Erin Frost | Soft Work
Interview by Adam K. Woods | Photographs by Sierra Stinson
Erin welcomes me into the peach light of her Capitol Hill apartment. It is the evening, late winter, and her home feels like a reliquary for precious objects. Heavy, sculptural drapes line the wall, blurring our current space and time. Pink suitcases nest together under a seating area in her bedroom. Jewelry hangs wherever it can; meticulous but organic. A closet door ajar allows a keyhole glimpse into her infamous collection of vintage dresses and party attire. The picture window in her apartment frames the glittering rubies of tail lights heading down I-5, creating a scintillate quality to the room.
If you make art here in Seattle, you have most-likely seen Erin Frost’s work. She is a versatile artist, creating successful pieces in numerous mediums. Meticulous embroideries clinging to intimate fabrics, blushing lipstick kisses sequenced at an arresting rate and proportion, sumptuous performances involving the use of her body and what she has chosen to activate with her presence. Erin is part of Seattle’s “empathic movement” as it is being called, and she gleans inspiration from the soft work of being human.
Most recently at the group show, Go On Take Everything, I experienced a collection of her ceramic duplications of corks. The champagne cork chosen for the replicas was the type you might clean up the morning after a celebration, maybe squeeze in your fingers remembering the party the night before. Featured in different stages of the firing process; many of the corks bared patches of rough white skin, some shone with a glossy clear glaze, others were scumbled with a solid gold coating. Over 80 corks were piled on a tray, and gallery-goers were welcome to handle the corks and purchase them. The piece was called “Is That All There Is?“
Adam K. Woods : Talk with me about using your home as a studio space.
Erin Frost : It makes sense for me. I’ve never done it any other way, and it adds a certain amount of intimacy to my work. Working at home lends itself to a fluid state, where you can start making in the space between waking and sleeping. It allows for a more intuitive process. This is my art practice, this is my space, with no separation.
AW : I can see that inseparability. You’re living and you’re creating art and they are happening simultaneously.
EF : Sometimes I struggle with that; when is it art, when is it my life? I used to know that separation more, like, “Oh I’m working on a show, and it’s photography, so I’m shooting, then I’m processing the film, now I’m printing. This is the act of working on art.” At times I miss that clarity, but where I’m at right now is just constantly trying things, and in some ways bridging that divide between life and practice. Allowing myself room to be uninhibited in experimenting.
AW : Let’s talk about your connection to craft, in regards to your work like your “Golden Light” series, and also your embroidery & mending pieces. Do you feel a connection to American craft, and ‘traditional’ gender roles?
EF : I feel there’s this domesticity that arose from necessity. When I was recovering from a pretty serious back injury that was all I could do- I could sit and alter photographs I had already made. And out of that mending eventually came the Golden Light series once I was recovered. That series reads as joyful; a celebration of relationships that were helping me heal. That original set-back opened up that exploration.
EF : Shift was the first piece that happened after a breakup, and I was really thinking about the way you can alter your perspective and move through things – move through grief with grace, hopefully. Still working geometrically, but doing something that was new and unknown; creating organically. That piece is really important to me.
AW : Your home has a lot of warmth, and is meticulously decorated with vintage objects. How do you take care of your home and collect the things in your life?
EF : The majority of what I own I’ve collected over the years second hand. Because I’ve found it in this way, and seen the beauty in what’s been discarded, and elevated it in this surrounding, it gives me a wonderful pleasure. Things are just things, but I believe objects carry weight of what is projected onto them. I collect objects that are precious to me; beautiful things that become sacred, treasures from those I love. As a kid I always secretly loved cleaning my room because I’d have to go through everything on my dresser, all my ephemera, and touch everything. I can still get lost in that really easily, there’s memories attached to everything.
AW : Your home feels like a body; both your physical body and your body of work.
EF : That’s beautiful, I really like that. I’m easily influenced by my surroundings, so it’s important to have a sort of sanctuary. I do feel intentional about my space, and since i create here, it is an extension of my physical presence. It’s intimate space.
AW : If you don’t mind me asking, how have you responded to the grief and loss in your life in the last year (Erin lost a dear friend and her first love within a short period of time).
EF : It’s been a major part of my work. The most obvious being the video I created for Out of Sight 2015 (That Which Has Been Your Delight, 2015). That piece is about making space for pleasure. Something I’ve learned from loss is that you can only experience as much pleasure as the pain you’ve experienced. And pain is transformative. I took that to heart and tried to create from that space. I sat with that pain and in turn felt my own physical presence that much more. It made me bigger, more capable.
AW : It’s a very encompassing piece. I can see a lot of different elements of other works in there. There is also a connection to “beauty” as a concept. I would say you are a very beautiful person, and I would say that sometimes you project a timeless, vintage beauty too, and in your work this beauty exists, but also an escaping from this beauty. A documentation, but also a leaving. Talk with me about this.
EF : I use myself for my work because it’s the most intimate way I can create. It’s true in that I’m documenting myself in this space and time, so it’s a form of testimony. But at the same time, I’m creating altered realities that are in part about heightened beauty, sensuality, looking into my own mysteries. I’m generous with what I reveal, but at the same time creating protection for myself. So this work I make is simultaneously true and false. These elements seem at odds with each other and I don’t think there’s a tidy explanation for any of it. I know what I make is mostly done out of creative compulsion and that I want to add more beauty to the world, but I feel that in waves alongside the weight of impermanence. And I think that’s the thing about transforming, you get to, in some sense, choose your reality, even if only briefly.
AW : This reminds me very much of an interview with Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius) I was reading recently where Mike talks about how he was finally able to create a character that allowed him to leave what had happened to him- his vulnerability, his drug abuse, etc. He was able to put it away for a second and put on this outfit that allowed him to create. Do you resonate with that?
EF : Yes, and I think many of us do create characters in some form or another to strike a balance between self-preservation and self-expression. As someone who’s been enormously shy most of my life, the personas I adopt bear witness to many facets that need an outlet. I’m quiet and private, but I’m also an exhibitionist who wants to perform all the parts of myself. The curious thing about being a creator is then sharing that bold intimacy into the public realm, bridging the gap between private and public. I also think that allowing ourselves to creatively enact fantasy is both healing and can act as a form of exorcism.
AW : Your outfits are not just an extension of your artwork, they really are pieces of art. You put your artist’s eye on what you wear, and it’s amazing. A lot of people don’t do that here in Seattle as much as they do in other cities like San Francisco or New York or LA. When you go into your closet, talk with me about what you see and do.
EF : Oh, the magic closet! I feel parties and possibilities in there. While I tend to wear a sort of daily uniform, these other garments are a different vehicle. I never outgrew playing dress up, and when I walk into my closet it feels like I’m looking for not only what will make me comfortable in my own skin, but that slight magic that, again, allows for transformation. Costuming is key for transformation, it’s own form of communication. Late night parties at my house sometimes end up in the closet, everyone squeezed into that little room, emerging in a different outfit. It’s one of my favorite things.
AW : I feel like you are an “insider-outsider” artist in that you are less concerned with world-wide art trends or what’s happening in Seattle’s gallery scene, but you are inside this tight-knit group of creators, what is being called the “lyricists” or “empathic movement” here in this city.
EF : I feel like an outsider artist. It’s not that I don’t care what’s going on, but it’s hard enough to create without the roadblocks of wondering whether or not something has been done before. My work is not trying to be anything other that what I need it to be for me, what I need to be creating in the moment. The empathic movement of people making tender work allows us all to find our true voice. It could totally fail or it could be the best thing I’ve ever made, but I’m going to try it and see how it feels. It’s been feeling pretty good.
AW : You created “That Which Has Been Your Delight” on an Iphone 4, which is amazing. I feel like we are living in a time when everyone is so capable, has so many tools, that it can be overwhelming to create.
EF : Yeah, if you think about the intimacy of your phone, it’s almost an extension of yourself; it’s on your body, you’re rarely without it. I think that made it less scary to test the waters of video art. I agree that having access to so much can be overwhelming, but I think in this instance, because it was an intimate tool, it wasn’t daunting. If I would’ve thought about it and felt the need to use fancy equipment, that project probably would never have happened. But using something that was familiar and available made it feel like more of a sketch. It gave me both permission and a restriction to work with, which is something that I’m realizing I need in my work. I have to get creative within the limitations i have.
AW : Do you consider yourself a Seattle artist?
EF : I feel like an outsider in a lot of ways in this city, in the art world at large. But I am a Seattle artist in that I’ve lived here for over a decade, even if I don’t really know quite where I fit. Vignettes has helped changed how I think about my work and my place in this city. As a space that gives a platform to so many heartfelt creators, it’s given me courage to experiment and carve out more space for myself.
AW : Do you feel like your work is feminist?
EF : I don’t think of my work as necessarily a feminist statement. But as a feminist maker, I certainly do consider my work feminist. My work is about claiming my body- my physical and emotional space in the world. It’s about how and what I want to reveal. It also touches on domestic space, declaring that and giving that weight and validity. And I think anytime women reclaim the gaze for themselves, it’s empowering, and that is something I’m very interested in.
AW : We’ve talked a lot about death in previous conversations. What are you trying to do before you die?
EF : I thought I had it figured out at one point, like when I was doing my photography, I was on this clear trajectory with what I wanted to accomplish. This idea that when I died I would leave this encapsulated body of work. And that work I was making felt good for a long time, it felt strong and complete. I did that for so long, and then my Dad died, and everything changed. I stopped making work for a long time. And now, I don’t know. It’s so much less about the work and more about the experience. I have a fair amount of existential crisis, and I’m also more aware of the beauty in my life. I hope, if anything, that I would impact people in a loving and gentle way.
But really the answer to your question is, I want to experience as much love as I can.
Erin most recently took over the Vignette’s Weekender on instagram to create and pilot new ideas for work. Follow Vignettes here (#erinfrostvignettes) and catch up on the intimate pieces she created.
A community of feeling
MKNZ and Erin Frost ‘go on take everything’ red velvet cake, frosting, 2015
Written by Steven Dolan
“It seems that we started with a deficit. And by the time we got to the show, we were in this major state of abundance, of surplus, which thematically tied into the show. You actually can take everything. We don’t need it anymore.”
MKNZ, Erin Frost, Leigh Riibe, and Sierra Stinson are spread out in the living room of Sierra’s apartment. MKNZ is describing the journey that culminated in the show “go on take everything,” marking the 5th anniversary of Vignettes. In a short expanse of time, the four artists and friends each found themselves left by their partners in the homes they shared. Over the course of these heartbreaks, the four women grew closer, further cultivating a nurturing web of relationships that gave birth to an interweaving of art practice.
Speaking with the artists, it’s clear that the emotional turmoil they experienced individually and cared for collectively, comes secondary to the new love and relationality that emerged. The show is more about their reverence for healing and the bounty that followed than about the pain they endured.
Leigh Riibe ‘Flammable’ Printed Matchbooks, 2015
The evening of the show, guests were greeted by a wall of Erin’s lipstick prints (“i want to lose them”) and other offerings, such as the red velvet cake by Erin and MKNZ that shared the show’s title and a pile of printed matchbooks by Leigh Riibe (“Flammable”). These pieces, composed of multiples that invited taking, constituting offerings of abundance. In giving freely to each other, the artists are equipped to share the loved they’ve reaped.
Wearing a wooden milkmaid’s yoke with two 45-pound salt blocks hanging from either side, MKNZ occupied the apartment’s bedroom, deprived of vision and most of her hearing. For the active two hours of the durational performance, she carried the weight of the salt blocks. Those that attended the show were invited to provide MKNZ aid by lifting the salt blocks in pairs, requiring the careful cooperation of those that stepped up. Anything less would offset her balance. Titled “The Inherent Codependency of the Heaving Heart,” the performance illustrates the kind of collective care taking that occurs in times of grief.
MKNZ ‘The Inherent Codependency of the Heaving Heart’ performance, 120 minutes, 2015
“It’s reminiscent to me of when you have a friend that’s really suffering and is kind of unreachable, in a dead-to-the-world sort of state,” MKNZ explained. “It takes a collaborative effort to care for that person. It can’t be one person’s job alone.”
Participants came in waves, gingerly taking up the weight, engaging in the tender ritual. A ring of viewers dotted the walls, observing the act, but also enveloping the performance in a network of symbiotic support and affirming energy.
The performance was not only a gesture of trust extended to MKNZ’s anonymous supporters, but also one of generosity. Individual identity was not relevant to this relation. Instead, it was predicated on the sheer fact of their shared existence. The burden of love is relevant to all of us, but it is up to us to answer its call.
Leigh Riibe ‘Letters to Leslie 1991-1997 (age 10-15), telephone, audio recordings, 2015
Tucked away in the bathroom sat a red telephone, with the words “I LOVE YOU” standing in the place of a number. When one answers, they hear Leigh Riibe reading letters she wrote to her sister Leslie from 1991-1997, between the ages of 10 and 15. Leslie kept these, gifting Leigh a binder of her side of their correspondence for her 30th birthday.
“My sister has always been the person that has seen me throughout my life,” Leigh said. “She’s been the one that listened to me when nobody else would fucking listen to me and pay attention to me when nobody else would pay attention to me.”
The letters detail everything from suburban ennui and adolescent existentialism (“I figured out today that I have no life.”) to appropriately dated cultural moments (“My neck? I can’t hold it up without it starting to vibrate because it’s so sore from headbanging to Nirvana’s Nevermind.”).
The Christmas lists alone illustrate a depth that culture rarely allows girls. Requests are at times endearingly specific (“Stuffed animal that has to do with snowy weather, such as a seal or Lamonts 1992 Christmas bear,” “Pink cat eye sunglasses with jewels in the corners at Hot Topic”), absurd (“Breakfast in bed for the rest of my life”), and brutally honest (“Don’t get rid of Stella, Clarence, Morris, or Stubby”—Leigh’s pets).
For as much humor as there is, one also hears Leigh’s despair. Demands to write back are a constant, suggesting an aching isolation. A particularly heavy letter sees Leigh predicting the death of a friend whose drug use has left her feeling helpless. Her narration of the past teems with feeling. She occasionally laughs, she invokes the gravity of adolescent anger and effervescent girlhood, and sometimes her voice quivers. In delving into these wounds and whatever other emotional remnants the letters mark for her, Leigh harvests an emotional abundance that is not tied to a specific time, for through the process, she is creating a future.
“I think the overarching theme for the show for myself was healing,” Leigh noted. “Talking and interacting with that time of my life without judgement and playfully was really healing.”
Erin Frost ‘that which has been your delight’ video still, 2015
Originally exhibited at Out of Sight, Erin’s “that which has been your delight” reaches a new intensity in conversation with her cohorts and the context of the show. Before the video’s creation, the death of a friend and her first love coincided within weeks. Having bought herself flowers after the first loss, she sat contemplating using the petals after the second, only to have them fall into her hand, sparking the piece that followed. One night swimming by moonlight, a friend, Adam Boehmer, put forth the phrase “making space for pleasure,” which became Erin’s mantra. “It just held me,” she explained.
The video begins with Erin face down on a bed of black fabric in a confrontational moment of grief. What follows is a sensuous exploration of feminine codes . We see a closeup of her sliding her arm through a sleeve of sheer, embroidered fabric and then slowly lifting the hem of her dress. Her hands dig into a visual field of flour. Milk glides down her nude body. Flowers are a near constant, even receiving their own milk bath.
What is achieved is not the masking of grief, but a cathartic moment of grief harnessed as pleasure. Erin taps these icons of femininity, articulating their potency and giving weight to beauty. She embodies a vision of emotional fecundity, illustrating the possibility of new life. Our culture teaches us to grieve quietly and conveniently, but her process rebukes that notion, instead choosing exhibitionism. Erin has no shame about her grief, nor her femininity, purveying and transforming these ideas as sources of power and strength.
“I think that when you’re feeling stripped when you lose things, you are faced with that power in yourself,” Erin suggested. “Everything falls away.”
Sierra Stinson ‘Two Vessels (Fill me up / Pour me out)’ 2 Channel Video still, 2015
In the kitchen, Sierra’s 2-channel video, “Two Vessels (Fill Me Up / Pour Me Out)” plays on a continuous loop. With a directness and simplicity, the video points at an essential emotional sensibility: one that not only externalizes or “pours,” but that also simultaneously internalizes or “absorbs.” One side of the video piece shows an amber-toned sponge taking in a steady drip, while the other demonstrates the mouth of a carafe pouring water. The shots are framed to focus on the actions, not the entirety of the objects themselves, nor the environment they exist in. In doing this, Sierra emphasizes a humble gesture that evokes clarity: perhaps it can be that simple to love and be loved.
“We are all vessels. I had that idea the week after I went through my breakup,” Sierra said. “I was like, oh, I’ve been this cup pouring out, pouring out, pouring out, to the point that I can’t do it anymore. And then I was like, I need to be the sponge. I want to be that. At first it was a negative outlook in ways, and then as I worked on it, I realized we can be both vessels always.”
It is through the realization of vulnerability and an active channel of loving that an emotional system as this can function and nurture the wellspring of love that we give and receive, the piece asserts.
As an exercise in vulnerability and an intersection of relation and creation, “go on take everything” realizes a radical form of artistic practice. It is often the case that patriarchal culture privileges a stoic approach to creation (and being in general) and a pointed separation between artist and work. Within this value system, transparent emotionalism, especially coming from feminine sources, is considered frivolous. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable is in direct defiance with a culture that would rather us remain isolated, navigating the world through dispassionate power moves, in lieu of a more considerate relation. The project of “go on take everything” envisages community as the space we create when we allow ourselves to care for and with others. In tandem, emotion, whether it inhabits typified avenues of relation or not, creates a community of feeling. Whatever social parameters exist, this field of being is indestructible. We need only open ourselves to its infinitudes.
April 18, 2013
Erin Frost’s recent multimedia work, steeped in eroticism, ritual, and performance, culminates in RE/SEMBLANCE, a one night event featuring new video and accompanying polaroids. These transformative vignettes use self-portraits as a point of origin to further her intimate exploration of compulsion, desire, and reinvention.
Erin Frost & Shaun Kardinal
July 5, 2011
There was a time when we created;
Now, we alter.
Erin, trained and experienced in photography,
Destroys, combines and reconstructs her prints, while
Shaun, obsessively compelled by order,
Embroiders shapes and patterns on vintage cards.
Together, connected and cohabited,
A third dimension is revealed.