Erin Lee Jones

Erin Lee Jones is originally from Jacksonville Beach, FL and currently lives and works in New York, NY.  She earned her BFA in 2001 from the University of North Florida and an MFA in 2006 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her work has been included in numerous group exhibitions including; Safe Gallery, Brooklyn, NY; Regina Rex, New York, NY; Songs for Presidents, Ridgewood, NY; and Alleyoop Projects, New York, NY.   

Similarly incorporating a process-driven alchemy, Erin Lee Jones works boldly to capture the unstable surroundings of our natural world, resulting in vivid icons. Fragments of tinfoil, fringe, terrazzo, pools of watery acrylic, are all cast into hydrocal to reshape into a frozen tie-dye relief.  The improbable combinations of materials embedded in their depths uncover familiar faces. Some of the plaster concoctions work together in modular panels to reveal figures; a bare-breasted totem-like woman fearlessly handling snakes, two mirroring figures that dissolve into a patchwork quilt. Other works appear as large dilated eyes, recalling the hypnotic gaze of ancient Sumerian figuration, offering a moment that both suspends and spans time.


 Erin in her studio. Photo by Dan Bainbridge.

Erin in her studio. Photo by Dan Bainbridge.

 Studio details.

Studio details.

Q&A with Erin Lee Jones

Questions by Emily Burns

Hi Erin! Can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
Hi Emily! Excited to speak with you. 
I am originally from Jacksonville Beach, Florida and started art making at a pretty early age. My mom enrolled me in local art classes when I was seven. My first class was Sumi ink painting at the Beaches Art Center. I remember the first day we painted a fish and in just a few brush strokes you strive, not to get the likeness, but to capture the spirit of the fish. You make sure to leave negative space around the fish so he has room to swim. You take time prior to art making to prepare and to slow the mind by grinding the ink by hand. For a kid growing up in a Southern beach town, these were pretty expansive concepts to be exposed to. This experience was definitely a catalyst and I still consider some of these ideas in my current practice. 

Do you think of your wall works as paintings?
Definitely! I think of these works as paintings even though there is very little actual ‘painting’ involved in my process. They are made to hang on the wall in a traditional way. And image, line work, composition, and surface are all very important to me. 

Can you walk us through the stages of planning a painting?
When I began using with these materials in 2011, the process was very intuitive. I would lay down different media and move things around until something began to click for me and then cast everything together. But now that the pieces are larger, and due to the weight of the hydrocal, I have started working in a more modular way, tiling the pieces together. This has forced me to start to planning them out more ahead of time. My recent works come from drawings, sketches, or collages. Once I decide I am ready to promote one to a painting, I’ll drop a photo of the drawing into illustrator and start playing with scale and figuring out how to break the composition up into parts. From here, I’ll have a loose idea of dimensions and break lines to start with and that really helps the process move forward. 

Can you give us some insight into your process? Do you create a mold into which to pour the wet hydrocal?
Even though I think of my works as paintings, I often describe them as sculptural monoprints when talking about the process. I make really simple rectangular molds out of 1x2’s that then basically act as my picture plane. I lay these out on a large flat surface and compose within these boundaries. My subject matter is rendered in various mixed media, laid out in the mold, hydrocal is poured in, covering the image, and then the piece is left to set. Once the piece has cured, I release from the mold and flip the piece over to see what I’ve made.

When planning a piece that functions two-dimensionally, how much planning goes into the actual surface image prior to pouring the hydrocal?
I would say that all of the ‘real’ planning happens prior to the final casting. I have a lot of different media I use and I have a few ways of line making and few ways of dealing with color and surface. Once my composition has been worked out, I figure out what I’m doing where and walk out the steps backwards in my head. Because I work in reverse, the order of the steps is pretty crucial. I feel like it’s similar writing a recipe? The final pouring of the hydrocal is the autopilot part of my process. 

What draws you to this group of materials?
I have a pretty intense love affair with my process. There’s a lot of handling of my media prior to casting. I hand roll the aluminum foil and sculpt with it, pouring crushed terrazzo glass, lots of cutting fabric shapes, and dipping things in paint. Even though I have a final image I am striving for, it’s very much about the process and touching my materials. It’s sensual that way. These materials scratch my itch for needing both sculpture and painting in my practice. 

I would assume that even if some elements are planned, there is much that occurs that is not planned. How does this element of surprise and lack of control dictate the work? Is this something you seek out with these materials?
For sure! It’s the surrender to the lack of control and the alchemical surprises that actually keep me seduced. I get all of my materials composed and arranged and feel really good about the piece and then during the process of casting there is always a moment where I feel like something moved, or was swallowed by the hydrocal, or whatever, and I feel like I’ve screwed the piece up. It’s a very tangible point where the control is gone and regardless of how I am feeling about it, I have to keep going because the materials are going to set. It becomes a collaboration between myself and the materials. Then I usually have to let the piece set for a day before releasing it from the mold. This can be maddening because I want the instant gratification. The reveal is always so great though—seeing paint bleed into the hydrocal in a way I couldn’t have planned, or surface marks that were on my table that were recorded, all of the elements I couldn’t have predicted. They are like little gifts from the art gods. ;) 

Viewing work online is always a challenge! In the piece, “The Beginning The End” from 2017, is the image embedded in the material, or painted on the surface with acrylic?
I know. All the better to see art in person! In “The Beginning The End”, the actual line work is made with sculpted aluminum foil. I basically make a kind of homemade armature wire with the foil. I roll the foil up around thin gauge wire in various thicknesses. I crimp one end tightly to make a ‘male’ end and leave the other end pretty loosely wrapped to form a ‘female’ end. This lets me join the pieces together like legos so I can have a continuous line. I then manipulate and ‘draw’ with it - kind of like Alexander Calder’s wire art. Then the foil is painted with acrylic, laid down in reverse, and then cast in hydrocal. It produces an inlaid effect, as if the image is surfacing or fossilized. I like that the aluminum foil is not immediately identifiable. When it’s rolled, crimped, sculpted, painted, and embedded, it really transforms. 

When did you start working in this way? What led you to this process?
I’ve always made hybrid type work. I went to grad school for painting but was mostly making sculptural installations, covering chicken wire structures with plaster dipped fabric and my actual 2D pieces were mostly made on drywall. So plaster has always been kicking around for me in some way or other. When I moved to NY, it took me a while to figure out how to make art here. I just had a spark of an idea that I would cast surfaces to paint on—a little like painting on drywall. And the work has just continued to expand from there. 

How delicate are the finished pieces? What are some of the challenges with this type of work in terms of weight, transportation, storage, shipping, etc?
The work seems more delicate than it really is. Once the hydrocal has fully set they are very strong. The challenge is weight! I love my work and my process so much but these guys are definitely a bear to move around and store in the studio. 

Are there any overarching themes that you keep returning to in your work?
Vulnerability, transformation, and human connection are all big themes I think about often. 

What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
Again, the Sumi ink painting—I’m always striving to capture some kind of spirit in my work. The women in my family—they are all talented in the area of crafts, sewing, and embroidery and I feel that has translated into my work in a big way. And I’m very influenced by my art community. I am in a crit group with an amazing group of women artists. We meet monthly at each others studios and they are hugely influential on my life and my work. Kundalini yoga is also a big part of my life and practice. 

What is a typical day like for you?
I am the director of a neon fabrication studio in Brooklyn and am in a pretty heavy 9–5 grind. Ideally, on weekdays, it’s work and then to the studio in the eve. Tricking myself to go to the studio after work can be a challenge. Once I’m there it’s great though. And weekends are pretty solid studio: Coffee, mundane tasks of prepping materials, I often meditate before starting more serious work, then laying out compositions and casting if I’m lucky. 

Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
I love Caroline Achaintre’s work - she’s a new find for me. Dorothy Ionone and Hans Schärer for their erotic drawings. I just bought a great book on Paul Klee’s puppets that I’m really into. The sculpture of Huma Bhabha and Thomas Houseago. And I’ve also been looking at the Bread and Puppet Theater costumes, as well as Diego Rivera’s collection of paper mache sculptures. Subconsciously, I think I might be moving off the wall?! 

Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
I love to have a quiet studio where I am completely alone. This rarely happens because my studio is located in my husband’s shop, Hawkeye Crates, and noise and people are part of the business. When I am there alone, it’s a luxury. 

Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Two of my favorite films are the documentaries, Burden of Dreams and Jodorowsky’s Dune. I love going on the emotional roller coaster of these epic visions - the successes and failures, the serendipity, the insanity, the bravado… Herzog and Jodorowsky’s projects are so over the top, they make own practice seem so manageable. ;) 

I’m usually dabbling in a few books at once: for pleasure, Robin D. G. Kelley’s, Thelonious Monk bio, for my volunteer group, Atul Gawande’s, Being Mortal, and for my commute, I’m listening to Oliver Sacks’, Hallucinations. 

What do you listen to while you work?
I read a Harmony Korine interview where he said he can’t listen to music with words anymore. I’m kind of getting to that point in the studio. So many of my musical choices have associations and nostalgia attached to them - it’s too emotional for the studio. I need to be in that special thinking/not thinking zone when I work. I mainly listen to podcasts, or I’ll listen to old art documentaries on YouTube, or stand-up comedy when I need a lift. I can also do music if I didn’t choose it, so random playlists work too - I like the Chances With Wolves. Oh! And my friend, EJ Hauser, turned me onto NASA’s, Symphonies of the Planets. This is good when I’m at the studio late night—it gets super psychedelic. 

Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
I need large flat surfaces to work on. My 1x2’s for mold making. Hydrocal, water, and buckets. Guerra paint pigments. Fabric scraps for inlaying. Aluminum foil. Terrazzo glass. Coffee. Incense. 

How do you navigate distraction or lack of motivation while working?
I am so happy to actually be in the studio that lack of motivation is not usually the problem. Instagram is sometimes an issue. I leave my phone at the door so I can’t reach it.

Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Keep making work. Make what you want to see. Be true to you. 

Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I have a group show coming up in Nashville at Mild Climate next month and some performance gigs with my husband, Dan Bainbridge, this spring that I am excited about. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
Thank YOU Emily!! 

To find out more about Erin and her work, check out her website.