Erin Jane Nelson is Atlanta based artist and writer, she is also the Publisher and Director of Burnaway, a non-profit magazine of contemporary art in the American South. We talked about her recent work, favourite mediums, 3 projects that she finds the most formative, as well as her routine and rituals as an artist.
Erin Jane Nelson is represented by DOCUMENT and Chapter NY.
Currently, I am working on a series of new, very large ceramic wall sculptures for the 2021 New Museum Triennial. It’s been a slow and exciting process of scaling my work up and re-building my practice after the trauma of the pandemic. The last year has made me want to radically rethink the pace and tone of my work which has been my main focus for the last six months.
You work with very diverse types of mediums. Do you have a favourite one at the moment and why?
For years, all of my work started in photography and image-making which was my first love. The substrate those images ended up on—fabric, ceramic, wood panels, etc—always felt like the secondary decision. However, I recently was fortunate enough to build out my own ceramics studio after relying on shared or community clay studios for years. As I’ve been unable to travel and make photographs due to COVID, I have become enamored with clay and have really been focusing on ceramic sculpture and glaze techniques lately. I am also very timidly starting to experiment with video and moving image work.
Beebath, 2020. Pigment prints, found photograph, copper, lichen, and ecopoxy on glazed stoneware
After a decade of renting and moving spaces and living in apartments, I bought a house last Summer and I have been slowly turning it into a live/work space. The house has a classic suburban American two-car garage which is where the ceramic studio lives, and a decent sized basement which serves as a general work space. In the backyard, there is a very large 1,000 square foot shed that I am hoping to renovate in the coming years to be a freestanding studio building. My husband Jason Benson is also an artist, so really our studio practices spill into all corners of the house including the garden, the living room, the kitchen, etc.
My work is so rooted in slow, labor intensive materials like textiles and clay. The module ceramic works take about 50 hours to complete between sculpting and glazing. So, mostly my ritual is listening to audiobooks while I work which is great because I have little time to sit down and read in the traditional sense. It feels like the contents of the books can seep into the work sometimes. I’ve been listening to a lot of Southern Gothic literature, speculative science fiction, and non-fiction books about ecology (especially fungus and plants) lately, and I think that will be very apparent once the work is shown.
Tell us a little about a project, an artwork, an encounter, an event that particularly affected or influenced your practice and work.
Three projects that come to mind which are all from different, very formative points in my life. The first is Moyra Davey’s book “Long Life, Cool White” which a professor recommended I read in college. I bought the book and have cherished it for over a decade now. It was one of the first examples to me of an approach to photography that was tender and concerned with smallness and messiness, and it flew in the face of a sort of grand masculine approach to documentary and environmental portraiture that was very popular at the time. The second is John Luther Adams’ 2014 orchestral composition “Become Ocean” which I learned about by listening to an episode of the radio show “Meet the Composer” with him. The way he described transforming grand existential dread about the climate collapse into a formal, restrained, simple piece of music really gave me an understanding of how I could engage with my own environmental anxiety through my work. The third experience was visiting Joe Minter’s African Village in Birmingham, Alabama a couple of years ago. I went alone and he walked me through the space and explained the meaning behind each of the works. This helped me realize the importance of living entangled with your work and ideas and history over the course of a lifetime. It is easy to get swept into the capitalist pace and intensity of the art world sometimes, but really I believe that art making should feel like a lifelong project. It doesn’t need to always conform to the gallery space, or the pace of art fairs, or the logic of a discreet body of work. Minter is engaged in a project of documenting and healing from generations of trauma, of building an autonomous environment for his work to exist within, and creating a space to share with visitors in a way I respect and admire tremendously.
American Artist’s project “Looted” was one of the most powerful and brilliant online projects I’ve ever seen. It said so much about the politics of the art world, of large institutions, of the colonial project of collecting in such a simple gesture. I think it’s the most important work of art made in the last year.
You currently live in Atlanta. Why have you decided to be based in this city? What’s your favourite thing about it and your favourite places?
I grew up in Atlanta and moved away when I was seventeen to go to art school. It never occurred to me that I might one day return, but after nine years living in New York and San Francisco, there was something about the South that drew me back. In my early twenties I developed severe anxiety, agoraphobia, and depression that was often triggered by environmental instability and crowded tense urban spaces. The droughts and fires and violence of rapid displacement from the tech industry in Oakland where I lived put me over the edge and made me long for a landscape and climate that felt more stable and familiar to me. As a very solitary person, I also wanted more space and more privacy to make my work without the pressures and social influences of scenes like New York or LA.
Atlanta is a strange, dysfunctional, beautiful city that is not well-understood by the art world. It is one of the most diverse art communities I’ve ever been a part of and I think there are dozens of under-appreciated emerging and established artists working here. It’s also a tremendously green place, nicknamed “the city in the forest,” a proximity to wildness and nature has always been very influential to my work.
You are the director of and contributor to Burnaway, a digital magazine about contemporary art and criticism in and from American South. Can you tell us more about this role?
Although my work often comes across as a very personal and material engagement with object-making that may not feel super political, I have always felt that there is so much work to be done to create more equitable, decentralized, and artist-driven institutions and organizations. Burnaway has been an opportunity for me to work in service of other artists and thinkers to that end. For the most part, perceptions towards contemporary art of the South have always been tinged with an incredible amount of classism and racism, or the South has been fetishized by the art world as either a romantic subject for white photographers like Sally Mann and William Eggleston, or a place to find so-called “untrained” folk art. But the south is actually so much more complex and interesting and influential than that. The world has loved to embrace and appropriate the region’s food and music, but art from the South is still extraordinarily under-represented in museum collections and publications and art history and biennials. Although Burnaway has been around for thirteen years, my focus as the director for the last two and a half has been to build a platform that could elevate the dialogue and understanding of what the region contributes to contemporary art and culture. This is not work I do alone or work I am solely qualified to speak on, but I’m happy to have had a hand in facilitating it.