Briefly describe the work you do.
My work is about the personal accumulations of mixed- and multi-media approaches. I can separate my work into two separate, yet overlapping approaches. The first one is the mainstay of my identity as an artist—I create works from my own personal narrative and identity that includes my histories, memories, dreams, experiences, and relationships. This work is diaristic and yet it shares human commonalities such as the experience of loss, pain, and a desire for nurture and love.
I will quote from my Artist’s Statement:
As an artist, I find that there is the opportunity to create via a “magical process”—using an item of little value and transforming it into something of great meaning—which is central to my work. I transform my own difficult, yet often common, experiences into meaningful expressions by selecting simple and abundant materials such as household goods, garments, thread, plants, and salt, and transforming them via an alchemical-esque process. My use of embroidery and other traditional “women’s work” techniques along with lived-used domestic objects that have passed from one use to the next over time serves to remind us that the home is the site of our first “world,” and the objects and functions in those homes are charged with meaning.
The other portion of my work is more public and includes collaborations that range from environmental awareness to body/sexual politics and the outward representations of being comfortable in one’s own skin as an artist. Tied to this are also designer/client relationships that cause me to step away from work that is about my internalized Self.
I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, in a working-class family where my desire to study art stemmed from constantly creating: writing, sewing, drawing, building. I attended Goshen College for my BA in Art Education with the idea that I wanted to teach art and make art, the two being inextricably linked. Education was transformative for me, being a first generation college graduate on my father’s side, I did not come from an intellectual family, and yet I was determined to attend school. This has caused an interesting binary in my work. Aesthetically there are references to my rural, working-class background through the lived-used objects that I incorporate, and yet my work is also very cerebral, coming from a place of layered thought and archetypal in its underpinnings. I see a direct correlation in my training and education with my identity as an artist because my lens for seeing the world was most honed during my time as a student, especially while studying in Mali, West Africa in 2001. After my undergraduate years I tried to maintain a strong studio practice, but realized that I wanted to go to graduate school to hone my skills. Although I wanted to focus on my studio practice at Northern Illinois University, the connection between art-making and teaching became further entwined.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My studio practice has shifted from the more Romantic notion of a solitary figure toiling away alone in the studio making objects to being more public, performative, collaborative, and dialogical. I have had the opportunity to curate and collaborate with several different artists on some major projects (e.g., public installation, large-scale installation, performance, and exhibition curation). What I have learned from working with others is that I am more likely to push outside of my particular patterns starting with self-reflection, moving to contemplation/planning, and on to the final execution of the project. Instead, with collaboration, the very act of dialogue and exchange with another person becomes the living, breathing part of the work—a part that does not exist when I work alone in my studio—that becomes a multi-layered voice, which in turn seeks a multi-faceted audience.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I am surprised to see myself learning to parlay my art-making, design-thinking, and creative/critical thinking skills into entrepreneurial, collaborative, and community-based work. For example, I volunteer as the Education Outreach Coordinator on the board of the Sugar House Farmers Market (my neighborhood market) and I run initiatives for youth entrepreneurs, help educate children about where their food comes from and link that up with creative material re-use art projects. Although I did not study graphic design exclusively, I have had a series of jobs involving digital library collections, museums, freelancing, teaching, and the like that has turned into a job as Program Chair in Graphic Design at Broadview Entertainment Arts University. Although I started with more traditional fine art training, I find myself at the cusp of innovation, practicing transmedia (multi-media methods of story telling) methods via objects and installation that contain mini-performances in video form. This is a far cry from where I started from constructing sculptures out of found objects gleaned from the scrap yard.
I used to work every day—never differentiating between art as a hobby and art as a practice because it was art and only art. But I have had some life changes. For instance, two years ago I moved to Salt Lake City from the Midwest, where I had lived all my life, and that geographical shift signifies a shift in the ways in which I make, think about, and exhibit art. Living in a different art community, the opportunities have been, if not fewer, at least more select recently. I work whenever I can and I work more regularly in the studio when I have an exhibition or opportunity to work towards. I tend to make work for exhibitions and site-specific locales rather than to make work and turn it into a proposal.
When I am not preparing for a show, I do work differently. I like to exercise my creative and technical muscles by always having my hands in some project, and I use this work to primarily grow my technical skills, but sometimes it does turn into new work. For example, I recently taught myself to crochet doilies from a women’s 1950s craft magazine as a mental and physical form of training. I am just now figuring out how that will come to play in my work, and although some of the work isn’t being created as a work for exhibition, it is still “studio time.”
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
The biggest change in my work is not the aesthetic style—which in some ways is very similar to what it was when I left graduate school in 2008—but it is the framework by which I develop the work and the lens in which I view it. Just when I thought I would start doing something different, I moved to Salt Lake City and discovered that I had a whole new audience who had not seen my work before. That brought me to question the relevancy of my work, and look at how the work naturally evolves or expands and contracts based upon audience or location. The biggest expansion in my work over the past five years is the collaborative and transmedia element, fur instance, the inclusion of sound, performance, or video.
Also, I cannot forget to mention the biggest thing. Five years ago I would not have imagined myself doing a collaborative performance/installation with Bianca McGraw called the Merkeyna Coif Boutique, where we perform as the entrepreneurial Coif sisters who specialize in the twenty-first century merkin (what we call the “merkeyna”). The performance is structured around a dialogical humor-theory based performance where we make, sell, and educate about merkins in a boutique installation piece. The installation creates a safe space within for sharing about body/sexual politics and identity. There is nothing like talking about pubic hair in public spaces to get a conversation going in an unexpected direction. We found that although the project was a humorous topic, many individuals took the opportunity to talk openly about their body image and ask poignant questions. In the performance role we became instant knowledgeable professionals on the topics of body politics, something that exists outside of my realm of normal expertise. I am so appreciative of this collaboration for the framework that it has created in which I push myself to do this work. If I would not have done so, I don’t think that we would have created a true conversation about the very real perceptions people have about their bodies and sexuality. The dialogical nature of this performance allows its own meanings to build around itself.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
I am most influenced by women artists and writers, including the writing of Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and bell hooks, who have been consistent sources of inspiration and also provide words for my images. The visual artists whom I continually return to are Doris Salcedo, Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, and Mona Hatoum. They transform their media and narratives into threads between the visceral body and the domestic object as alchemist/creator archetypes.
Some individuals (unfortunately I cannot include them all here) who have impacted me most are my best friend and partner Daniel Shank Cruz, my collaborators Bianca McGraw, Bradley Cahill, and Christina Gregor, Casey Landau, John Kaly, and Jenelle Steele. Also, much of my family, who either support, inspire, or provide fodder for my artwork.
I have had some amazing teachers and mentors, but the one who stands out as having taught me the most about my identity as an artist is artist/art dealer David Parker. He has modeled for me that we pave our own way as artists in the world, that there is no one model for being an art professional, and that I need to have courage as an artist.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
Besides being an artist? Well, definitely teaching, but since I already do that I find this to be a challenging question. I deliberately choose to be an artist and my identity hinges upon what that means for me. But if I did choose another occupation, I believe it would be a socially-engaged and humanitarian field—working with populations and individuals to help transform their lives. Projects like clean-water initiatives, designing for good, training to help promote economic self-sufficiency for women and their families in developing countries or low-income scenarios.
About Erin Coleman-Cruz
Erin Coleman-Cruz received her MFA in Studio Art from Northern Illinois University and her BA in Art Education from Goshen College in Indiana. She moved to Salt Lake City, Utah in 2011, where she is a practicing artist and teaches Graphic Design while chairing the Graphic Design program at Broadview Entertainment Arts University.
Both Coleman-Cruz’s art-making and design practices range between personal narratives and public collaborative works that address issues such as creative re-use, sustainable design, domestic space, wearable arts, and social issues pertaining to women and gender. Her skills and interests include teaching, museum and exhibition curation, sewing and needlework, and collaborative projects. Coleman-Cruz serves on the board of the Sugar House Farmers Market as Education Outreach Coordinator and leads programing for children to teach them about where their food comes from while they learn skills for upcycling used materials into art and craft. She exhibits locally and nationally, and made her international debut in 2011 with a work of collaborative performance art, The Merkeyna Coif Boutique. Recent exhibitions include “I’m thinking of changing my smile” at the Dole Mansion in Crystal Lake, Illinois, and “35 x 35” at Finch Lane Gallery in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her portfolio can be found at erincolemancruz.com.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.