Words and Interview by Tabatha McGurr
Portrait by Andrew Kaas
Images by Erin Riley
Ah, the selfie. A modern (yet age-old) phenomenon made rampant by the everflowing increases in technology and photo-snapping smartphone devices. While some argue that selfies border on a mental condition—Selfitis—driven by a constant hunger for attention and lack of personal intimacy, others say it’s simply a form of expression, one practiced by all inquisitive walks of life for centuries. Painters used them as documentation, early muses used them as reference— even Stanley Kubrick became notorious for taking stoic snaps of himself in mirrors. Though ultimately a matter of opinion, it also comes down to being openminded and accepting that in this day and age, selfies are simply the norm.
Embracing that same concept but taking it to a completely higher level, Brooklyn-based artist Erin Riley brings said selfies to life with true substance, weaving incredible hand-dyed tapestries up to four-feet wide—from faceless camera-wielding babes bent over in front of mirrors, to POV snaps of girls hands down their panties. And she doesn’t just stop at portraits; using a plethora of images sourced online, she also includes party photos, still-life’s of assorted naughty items (like sex toys and birth control), and even car wreck landscapes. Forgive the cliché, but these definitely ain’t your grandma’s tapestries…
How old are you and where are you from?
I’m 29 and I was born in Massachusetts.
What are some of your earliest artistic memories and influences? Where you always a creative child?
I don’t really know how but when I was younger I got into sewing; I think it was Home Ec class. So I got my first sewing machine then and wanted to be a fashion designer above all else—made all my clothes. Then I just got into art class; learned about painting, ceramics, graphic design, etc. and then applied to art school.
So as a little girl your dream job was to be a fashion designer? Do you still design clothes?
No, I don’t do clothes, but I think that got me into sewing and textiles in general, which is what I work with now.
How were you first introduced to the medium of tapestry? Was it always something you wanted to work with, or was it a progression from other mediums?
I didn’t know about weaving until college. My first year doing the tour, I thought I was going to be a painting major or a fashion design major, and then fibers was this major I’d never even heard of. They had looms–huge rooms full of looms. And that was my first elective freshman year.
Where’d you go to school?
At Mass Art in Boston.
So seeing the looms is kind of what set it off?
Yeah, I took weaving pretty much every semester from freshman year after that; I was just super into it and it’s something I was really connected to.
OK, onto the selfies. I watched a little Interview with you where you explained that growing up with the Internet, nudity has always been somewhat of an accompanying norm. Can you remember when you first had the idea to do this; what triggered it?
I was working with drunk girl pictures and party girl pictures and was working towards a series called Daddy Issues; just researching stuff and thinking about how dudes talk about women, the stuff they say, but then also realizing that some of us actually have Daddy Issues and how serious that is in some ways. And I was thinking about how in some subcultures you kind of have to be down to look at naked women too, like in punk or hardcore music, it’s kind of this misogynistic culture of just naked women everywhere. Like sharing ex-girlfriend pictures or bashing girls online.
I was dating this guy and he was following this Twitter that was just like a porn girl’s Twitter, and every picture was her, like a selfie picture, and that was part of our relationship—nudity of others and normalizing that. Being like, “this is weird, but it’s also fine.” [Laughs] Like my mom wouldn’t approve, but this is just normal life. So I was going through her Twitter, and at first it was really hot, and then it got to the point where it was just repetitive. And it becomes less…it’s just not hot anymore. And I was like, this is how we express ourselves; we’re all just sharing pictures of ourselves, it’s the way it is. So that was the first one.
What’s your personal take on the selfie? Do you indulge in them?
Yeah, for sure.
How do you feel about male selfies?
My ex is older, and whenever I date older guys, they never understand the whole photo thing. They don’t ask for photos and they also don’t know how to take photos. So my ex is like, “I got a date, I gotta get on Tinder, but you have to help me take sexy pictures.” [Laughs] But it’s so awkward, because there’s a fine line between making it silly.
Some people say selfies are basically just a manifestation of insecurity geared towards getting attention, whereas others say that selfies are expression within themselves. Which side would you lean towards more?
In the beginning when I was doing painting and studying oil painting, I was doing tons of self-portraits. Using pictures of myself or staring at myself in the mirror, and I think that’s a similar thing. A lot of photographers from way back in the day have always taken pictures of themselves.
So in a nutshell, what’s the process like when weaving a new tapestry? The thought alone seems to daunting! How do you choose the selfies you’ll weave? How long does it take?
I usually collect photos on my phone or Tumblr or Instagram, and just have them in a folder and sort through them constantly. I’m always reordering them; and if one image sticks with me, I commit to that image, trace it, and blow it up to scale. The loom is set up by threading the loom, and I also dye all my yarn which is wool, and you kind of just work from the image which is pinned underneath it.
Oh interesting. So it’s almost like tracing by sewing?
Yeah, like color by number.
And how large is the scale normally?
I’m working like four-feet wide or two-feet wide, so I do a bigger or smaller size.
What’s more difficult, executing something on a larger scale or doing the finer pieces?
The smaller stuff sometimes is harder because you can’t get as much detail—you have to accept that it’s gonna be a little bit less elaborate.
You’ve done so many of them too now—where do you keep them all? Are they all sold?
They’re mostly sold at this point.
What does the average four-by piece go for?
Like $4,000 right now.
So dope. How long does the execution normally take from start to finish?
Since now I’m doing it full-time, about a week; 14-hour days working every day.
Though you’re most recognized for the selfie series, you’ve done other styles as well, from non-selfie photo renditions to still life and lanscapes—any plans to start a new series, or branch out and do something totally different?
I’ve been doing girls for a while so I’m trying to work larger and do some more car stuff–like big car crash pieces that are paneled, so four-feet wide strips that’ll be condensed together.
Do you have interns that help you occasionally?
No. I need to get interns but it’s really hard for me to let go of that control. [Laughs]
Do you do commissions?
Yeah, I’ve been having a lot of guys get their fiancés or wives. I just recently did one for this guy who used one of the first images his wife ever sent him, which was like this super hot photo of her butt from the beginning of their relationship.
So jealous. What about mediums outside of the loom and tapestry? It seems like such a process to see the final execution of a piece—ever just feel like painting or drawing on paper?
Writing is something I like doing but I don’t really show anybody. I have been doing these order pieces where I batch-upload the images I’ve been sending dudes over the year, and have those pieces woven for me. I’ve been the person my friends have always gone to like, “Send me pictures!” and I always have something weird on my phone to send people.
I also saw your work is being featured in a slew of shows this year, from NY, to LA, to Australia. So exciting! Will this Something Precious exhibition in LA be your first solo show?
No, but it’s the first one in a while. 2009 was my first solo show in a gallery outside of college. This show has been six months in the making—crazy schedule. There’s like 22 pieces and they’re all girls.
Lastly, any future projects or endeavors your could tell us about?
I have a few weirder projects—mostly iPhone projects that are kind of explicit with porn. But I lost a huge batch of good images from an iPhone update which is so stupid, so I’m like restarting.