Oct 072014

erin studio

When she bought the house eight or nine years ago she was really buying the studio out back, which at the time was more of an idea than a reality. It was barely standing up. Which reminds me: last night, after watching too much of a reality show on competing taxidermists (memorable line: “If it moves, he’ll mount it.”) I inevitably got bored and watched old House Hunters episodes. A woman from Nashville who works in medical equipment sales wanted more room than she needed and a yard which would allow her husband to build an elaborate pond for the two turtles she calls their babies.

The buyers on House Hunters walk in with pretty firm ideas and expectations like this, and brown carpet or a mustard wall is an automatic deal breaker. A kitchen counter which isn’t granite is instead something like the end of the world. Most of the artists I know look at prospective spaces in very different ways. I think maybe they’re used to looking at things in general not as what they are but what they suspect they could be. Artists have spent a lot of time strengthening these imaginative muscles. Imagine calling it a day because the canvas is blank.

erin cutouts

You walk in to this green unit which started as an excuse for a building and it’s one big room. I saw the art hanging on the walls when I walked in but what I first thought about is how so many artists I know have crazy quilt floors in their studios. I like how the studio floor gives you permission not to worry too much about cleaning up after yourself as you go. You take that moment to clean up and the thing is gone. You can’t even remember if it was a thing. You look at the mess and it feels like the trail to an idea; it says you’re on to something. In your house it just says you’re slovenly and you’ve probably never explored your oven’s self-cleaning mechanism. In the house, it’s all about creating and enforcing an impression. In the studio there are bigger things to worry about. You walk into most people’s studios and feel they really have their priorities in order.

erin wall

She has mostly paper but also some foam on the floor, if I remember. She works a lot with paper, cutting it down meticulously into parts – but also without. She shows me one small painting that she says represents what she used to do. There were complex, finely detailed backgrounds back then, tangles of foliage which often convened around a central figure. I can’t remember what she says about the shift but when it happened the figure left the paintings and the backdrop – lush vegetation, plant life as geometrical abstraction and elucidation, tensely working things out between these poles – grew over the footprints. You become the subject now, standing outside the work looking in. She spends up to a year and sometimes I think more on one of her paintings, which work in such fine tuned ways at perverting the standard, romanticized concepts of things like nature and growth and harmony and scale. In the work she does now nature is as scary as it is reassuring, restoring something disquieting to the term organic.

To the right, a few adjoined long tables where she seems to sketch and cut. A lot of her drawing implements are arranged there. Paints and solvents and brushes go elsewhere, on movable carts. The room seems to constantly shift with her ideas and practice, but the tables stay put, starting everything on solid ground. There are sketches and blueprints for sets she’s designed to be used in a piece called Moving Currents choreographed by Steven McMahon for Ballet Memphis, alongside notes about hiring a DJ, stacks of books, a box of rags, a lot of glue, jars of markers and pens.

erin painting

Above the tables: an assortment of images and bits of things that seem like inspiration, though someone looking for a pond to house turtles referred to as babies would possibly characterize this as a sort of Vision Board. Remember when terms like that hadn’t yet reduced the process of inspiration to a sales pitch? You can’t look at any of this without it being framed somehow by views through several windows into the back yard. Given Erin’s work these windows seem like they’d have to be a continuing source of motivation, their compositions changing as time creeps along.

Straight ahead from the entrance on the opposite wall are works in progress, presenting some kind of calendar. She says her work has been influenced by the set design in ways she’s still in the process of figuring out. The sets are being constructed by others outside her studio, inevitably deviating from her original concept, requiring adaptation and adjustment, which is bringing her up against limits as she explores these new possibilities, introducing maybe a nice or maddening chemistry of control perverted by surrender into her practice, or more of it. McMahon said he wanted sets which moved and had parts which moved even more, that could be removed and incorporated into the dance. Designing these sets has somehow put her work itself on wheels in the studio too, so that the movement they seem to have always contained is trailing off in new directions, even less fixed than before.

erin overview

In the middle a large table a little above waist height, where a middle stage of some kind between the low table sketch or inception and the display wall of execution takes place. If the display wall is the minute hand, this table ticks away the seconds. In one corner is a mound of squiggly cut outs which have been embellished with pencil or pen, edging closer to the three dimensional. In another area is a mock up of the ballet set pieces housed within a black box stage constructed of cardboard. When she sees the sets in use, real time, they won’t be isolated any more conceptually like this, and she expects that will be another light bulb.

erin chair

Next to this table is a green chair. It seems to have no real purpose in the scheme of things until we sit down to talk. I think back to the studios I’ve visited and it seems like there’s always this random chair. “For reflection,” I always thought. And that must be part of it. But now I think maybe it’s in some way also a standing solicitation of outside influence in the form of a conversation, which is another way of approaching a barely there building with a thought toward how many different ways it can become more than it is.

Work outside the studio presents a constant pressure, so it’s hard to say when and how exactly she works in there. That’s always changing too.


Jul 192014

parsonschair copy

There’s a chair in the far corner and a table he can sit at too. He arrives at maybe nine or ten o’clock – on an ideal day – with a strong cup of tea (“very dark”).

You walk through most of the studio to get to the chair and the table, past work and work in progress and the possibilities of the space and materials – boards and foil and hosiery, beads and ballet shoes. From the table and the chair you can look out at the studio and picture what things would look like there.

There’s a window by the chair. The cushion on the chair is beige. When I’d asked him to wear something colorful for photographs, he’d said, “Beige is a color.”

He’ll sit with his tea in the beige-cushioned chair reading. You can look out the window. He probably does. There are trees out there. A lot of green. He put a pink sheer up. Behind the pink sheer there’s a pink gel over one of the window panes. The building has four or five studio spaces and a gallery on the main floor. It used to be a medicine factory.

He went through an orange phase, and a blue phase. He’s into beige and pinks and peaches – flesh tones, right now. The art in the studio is in these colors and the shelves behind the table house various materials articulating the continuum.

Sometimes he dances, or does other things you’d be embarrassed to do in public. Maybe the embarrassment finds its way into the work.


I forget to ask him what other embarrassing things there are to do, but he does seem to be slightly embarrassed to be photographed. Maybe embarrassed isn’t the right word.

He teaches at the university and classes are basically out (for break?); aside from advising students, he has some time on his hands to get closer to embarrassment.


I ask him what he’s going to do with a ball of yarn that sits there on a shelf. He says he wants to coat it. I forget in what.

Just the day before he installed a patchwork wall of foil and silvered cardboard. On the way over I was listening to a song by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the installation makes me think of this and Billy Name. “Glitter on the wet streets / shimmer over everything.” It’s a good song to dance to. If you get in the right position and you face the corner you see bobbing dots of light. You can’t make yourself out in the foil wall but something of you flits across the surface.

I sit on the beige cushioned chair for a while and he sits at the table, answering questions about his family. I ask the questions not just because I’m curious but because I want to distract him from the anxiety of being photographed. Foolishly, I want to see him the way he is when no one is here.

He might forget about the camera but his eyebrow doesn’t. It arches up over his glasses like peeking over a fence, a little wary. I feel like I shouldn’t repeat what he says about his family because it has nothing to do with anything and could only encourage the eyebrow, but it’s probably safe to say his father was a minister in Arkansas, and then he wasn’t.


Around the corner from us there’s a box of wood. Looks like art to me. Hanging from the ceiling out in the space is an elastic something or other, i.e. an undergarment. It makes a hammock, from which oozes pearlized, faceted beads. Around the base of the single pole in the room, more beads.

Fabric that reminds me of Martha Graham pictures I’ve seen is stretched out on the opposite wall. A ballet shoe and a wooden rod support a cinched, bulging sac of beige fabric nearby.


He talks about an essay he read on the adorable. An artist he likes spent a lot of time at one point drawing an elephant, which was adorable. She’s never shown the elephant but he really wants to see it. I sit there wondering whether the elephant is pink. I’m thinking about it so hard that I forget who wrote the essay and who the artist was.

We talk about abbreviated reading patterns conditioned by the feed. I tell him how I once spent some time with a curator who didn’t believe the advent of various technologies had remapped or rewired the way people think. We had a weird conversation about it where I said they had and he implied that I wasn’t necessarily stupid for insisting so but might appear to be if I wasn’t careful. I’d been eating cookies the curator bought me during this heated conversation (my favorite kind – of cookie, not conversation) and I thought it was awfully nice of him to remember I like these cookies but not so very nice to make me feel dumb while eating them.

Relating this story to Joel, I tell him I said to the curator something about “the advent of things like the telephone and TV and the internet and the train”. Joel laughs, repeating the word train like a punchline. I wonder what I’ve said that seems so funny to him, and think how the only thing missing in this moment, besides the (hopefully pink) elephant, is a bag of cookies.


He has on a black athletic tank top and a brightly patterned shirt he wore for my pictures. I can’t seem to take a picture to save my life and am amazed at all the little things my camera does that I never knew about. I feel delighted and annoyed. The pictures refuse to focus. I do everything but shake my camera the way you do when something doesn’t work and you don’t know how to fix it, and I can feel his eyebrow laughing at me.

He’s had the studio for about a month. I ask him whether it’s changed how he feels about the place he lives. He says yes. He tends to feel more anxious when he gets home because he’s thinking about the work he will or wants to do back in the studio. We talk about the way a studio can be for artists. It’s virtually the only place you can be yourself and think like yourself in a certain way.


(Joel Parsons is a sculptor and writer living in Memphis, TN. He also puts together exhibitions at Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College, and Beige, a peripheral space for otherwise art and performance that he runs with his partner, Steven McMahon. All the images were taken in Joel’s studio.)

 Posted by on July 19, 2014