We at Grimoire Magazine are delighted to feature the work of Houston-based painter Erin Silver. We caught up with Erin recently to discuss influences on her work, the appeal of superstition, and the best kinds of ghost stories.
To begin, could you speak to your influences — what artists have made the most impact on your work, and how?
I think I was 13 or 14 when a school field trip to the art museum brought the early surrealist painters onto my radar. It introduced me to the type of art that truly captured my attention and made me want to pick up a paint brush. I loved the eerie landscapes and spaces created by Dali, Max Ernst, and Frida Kahlo. As with so many others, they were my gateway drug into art. I fell in love with surrealism because it seemed you could hide deeply personal symbols and ideas into a painting and they would be disguised by the absurdity of the bigger picture. I found that idea liberating; there was security in the fact that nobody else had to understand the full meaning. Later on I became interested in figural work and the two artists that stood out to me were Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The way they played with flat vs. fleshed out and well rendered was endlessly inspiring to me and has had a huge impact on the way I paint— always combining the two looks, some of the elements more rendered and three-dimensional, while other aspects are flat patterns or just broad expanses of blank background. These are the artists that I return to again and again for direction and inspiration.
You work seems to be interested in the symbolism and superstition of the Victorian era. What is it is about that era, and about superstition in general, that appeals to you?
When a society sets out to repress or make taboo certain aspects of humanity, those very aspects just end up becoming obsessions. I think that the Victorian era was all about appearing pleasant, proper, and above certain base interests and instincts...but sex, death, and the unknown will always be fascinating and there’s no use pretending like those things don’t play a role in everyday life. So in turn, Victorians (at least some of them) became obsessed with these things. They created elaborate and morbid mourning rituals, they tried to find ways to communicate with the dead, they fetishized their bodies and molded them into extreme shapes with corsets and bustles. It just seems like a bizarre time to have lived through. I’m drawn to that era because there was so much still unknown, science was heading in the right direction, but superstition still seemed to have a strong hold on people. It seems like it was a kind of last gasp of western culture paying close and serious attention to death and the rituals around it, the idea of ghosts, the idea that very little is in our control and the unknown and unexplainable is just a reality of life.
Do you have any favorite ghost stories?
Of course! I tend to get attached to stories with a strong melancholic atmosphere. An emphasis on isolation, and drawn out ambiguity as to whether a thing is a true haunting or the product of a tortured mind also seem to be common themes in my favorites. "The Wendigo" by Algernon Blackwood, "Green Tea" by Sheridan Le Fanu (actually the entirety of In a Glass Darkly), "The Whistling Room" by William Hope Hodgson, and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft to name a few.
Your work is very haunting, even as it uses bright and saturated colors and sometimes even traditionally cheerful imagery, such as birds and flowers. Could you talk about these choices, and speak more about the “gently strange” feeling you want viewers to experience through your work?
This sort of returns to the idea of hiding deeply personal symbols or emotional content in plain view. Although it's a little embarrassing to discuss, a lot of what I choose to paint is informed by situations taking place in my life. Obviously I’m not painting the realistic situations, but the elements I use, a bird, a scorpion, a letter, a coffin, they’re all stand-ins for people, places, and feelings happening around me. As cliche as it is, I’m often working through my issues as I’m creating a painting. So a slightly dark or threatening element might be surrounded by a burst of bright background color or a protective circle of thorned flowers. There’s a little battle going on in each painting between anxiety, fear, whatever is hurting me at the time, and ultimately hope, battle armor made of things that are soft and good and bright. I think that’s where the “gentle strangeness” occurs: in the juxtaposition of those two forces and the fact that they’re veiled behind creatures and objects that don’t always go together. I think that even if a person can’t decipher my personal narrative in the painting, the elements can still be vehicles for the viewer to insert their own experiences into. They can project their own stories onto the characters and objects and walk away still getting the gist of what the painting was made to represent.
We definitely noticed the influence of traditional tattoo flash and tarot cards on your paintings. What is it about these visual languages that appeals to you?
For starters, both Tarot and traditional tattoo are designed to say a lot with a little space. The symbolism is often universal, bold, and easily readable. What specifically appeals to me about Tarot cards is the symbolic language and use of archetypes. No matter the deck, no matter the style of art, you know what to look for. Is there water present? Is there a certain animal? Is this a king? The body language, all of these things have meaning and any one of them could be the thread that allows you to connect to a card. With tattoo, it's a bit more open ended. A tattoo can be extremely meaningful or purely for decoration, and both work. I spent a brief couple of years working as a tattoo artist and my absolute favorites to create were bold, colorful, and meaningful to the client. A tattoo can be a badge of honor, a battle scar, a memory, a reinvention of yourself. That’s strong medicine. Even with the broader freedom of a larger canvas, I’m still compelled to use that language. It just feels familiar and potent to me.
What projects are you working on right now? Where can folks find and purchase your work?
At the moment, I’m turning my focus back to figural work. Sticking with a lot of the same symbolism and eclectic elements but with a slightly more realistic feel. It's a bit of a departure visually from this last batch, but definitely working off the same concepts and personal narrative.
Erin Silver's work can be found at ERINSILVERSTUDIO.COM, and you can purchase prints and original paintings in the shop section of that website. You can also keep up with Erin's work by following her on instagram @ecsilver.