On Origin, Rocks, and Painting with Fire: A Conversation with Artist Timothy Erickson

Something wonderful has been happening on the walls of my neighborhood coffee joint in Lincoln Square in Chicago. Beans and Bagels is located in a two-story brick building next to Rockwell Station on the Brown Line. You have to go outside and through another door to get to the adjoining sitting area, a small street-front room with two long walls for artwork. Most of the staff are artists of some kind, as are many of their customers. A little over a year ago they challenged each other to a group show. Since then, they’ve taken turns showcasing their individual work, influencing each other, developing their visions as they go.

In late fall of 2016, I sat down with Timothy Erickson to talk about his work and his installation at the cafe, which consisted of a series of miniature paintings of pebbles on white wood blocks that from a distance resemble specimen boxes, and several larger abstract paintings, using a variety of materials and techniques, including fire and soot. While all of the work is elemental, and rocks, pebbles, and flora appear throughout, the culmulative effect was surprisingly ethereal.

Image 1. “Untitled,” soot on illustration board, 5" x 5" (2015)

RS: How did this current show come together? Can you talk about what’s behind it?

TE: During my freshman year of college, I started doing paintings of my memories of Bolivia — I lived in Bolivia for half of my life. My parents are missionaries, and they lived there collectively for twenty years or so. They decided to go back to the States and go to seminary, and from there they went to New Mexico for my dad to get his Master degree, and that’s when my brother was born. Then they tried again, but they couldn’t conceive, so they decided to adopt and went to Bolivia. After they adopted me, they moved to the States for two or three years and then went back to Bolivia for [my] kindergarten through second grade. They’ve been back and forth ever since.

I would say the basis for this show, and the rest of my shows, has been my experience traveling to and from Bolivia. The displacement, the idea of dislocation, I hope, becomes evident in my work. I hope my story relates to those who have had to move too.

This current show is a collection of different projects and experimentations of processes, that may or not be successful.

RS: What did you pick up from the experience that’s coming into your work?

TE: I think for sure the landscapes and the people. The colors and lighting. I remember a professor giving a critique, saying the lights [in my work] are very bright. The sunlight is different. If you live in a high altitude the lighting will be different. In Chicago, the lighting is very flat.

My experience in Bolivia, being around very large mountains, sandy mountains, very raw nature, houses made out of mud, I think that’s what sparked my interest with rocks. Growing up I had a rock collection I loved, so it’s nostalgic too.

Timothy shows me several photos of small rock studies. [See Images 2–7.]

Image 2.

TE: These are all studies of rocks. They are different pebbles I’ve picked up on the way to work and on the way home. I started this project my senior year — my professor wanted us to do some sort of artwork everyday as a practice. I decided to do these rock portraits. I also chose the medium of watercolor. I didn’t like watercolor for a long time, and that forced me to play with it, and work with it, and get used to the new material.

Image 3. “Observation: Pebble 2,” acrylic on mdf block, 3" x 1" x .18" (2015)

RS: Is that why you chose watercolor? Because you were uncomfortable with it?

TE: Yeah. But I was also very comfortable doing rocks. And then that transitioned to doing drawings on three-by-three squares of illustration board, and then they turned into drawings of rocks with graphite and pen, and then they turned into more imaginary watercolor paintings and drawings. I started forming rocks and dirt, growth and shapes.

Image 4. “10.30.2014. 3:40 PM” watercolor on illustration board, 3'’ by 3'’ (2014)

And then I found this artist, Steve Spazuk. He’s a fire painter. He burns the surface of canvas or paper or wood, and it leaves a layer of soot behind, and then he would get a feather or paintbrush or a needle and etch out the image, and I thought that was so cool and so I started doing rock formations, burning them and etching them out and erasing them.

Image 5. “Rock Formation 1,” soot on illustration board, 3'’ by 3'’ (2015)

RS: The way you were talking a minute ago, it was as if you were building those pieces in your mind, rather than painting them. As if you were starting from the inside and building mass. When you started doing the fire painting, were you still thinking of the studies in that way?

TE: I was thinking that doing the fire was a new way of letting go of the medium, easing control.

Image 6. “Rock Formation 2, soot on illustration board, 3” x 3" (2015)
Image 7. “Rock Formation 6,” soot on illustration board, 3" x 3" (2015)

RS: You’re someone who likes to have a lot of control when you work?

TE: Yeah. He laughs. I like to control a lot of things. Maybe a little obsessive too.

Image 8. “Untitled,” soot on mdf block, approx 1" x 1" x 1.18" (2015)

RS: Were you envisioning the shadows on the wall as they are here?

TE: When I first start, I think of them as rocks, the object feel, rather than thinking of the object in the space.

RS: What did you experience during this process, doing these from day to day?

TE: It became a time to calm down and become really engaged with this mundane thing. I remember when I was collecting these rocks, I would take them out of my pocket in the middle of the day and kind of feel it and get used to all the ridges. When I went to work at night it would be easier because I had gotten to know it during the day.

In all, Timothy finished about 70 rock studies, each in about 30 or 40 minutes.

RS: What happened to the rocks in the end?

TE: I actually still have them. Growing exponentially. He laughs. I have a friend who went to Hawaii, and she brought these volcanic rocks with all these colors in them.

RS: With fumage, the paper is covered with soot first, and you’re leaving some of that soot behind?

TE: Anything that is dark is soot.

RS: You don’t worry about deterioration?

TE: Soot doesn’t wipe away. I experimented with different types of fixatives, but then you have droplets and it gives a new surface, and I’m sure these will deteriorate at some point. These [large abstracts on paper in the show. See Image 1 above.] are done with a layer of soot, spraying, and then another layer of soot. Hopefully, the fixative will keep it.

RS: Where are you thinking of going from here?

TE: I’m going back to playing with a rock with different objects. I started doing these other paintings where an object would be either on top or below the rock.

One is a house that I grew up in — we live in the same neighborhood now, but we found out that it burned down a few years ago. So, it was interesting going back there and seeing this space that I grew up in and all the memories, seeing it destroyed and gone. And then a few months later, they built the whole thing back exactly the same, only white instead of brown. They rebuilt it, but it’s not the same house. I was thinking about the weirdness of losing this place, but it’s not yours anymore because you’ve moved on.

RS: It’s not yours anymore, and yet it’s also not what it was. You could spend a lot of time thinking about that because so often when you leave something and come back it looks like a replica of what was in your imagination, and in this case it truly is a replica.

TE: Yeah. That was really an interesting experience for me, and so I decided on a series of paintings where I made houses that burnt down with rock structures underneath, floating in the air, kind of isolated and distant.

Image 9. Burned Series: “Forgotten,” 7" by 11" (2014)

RS: Wow. That’s incredible. When in the process did these emerge?

TE: Almost at the same time I was doing the original rock studies. I did these rock formations. Shows me numerous images of small botanical drawings. These are ballpoint pen drawings playing with different plants specific to Bolivia. This is a chuño, which is a kind of potato plant. And then over here is the coca leaf. And then the national flower of Bolivia the kantuta. [See Image 10 below.]

Image 10. “Kantuta,” ball point pen on wood panel, 6" x 4 1/4" (2013)
Image 11. “11.07.2014 11:00 PM,” graphite, pen and watercolor on illustration board, 3" by 3" (2014)

TE: And then I started playing with what if I put objects underneath these rocks. In this one, I thought what happens if I put the house underneath. I did a little switcheroo and started playing with the weight. Started using the metaphor of the rock for different things that were happening in my life. Something happened in our family that I felt a huge heaviness.

RS: It’s amazing how sticking with one subject and really staying with it over a longer period of time that can make shifts happen.

TE: I’m also trying to figure out why the rock? I’m often asked, Why are you choosing that? I’m still trying to figure that out.

RS: I see so much gray in these rocks, and also these little variations in color. For another artist, it could get boring if you’re not fully engaged, and yet if you stay with that boredom… I mean, look what happened for you.

TE: I think the texture, getting lost doing, that is a practice of being with this object. It’s a repetitive, meditative process.

Timothy shows a self-portrait of himself under one of these rocks.

RS: I’m glad that you’re showing me this additional work because it gives me a much better sense of who you are as an artist, and this is much wider and richer than I knew. Is this portrait more recent?

TE: Yes. It’s still not done.

RS: It’s interesting that you started this in college too. You’re still very young. I know from your point of view it may not feel that way. But to be this directed, to be thinking this deeply, and to have this cohesive of a body of work already is pretty incredible.

TE: Now I’m playing more with not just rocks, but water and rocks, and layers of different things together, fire and rocks and water and soil.

RS: The basic elements. And many of these new ones have so much movement in them. You can feel the sediment and the settling. And you’re working with more color, the turquoise and earth tones, and gray blue. Do you plan far out, or take these ideas as they come?

TE: I think I mostly just follow as things come along. Why plan for something that you can’t change? So, that’s where I am right now.

Image 12. “Converge,” acrylic on canvas, 11" x 14" (2015)

RS: What are some of your other influences?

TE: My professor. I met him my junior year in high school. We just hit it off right away. He was a missionary kid in South Korea.

RS: What’s his name?

TE: Tim Lowly. His work is thought-provoking and deep and very personal. Not dark, but moody. I appreciate that. That inspired me to push myself to be authentic and make work that is personal and put myself out there.

RS: Are there challenges that a younger artist today might face that a more established artist might not have? Or opportunities?

TE: I think because there are so many artists, the competitiveness, especially in the States, it’s pretty tough. What’s been really helpful is being part of a small art community. Rachel [Lindsay] and I are part a group called The Chicago Art Collective. We’re in the midst of finding a name that describes us better. We’re figuring out that still and who we are, but it’s been great to meet every other week and encourage each other to make work.

RS: What advice do you have for artists who aren’t as plugged in as you are?

TE: Find friends. Find a community. Put yourself out there. It is awkward. I think a lot of artists are introverted.

RS: Yes, and yet sometimes you have to do just that.

TE: Yes, especially if it’s the only thing that is making money for you.

RS: So, that’s another question. You’re working here in the cafe. Do you have other jobs as well?

TE: I have other part-time gigs. I work as a graphic designer. I work for my school doing posters for events, and some of my friends, who have hired me to do posters for events, and another friend who wants me to design the cover for his book and the layout. Small gigs here and there.

RS: Does that impact your creative work?

TE: A little bit. My senior year of high school, I started doing graphic design. My teacher was very good. Ever since then I’ve loved that kind of work too, which is very different, because it’s a lot of problem solving, trying to get a message out that is coherent. You can’t go after the mystery of it. Thinking about the construction of the image, the typography, the balance of positive and negative. That has been pretty fun. Another nice outlet for my creative side.

And you meet other artists. And even here [at the café]. I come out to wipe off a table, and meet other illustrators and designers and see what they’re working on and think, wow, that’s pretty cool. It’s been awesome working here.

RS: Favorite place in Chicago?

TE: So many good places. Foster Beach is one of my go-tos. And the riverbeds along the Chicago River.

RS: Other favorite painters?

TE: Alyssa Monks. She does a lot of portraiture. Large paintings. Her painting is very visceral. You just kind of feel it, really intensely. The images are moving and engaging. I’m very careful with paints… because I don’t have a lot of money for supplies. But she’s very bold in her strokes, a lot of layers of paint. You can really tell all the work she puts into it.

RS: That’s interesting… that you have to take these things into consideration when you don’t have a lot of resources. If you really want to let go of control and use tons of paint, it’s going to cost you, which you shouldn’t have to think about. And yet these beautiful paintings came out of your having to make those decisions.

RS: Have you been to any shows around Chicago lately that have moved you?

TE: Kerry James Marshall.

RS: Yes. That show was extraordinary.

TE: So, so good.

RS: It’s been great talking to you, Timothy. Thanks for sharing your work with me.

To see more of Timothy Erickson’s art, visit www.timothyerickson.org .

Read Part 2 of this series: Rescuer of Discarded Objects: A Conversation with Artist Rachel Lindsay.

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