Erin Holscher Almazan Website.
- You are an artist and educator. I can imagine that as an Associate Professor at the University of Dayton you don’t have much time for your own painting. Could you tell us how you compromise those two things? What is more important to you? Do you find your work inspired by working with students? Do you find working with them takes too much time from your own studio time? At this point of your career, if you had a choice to be a full-time artist would you choose that over teaching?
Balancing life as an artist and an educator is challenging. Whether my work or my teaching gets the most attention depends on the time of year and my workload. I don’t teach during the summer, except maybe a two-day workshop here and there, so I am able to dedicate a good deal of time to my work in those months. I go away to a farm that hosts artist workshops/retreats for about 5-6 days every summer to gain some momentum with my work and I manage to sustain that momentum for some time afterward. Teaching and my work are both important to me; I wouldn’t say one is more important than the other. I give an immense amount of energy to teaching, because I enjoy teaching and the relationships that I develop with my students. My work is definitely inspired by being in the classroom. The reciprocal relationship between teacher and student is rewarding in that way. The answer to the last question really depends on the day; some I would prefer to be an artist and just hole up in my studio and not have to deal with the emotionally draining aspects of academia, and other days, I appreciate the roles I play at the university and the community of artists that I work with and how fulfilling those can be. Being in my classes gets me out of my own head.
- In addition to your own work and teaching, you have two sons. Would you mind sharing with us tips on time management?
I wish I had answers. It’s a constant search for equilibrium. During the academic year, my studio time is from 5-7am and the moments I get throughout a day around teaching, committee obligations, and other work. I try to find rhythms that work for me during different periods of my life…right now, my routine is going to bed early and waking early to have a few quiet hours in the morning. I work best in the morning. In the summer, I paint in the garage so that I can be outside and take breaks to play with my boys in the yard. Right now, I have work strewn around the house, so that I can pick things up and work during short, open moments in the day. I am currently working on a series of linoleum cut prints. I can work on cutting at the dining room table or floor while my children play in the living room. My tip on time management is to best adapt to disruption and carve out what little time you can.
- I love your series of paintings, “Am I Living Up to Your Expectations.” Would you tell us a story behind these paintings? What do you expect the viewer to understand from looking at these pieces? Why are they only female figures?
This series is the most excited I have been with a theme in a long time. The series began as a symbolic smashing of the patriarchy in response to both personal and universal experiences (as we’re currently seeing much come to light) with men behaving badly, particularly in positions of power. I was able to gather a few close colleagues for a documented performance of this symbolic smashing, by bare-handedly destroying and devouring cake. I chose cake because I see it as an innately and symbolically feminine object that raises issues around women’s relationships with food, and is associated with domestic life and celebration. This work began as a response to patriarchal constructs in the art and academic worlds, but evolved into a broader, more complex and multi-faceted body of work, in which sexual undertones, the need for approval, and our identities are all embedded. I’d like to continue this body of work, to include a broader range of women; the first included a few close colleagues that I knew would be able to get into the idea. It was amazing to see where they took it, which was in directions that I could not have anticipated, but made for some brilliant photos. This project has stimulated the curiosity and interest of a lot of women in my neighborhood and art community, which excites me about future possibilities with the project. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect…the activity itself was wild and entertaining, but as I began to use the images, I started to see the depth and possibilities with it. And it has nothing to do with cake; the cake was the catalyst for something more complex and serious. I was initially excited about the cake and the palette, but I’m now at a point, with the linoleum cuts, that I am more interested in developing the narrative around the dynamics of groups of women.
- Do you consider yourself a painter or printmaker? How important is it for you to distinguish these mediums or connect them in your practice?
I’ve wrestled with how I identify with any label and have found that I am more comfortable thinking of myself as an artist. My first true love in life is drawing. My background is primarily in drawing and printmaking and those are the disciplines in which I teach at the University of Dayton. I came back to painting about 4-5 years ago after many years of declaring that I hated painting. It took me some time to realize that I was terrified of and overwhelmed by color. My world was blown wide open when I took a figure-painting workshop taught by a dear friend. I was finally able to wrap my head around color in a way that I hadn’t before, thanks to her teaching, and it completely transformed my relationship with color and with painting.
I used to struggle with connecting my work in different disciplines, but I worry less about it now. I am dedicated to my art-making practice, but I allow myself to learn and try new things. I am still evolving and becoming a person and an artist. I can’t imagine doing the same thing for years and years…I’m only 40 years old and if I’m really lucky, I might have another 40. It’s amazing to think about all you can learn and do in that amount of time. I have to be excited about what I am making, so I allow myself to gravitate towards the process that best suits me at that time. I also have to respond to limitations. I tend to move back and forth between drawing, printmaking, and painting, depending on the concept, theme, timing, or desire for immediacy. It depends on how accessible the press at the print studio is at the university. It also depends on the time of year, as I prefer oil paints, but cannot use oils in my basement studio at home. No matter what, I always find a way to make my work. I’m good at adapting.
- I can see in your work influence from your personal life. I am specifically referring here to the series “Letdown”. How do you approach your subject matter?
My personal life influences my work and the “Letdown” series is particularly meaningful. I began “Letdown” by having my husband document me nursing our youngest son. The word letdown, in this context, refers both to the body letting go of milk in response to a baby’s need and my own nostalgia for the early years of my children’s lives. My son is a bit older in the series, as I nursed each of my children for over two years. This series captures the bittersweet nature of nursing and weaning my last child, which was more emotional for me than I expected. I was ready to have my body back as my own, but I also knew this was the last time I would experience this in my life. There is such beauty in the fleeting moments with my children and I think that this is one of the few series I’ve made that encompasses that.
My work is my way of making sense of my world and often this occurs in a backwards sort of way…I’ll begin a series and I will only see what I was dealing with after it is finished, which is such a magical thing. There is always some initial thought or impetus driving the work, but the fullness of it usually hits me later. I use self-portraiture often, as I am always available when I need me. I rely on reference photos for my work, which gives me the freedom to include other people, particularly women in my life. Although my work is autobiographical, I include other women to carry a theme and to make the concept more accessible. Since I identify as female, my work is primarily driven by my experience as a woman.
- How would you define a successful artist?
Success means different things to different artists. I constantly question and doubt myself and challenge myself to make my best work. I continually put my work out there for exhibition. I also wrestle with being a figurative artist, but people and relationships are what fascinate me the most and being true to who I am as an artist and making work with honesty is the only way for me to sustain my practice.
I feel most content, and most successful, when I have managed some sense of balance with my work and how it fits into the greater scope of my life; when I’ve made good work and had opportunities to share the work, when I’ve had good classes, meaningful interactions with students, and made contributions to the institution, and when I’ve been a good parent, partner, daughter, and friend to the important people in my life.
I don’t like to quantify my success, but I have to for some aspects of my work as a professor. I see the ebb and flow that occurs with being an artist and some years are better than others. I do continually submit my work for exhibitions and set goals for myself. I’m not comfortable with self-promotion and I don’t like social media, which I know limits me in some ways. I say that, however, as someone who doesn’t rely on selling my work for income. I know that my definition of what success means to me would be different if that were the case. Considering I balance making with teaching and other roles I have at the university, I measure my success by maintaining that balance and feeling satisfied with my contributions in all areas.
- What is your next step as an artist?
My next step is to build a studio in my backyard. My current spaces are split up between my home and the university, and my home space is rather austere. I’ve spent the last thirteen years in basement studios and I’m ready for fresh air and natural light. I am looking at outfitting a large shed to serve as my year-round studio. We have a space behind our garage that is waiting for me.
- What advice would you give to new graduate students?
Oh, I always have too much to say to my dearest students when they head off to graduate school, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. Graduate school is just the beginning of a (hopefully) lifelong relationship with making work. Take advantage of as many opportunities and resources as you can, take risks, and nurture the relationships that you have with your peers and professors. Surround yourself with good friends who can build you up or take you down a notch. Be prepared to have terrible days in the studio. Allow yourself to fail and make bad work. Don’t feel like you have to have everything figured out. And above all else, maintain a sense of humility…it is one of the most important human attributes.