that I experience, see, smell, experience through my senses, feel. All gets filtered through a unique lense and then comes through the work organically. I love that painting can be such an opportunity to confront and become aware of our own tendencies, habits, our unconscious mind; It can also be the universal consciousness. So much comes through in the painting process, if you allow it and that’s where the real magic happens. I’ve tried to plan certain things and created work with some constraints. The truth is the best work always comes from a place of total allowance, total surrender. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, there are many times when I struggle for days and months with a painting. There is this struggle but simultaneously there is this allowing and conversing with the painting, allowing it to tell me what it needs. Elin Glærum Haugland an artist staying at Sachaqa, talked to me one time about the story of the inner life of a painting, which just solidified this idea in my mind that each painting has its own sort of spirit, it’s really mystical. I think that each painting is its own universe, it’s own entity. Although it’s just one piece of the greater whole, of the greater puzzle. They are their own contained universe and they speak to me in very different ways. I’m always learning from my process and as soon as I stop learning from the paintings, is when it’s time to move on, time to change something. It’s all about openness and receptivity.
Your large paintings are always so impressive. It must be so different working on such a large scale compared to you’re smaller work. There must be some technical difficulties working as large as ‘180 inches,’ quite a large painting. How do you manage to paint so large and actually get it into the gallery?
The process of making a small painting is so different to working large skale. I am the type of painter who likes to switch things up quite often, so I’ll move from making an ‘8 X 10 inch’ to a ‘8 X 10 feet’ painting, one after the other. The reason is because I prefer not to get too comfortable with any process or method of making my work. Acknowledging the importance of being a beginner and there’s different ways to get to that place. Just switching up the scale, from small to large, to medium and back again, is one of the ways I keep my practice feeling fresh. The larger paintings are my favorite, to make and look at. It’s such an immersive experience and has to do with the entire body. With smaller paintings you can just move your arm around, the range of motion isn’t really important. It can have a lot to do with just a flick of a wrist. The gesture that inhabits a small painting takes up so much more space. I’m always trying to have a painting appear to have come into being, all at once. On a larger scale I work on a painting in sections; I’ll typically start the painting on the far right side and then begin to move inwards towards the left; Then I’ll just suddenly jump over to the far left and what I’m left with is this space in between. Then I have to figure out how to connect these seemingly disconnected sections. I love trying to create what appears to be a linear narrative in the work but it’s actually made up in fragments, in parts and is non linearly. The way I achieve this sort of feeling, that everything was made at one time.
To work wet into wet in each section, you begin to see forms and you can’t tell where one form ends and where the other begins, just because of the way I’ve applied the paint. I have to scale my tools up with the painting and use screen printing squeegee’s and all different types, styles and sizes of brushes also. I’ll sometimes attach brushes together to make a larger brush, or I’ll make my own squeegees out of rubber and use old broom handles. I have built tables to stand on for painting, I did recently for a show, it was the largest piece I had ever painted. It was made up in two panels, as I just couldn’t get it out the door. The two sections made up one large painting ‘9 feet X 15 feet.’ I had to set up scaffolding, the process of making that painting was very different than making a ‘4 X 8 feet’ you mentioned in the question. I’m super comfortable on a ‘4 X 8 feet’ because everything is in my range of motion. I may have to step to the side a little bit more, to reach one side of the painting but everything is within standing and reaching distance. With the larger paintings, it’s stop-and-go, physically taxing and demanding. For example I’ll have to move from the scafolding platform to stand back and look at the painting. It’s not as physical when you’re looking at a complete smaller painting. So with the larger work I’ll spend more time sitting and looking, until I figure out what the next move is. Then I’ll have to get up on the scaffolding make a few marks, then get back down, then get back on and get back down. The experience of making a large painting is just more challenging but more rewarding and I love it. On a large surface you can really see there are many little paintings within one painting. I like to consider each section as the possibility of being its own little painting. Painting something large and small on the same surface is really exciting when working on a large panel. I pack up all my own paintings, build the wooden corners that have spacers on the edge because a lot of the paint sort of wraps around the edges of the panel’s. Oil takes forever to dry, I don’t want to squish it, so I have to build these wooden corners. I’m basically building frames around every single painting and that’s what I do with the large work. I’ll often put a cage of strips of wood on the front and put cardboard over it, to make its own little box where nothing can touch the front. The packing process is very extensive, very time-consuming. Just a part I have to accept, it’s the only way to transport the paintings that are pretty much like sculptures. There’s always the consideration of materials and because I use paint so liberally I really have to be okay with putting everything into my work, like literally put everything into it, all my money, all my energy, all my love, all my care and all my attention. I’m never really feeling it’s a waste or a risk, without those globs of paint and the possibility of working with the paint sculpturally, I just feel the painting lacks some kind of physical presence. What I want in a painting is for it to feel like there’s a presence, of a person or a spirit in the room with you.
Can you share with us your process with the painting ‘Looking-Glass.’ Can we dissect this painting.
You mentioned ‘Looking Glass‘ funny that you mentioned this painting, I love it and was actually commissioned interestingly enough. The way I do commissions typically is, I’ll take some direction in terms of input in color palette or maybe the amount of texture or something kind of open. I always tell the client I don’t know what’s gonna happen and they have to be okay with that. As for commissions I want to be able to make a piece that I would just naturally make, on my own. The main restriction would just be in the size and shape of the panel, to fit in the desired location. I don’t use references or source material so it’s all just coming out of my head, there’s no preparatory sketch that goes into my work. Once in a while I’ll do a sketch to get something right and it’s very specific but that’s very rare. For the painting ‘Looking Glass’ the only element I knew I wanted to have in the painting was on the left, you can see this bright white diffused light; Which you could see as negative space, a moon or a frame. I knew I wanted to have that contrast of light and dark in one area and felt like that would set the stage for the rest of the painting. That’s what I started with and approached other areas of the painting very differently. Then right below the white moon you can see a more rainbow multicolored under painting and then I layered lots of paint over the top. I’ve taken a squeegee, removed one section, cutting out the paint and so you see the rainbow under painting stained by the paint, which was above. So there’s this very beautiful fluid multicolored section. Then a hand on the right side created with a lot of oil paint, diluted with some solvents and so it’s very washy, thin and the white of the panel is glowing through that wash. The moon has been incorporated in many different paintings of mine, in many ways, in different colors and is a recurring motif.
Previous to doing this painting, I had painted a very large landscape format called ’Fantasia’ and accidentally painted a hand, that appeared to be picking up a ball and this giant hand was coming down from the top of the panel occupying a large section. So it actually looked like the hand of God or like some larger-than-life being, playing with a ball. This painting was done a lot more consciously but inspired by what had happened by chance in the previous painting. The bottom right hand corner of ‘Looking Glass’ looks almost like another world, like a small landscape, with a planet floating in the air. Then in the upper right hand section you can see what might be considered a pyramid or a triangle shape of some sort in the sky, some clouds. It looks like the hand is trying to grab some kind of interesting, maybe otherworldly extraterrestrial like spaceship or pool, or some kind of vessel. Then you see what appears as a water dragon head coming through the hole of that vessel, maybe speaking something, as it appears to be communicating over to the left. I want all of the elements of every section to be speaking to one other. The way I like to paint is all these different, again seemingly disconnected sections that relate to each other and connect; Either through association or color, or through literally moving from one section to another. To feel very playfull, it’s all very organic, improvised and the painting surprises me, this one definitely did.
Can you talk about ‘The Tangled Garden’ to show the process and any writing you have about that painting. It seems a very positive painting, very innocent and light.
‘The Tangled Garden’ was the first painting made in response to another painting. Inspired by J.E.H MacDonald’s piece ‘The Tangled Garden.’ MacDonald was one of the key fingers, establishing the group of seven in the early part of the 20th century. It’s so hard to explain the feeling The Tangled Garden evokes in me but it’s like this giant mass of tangled plants and flowers that arn’t pretty or beautiful to look at, as you would typically expect to see flowers or a garden painted and at that time. There’s this dumb predominant plant in the painting, a drooping sunflower that to me feels like a character and it’s weighed down, feeling the weight of something. So the painting feels both playful and light but also dark and unruly to me, which is the two sides of nature.
I hope to express this when working with the subject of the landscape or plant life. So my painting ‘The Tangled Garden’ is leaning more towards the light, playful, innocent and kind of childlike. There are a lot of pastel, bright and playful colors. It’s not as dense visually, there’s a lot of space between the different forms. What I was trying to do in this painting and also in my life, was return to a sense of childlike wonder and innocence. So like as a child we had the woods near my house, I used to walk through every single day and always find new and unworn pathways to take. Always in search of adventure, always closely observing every single blade of grass, tree, bug, bird and on the lookout for salamanders. So there was this immediacy of the moment and allowing. Deciding to see the magic in the everyday, in nature. This painting to me was sort of reactivating that quality and reactivating myself. In the very middle of the painting there is some kind of dark burgundy purple, violet. Masses of strokes of paint, overlaid on top of a rainbow under painting. The rainbow again represents the inner-life, the eternal unchanging nature of something, the magic behind the veil. You see this sort of multi-dimensional creature in the center and then to the far right a lot of different types of flowers, plants and it’s starting to appear a little bit dense in the far left hand corner. A lot of the strokes in this painting are really trying to mimic the types of very free loose scribbles of a marker or a crayon. There’s a lot of very organic shapes, strokes and spirals. I use a lot of primary colors in this painting and secondary colors. It feels like it’s speaking to children or at least a childlike aspect in someone and the person who’s looking at the painting.
I understand you actually write as you’re painting and wondered if you had any written work to share, to help us understand more about your process.
I started a writing practice to complement my art practice about a year ago and it’s proven to be the missing ingredient in my process and wanted to have a deeper connection to each individual painting. So I started writing about each painting, mostly just an intuitive stream-of-consciousness from first person. In the past I’ve had huge blocks in terms of writing about my work because I always tried to write in third person academically, in a very structured way and at some point realized that technique of writing and that way of describing the work didn’t reflect the way that I actually make my painting. So I’ve just given up and I’ve embraced my own unique language and tone. I’ve discoved as much in the writing process about the work as while making them. I now see the writing as not just complementary but as an extension. There’s so much more that can be discovered and revealed through language, writing is literally a different language than painting. So that’s where I’m at right now and each painting has something to say and I’m trying to open up the channels to allow it to speak through me.
I’ll just read you a piece of writing, that I wrote about a painting called ‘ Follow Closely.’
‘This piece was made with the idea of the magic hour, landscape, interior expressions of that rich inner life. Black silhouettes sit in front of the hot fiery, setting Sun. These black shapes are mysterious shape-shifting morphing into different forms, they’re playful and moving together dancing together, swaying together. You get a sense that the whole scene is breathing as one organism, inhale, exhale, a continuous exhale. They are playful and primal, calling out to you, to me, summoning me to come closer to merge with the darkness. The darkness that feels at once so consuming, is just one side of the coin, one point of perception. The dark masses you see are sent, simultaneously illuminated by the bright light of the Sun. On the flip side silhouettes have a back side or front side, why have I never considered this before. We see only the blackness of the shadows, the light screaming out from behind the shapes and creeping in from their edges and somehow I’ve always only thought about this one side, it is one way of looking at things. The darker the darks, the lighter the lights. The darker things appear from this perspective, the brighter the brights on the other side, you can only know the intensity of the light from the depth of the dark. You have to use your imagination, you have to know what’s there duality. Young, always shifting, always transforming into the other, each containing the seed of its other. Of its back side, of rainbow lights find their way through the foliage. Their vines and creatures of the night. Their rainbow snakes slithering through the darkness, guardians of the jungle, they protect and worship the Sun. The blue Suns, the soul it’s so hot that blue, blue Sun how these silhouettes stir the imagination so profoundly and effortlessly ironically. It’s only when we see things clearly that we begin to imagine something other than what we know. I think we’re always hoping for something magical to appear and to take us away, to save us. The thing is, the magic was always there, it always has been, it always will be, you just have to switch the lens tapping back into that childlike innocent view of the world.’
Paintings invite us to return this state and that’s why I’m always returning to the studio, it’s the most powerful way that I find this connection. That little bit of writing was just allowing a suggestion of meaning. I’ve also experimented with writing as if I am the painting speaking, sI you can tap into something other than what we might logically see. It’s this other way of communicating, as if you are that painting, what does it have to share? How does it feel? What was it trying to communicate? What does it need? To play these games with writing and I’m excited because this is just the beginning of this beautiful rich practice. I want the viewer to have the same experience looking at the painting as I do when looking at it. That ambiguity of the image is crucial, for the painting to feel as if you’re encountering a different painting every time. For the painting to shift as you shift because obviously we’re always just bringing our own unique psychological disposition to the conversation. Like it says in the book ‘No Boundary’ by ’Ken Wilber,’ depending on the state of consciousness you are embodying, being and expressing in that moment, you will perceive everything outside of you differently. So, I mean all paintings, all artwork, everything in the world in the universe is always changing depending on your perception of it. I really do want the viewer and me to have the same experience and I think that’s important to note.