Erika Shallcross is a visual artist based in New York. A photographer, painter, and collage technician, her pieces are whimsical and evocative. Regularly experimenting with new techniques and touching on various themes, Shallcross believes these parameters simultaneously anchor, free, and guide her work.
Interview with the Artist
When did you first begin making art? What was your first medium?
Well, I certainly made my fair share of crayon drawings like any other kid, but the first real piece of art I created was a papier-mâché fish. I can still remember wetting the fluffy, pulverized newspaper and thoughtfully molding the pulp into its shape with my hands. That fish has sat upon many bookshelves and mantles over the decades and I’m so used to seeing it that I don’t often think about it.
Who were your early inspirations as an artist? Who are your biggest inspirations today?
When I was in elementary school, my mother was an art enrichment volunteer. They called her “the picture lady” while I called her Mom. We’d view reproductions of famous works that she’d lug in from a storage closet near the main office, learn about the artist and his techniques, then share our untrained art critic thoughts. As a child, Picasso’s pieces, the way he constructed portraits, pieced them together, almost like a collage, always struck me. In middle school, I also learned of Romare Bearden’s work and realized collage was as valid an expression of art as any other medium. In the painting arena, Winslow Homer’s “Moonlight” is one of my favorites and I always have a mind to reimagine it in a collage, but I’m afraid I won’t do it justice. Lately, I’ve been inspired by the work of Mark Bradford. I’m currently working on a piece that employs his technique of layering and allowing the image to reveal itself through intentional tearing.
What draws you to the subject matter you choose?
One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t force, will, or manifest inspiration. That said, there are times when I truly want and need to be working on something, even if I am not feeling particularly creative. That’s when I might challenge myself to complete an ambitious project. This usually takes the form of a portrait of a notable or historic building or my interpretation of a famous painting. It requires me to be faithful to the source material and there is a level of accountability that keeps me focused, especially if I intend for it to be a gift. Ultimately, those are incredibly rewarding. Its similarity to the original is proof of a job well done. There’s a certain pride in that for me because I had to use my ingenuity and imagination to make it happen in my chosen medium. When inspiration does strike, it tends to be the materials that influence the idea and not the other way around. A lot of my work tends to be centered on women’s issues, which matter a great deal to me. This likely means I’m subconsciously looking for what seemingly finds me.
What does the process of art-making look like for you? From what you consider the “beginning” of a piece to what you consider the “finished” piece?
A work session always begins with me on the floor surrounded by my materials. I try to work at a table, but it isn’t as easy to swivel my body to reach for my glue or my blade or a particular magazine. I can spread my scraps out, create piles, have snacks to one side and a coffee on the other. Everything’s accessible. At the start of a collage, it’s all very experimental. I’ll test things out, move things around, maybe take reference photos. But once I’m in the zone, my fingers have a mind of their own and autopilot is in full effect. I can suddenly recall where I shoved a random scrap into a magazine six months ago that would be perfect for this exact project. When things start winding down, it’s crucial for me to step away for a bit. I beg my dog not to trample the mess I left on the carpet and I go do something else. When I return, almost always, I add or take something away. Fresh eyes bring clarity.
What draws you to collage? What other mediums, if any, do you work in, and what influences your choice of medium when beginning a new work?
Not only do I enjoy the unique aesthetic of collage and the creative challenges it imposes, but I love that you can reshuffle, rearrange, and rework. That flexibility is freeing. I am also a photographer who shoots portraits and street photography. You know, once the shutter clicks, that moment in time has passed. You may very well have gotten the perfect shot. And if you didn’t, you can ask for a different pose or another try. You can take another snap of that stranger, but that magic moment might be gone. That’s the nature of photography and there’s a beauty in that. With collage, however, you create and construct your own reality as opposed to capturing reality. But, let’s be honest: not only is reality a relative term, reality is a construct.
Where do you find your collage materials?
Fewer people read magazines these days, which makes checking out your neighbors’ recycling less fruitful. Thrift stores are a great resource. As a book lover, destroying books for art will always feel wrong. But if a book is falling apart, brittle, and coming out of its binding, I’ll consider it. I’m always on the hunt for vintage paper; eBay and flea markets often have great stuff, but can be pricey. Anything can become part of my work. Dried tea bags, bark, blurry Polaroids, candy wrappers. It’s hard sometimes to convince people I’m not just a hoarder of tiny bits of trash.
In your biography, you self-refer as a “collage technician.” How do you identify with that term and/or how would you describe it?
Technician feels more accurate. I find that many people think collage is just ripping up paper without a plan and slapping it down willy-nilly. In actuality, a great deal of thought and precision goes into it. Some of my larger works take months to complete. There is often a great deal of research, measuring, composing, color work, and the tedious task of meticulously carving the tiniest details. It’s far more technical and requires more expertise than people might realize.
How do you choose what parameters to impose upon yourself when making?
I don’t have too many rules for myself and perfection, as impossible as it is to define, is not what I’m striving for. My main goal is to experiment, challenge myself, and have fun. Some pieces simply don’t work out, and that’s okay. I don’t usually feel even a twinge of sadness if I have to crumple it up and chuck it into the bin. You can always start over. And, though I consider myself an analog artist, I am not averse to popping my work into Photoshop to fix a mistake.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
You can find me on Instagram @newyorkpaperarts
© Variant Literature Inc 2021