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Erin M. Riley’s Selfie Tapestries Tackle Sexuality, Excitement, and Boredom

I was visiting friends in Brooklyn last month and stopped by one of the old rooms I used to crash at years ago. In its place was now a music studio and something that really caught my eye: a blurry Slayer flag, an ashtray, and what seemed like traces of cocaine on a table. But it wasn’t a drawing or painting—it was a tapestry. My friend Mickey told me that his friend, artist Erin M. Riley gave it to him and I should meet her and check out her work. I still had a few days left in the city, so I caught up with this extremely talented and humble artist at her studio in Brooklyn where she basically spends an insane amount of hours buried under tons of wool and cotton. Look out for her upcoming shows at Brooklyn’s Kinfolk.

“I spend about 12-14 hours a day weaving”

I guess everyone’s question is the same when they see your work. How many hours do you spend weaving a piece once you figure out what you want to make?
It’s a question that most people ask and I have yet to actually track how long a piece takes from start to finish. But generally, I can finish a medium sized piece in 80-90 hours. When I am working on an upcoming exhibition, I spend about 12-14 hours a day weaving and can finish one piece in a week. My most recent huge piece took me a month, June 5-July 14.

You are one of those “educated” artists that have actually known what you’ve wanted since your early teenage years and went to school for it. I kinda have to ask, why tapestries? Was there any family influence behind it?
For me, art was one of those things that I started getting into out of necessity; I was a loner and my sketchbooks were my friends. I learned about the idea of art school through my art teacher in high school and never really questioned that concept. I had been sewing since I was 8 and painting and drawing all throughout high school, so I was wrestling between painting and fashion design as my major. When I found out that a fibers department even existed it seemed like the perfect in between to use all of my interests in this vague major. Weaving was something that was required and taking it as a freshman in college changed my trajectory. I had never seen a loom, no one in my family was in the textile world, it was just something I felt connected to.

How long have you been doing this and did you ever think you’d be taking it to this level?
I learned weaving in the spring of 2004, and have been doing it pretty much everyday since 2007. I never in my wildest imagination thought that my work would eventually be supporting me in any capacity. Art was always a bad life choice, no one ever recommended it in regards to surviving and it hasn’t been easy. I am a really stubborn lady so I spent many years paying my dues, exhibiting, pretty determined to just do what I want. I grew up surrounded by people working jobs they hated, stressed, buying things they couldn’t afford and being slaves to debt so I was determined to live a simple life, be happy with less so that I could pursue my art.

So you are currently working on your biggest piece yet. How big is it gonna be and where are you gonna show it?
This summer is all about making whatever I want and seeing how it goes. I have been exhibiting pretty regularly for many years and galleries tend to have a say in what you make so having a break from that is allowing me to take some risks and do the work I have had on the back burner for a while. I am excited to see this stuff together once a few of them are finished, one or two might head to an upcoming exhibition at Alfred University but I don’t have any solid plans for the new body of work.

“I was determined to live a simple life, be happy with less so that I could pursue my art.”

When I saw the selfie series on your Instagram, it hit me as a way to immortalize all those nudes we lose every time we get locked out of our iCloud.
I have yet to be locked out of my iCloud. I still don’t really understand the “cloud,” but I can remember when old flip phones or sidekicks used to die and all the photos would disappear with it. When I started that series, I asked old boyfriends for the pictures I sent them but they didn’t have any due to the technology back then, or because new girlfriends made them delete their nudie stash.

How did this selfie mania reach you and what inspired you to transform it?
I started weaving girls taking pictures of themselves back in 2009. I was working on an exhibition called “Daddy Issues” that was remarking on the language I was seeing guys use towards girls. A lot of it was inspired by message boards existing in the hardcore community where women were treated like shit and had to either be silent or girl haters themselves. I was trying to figure myself out, as one does in their early 20s and growing up without a father figure, there was no denying that I had “daddy issues” which manifested in dating men who treated me badly, having low self esteem, and being overtly sexual in private discourse aka sending a shit ton of nude photos to the dudes I was talking to and having lots of random sex. I was seeing a guy who was super into porn and he shared with me a porn star’s Twitter account which was just image after image of her in her bathroom taking what are now called “selfies.” It was super hot, but after a while it became boring and redundant. I realized that, without the context of chatting, nudity could lose its power and what we are left with are images that reflect our most private moments. Rather than revealing ourselves IRL and having only our memories, people our age had visual remnants of foreplay and climaxes. I was fascinated by the play on excitement and boredom, much like continuing to watch porn after you have already come. Weaving these images immortalized them as these intimate, powerful, timely moments that depict something that never existed before but are special in their own way.

“I was fascinated by the play on excitement and boredom, much like continuing to watch porn after you have already come.”

Do you have any upcoming shows and ideas of what we can expect?
I have some work in an upcoming exhibition at Alfred University; it’s a three person exhibition focusing on textiles in which I will show some new big pieces. Otherwise I am currently just working on some smaller pieces for an upcoming group show at Kinfolk here in Brooklyn, New York, that opens in August and another group exhibition at Fecal Face Gallery in San Francisco, California, in September.

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You can find Erin here or check her out on Instagram.