k2 Artisan Series: Q & A with Erin Hardy

Erin Hardy’s Work is Based on Innovation Rooted in  Authenticity

Artist Erin Hardy hopes to take the craft of upholstery to a different level, where a piece of furniture is thought of as a canvas for creative exploration in addition to being a functional object. She is the organizer of the “Murmuration” installation at k2 Studio that opens to the public on February 15 and runs through March 15; it is the first in a series of shows called The Recovery Project. We’re looking forward to the show and thank Erin for her time as she shares her views on the juxtaposition of the old with the new, art, craft, environmentalism, and social activism.

You work in fabric and upholstery, creating accessories and furniture. Please tell us a bit about your background and training.
I started upholstering in 2009. Previously, I owned a salon that included a body-modification studio (tattoos, piercing, permanent makeup, etc.) and when the economy took a dive, all of those luxury services were the first things to go. I closed up shop and quickly realized that if I didn’t find something else to turn my attention to, then my inclination toward creativity and entrepreneurialism might never recover. While flipping though an AB Tech course catalogue, I felt drawn to the upholstering classes. I’ll never forget tearing down my first project and really wondering whether or not I’d be capable of putting it back together. I did, and I did it well. Newly inspired, I took several more classes before my friend and mentor, Mike Suder, asked me to come and work for him. Eventually, I branched out on my own and have been working with private clients and reinterpreting and modernizing antique designs on a retail basis for the last several years.

The fabric art is the newest evolution of my craft. So far, my multi-media fabric creations have included the work of Ishmael, a local muralist and fine artist. In the process of upholstering, I generate a lot of fabric remnants that would typically end up in the landfill. I repurpose those scraps by using them to create figures, many of them 3-dimensional and origami-like, and Ishmael paints the landscape for my characters. It’s a very new and different genre, but we’re confident that our collaborative effort will find a place in Asheville’s artistic landscape.

Upholstery is a very physical medium. What attracts you to it?
I am somewhat of an instant gratification kind of girl. When you’re creating an image on a canvas or a wall, there’s a lot of subjectivity that goes into evaluating the quality of work. Not so with upholstering. It’s either done well or it’s not, and you don’t need to have a degree to determine the difference. I really enjoy the formulaic parts of upholstering. I like the structure and predictability of it. Having said that, I also enjoy taking those fairly static processes and incorporating less traditional methods of evaluating the artistry of the product. Hand-painted upholstered furniture isn’t very common, which is surprising to me. I suppose that my ultimate goal is to encourage artists to took at upholstered furniture as a 3-dimensional and functional canvas.

You also reinvent furniture, transforming antique pieces. How does this process start? Do you see something in the structure of a piece that sparks your imagination?
I enjoy working with antiques largely because they don’t make furniture like they used to. I think most people would be disappointed to know how very basic modern furniture is constructed. Particle board and petroleum-based materials covered with off-gassing upholstery. I love working with antiques because each piece is constructed differently, depending upon which materials were readily available at the time. I love to see old jute and horse-hair stuffing when I tear a piece down. And I will always put it all back in (provided it hasn’t been damaged by mold or rot) in order to authenticate the age of the piece. I really enjoy putting a modern spin on antiques and their ancient interiors by utilizing bright and highly contrasting color schemes. I like the juxtaposition that it creates.

You have an ongoing collaboration with Ishmael, one of Asheville’s well-known graffiti artists. Tell us a little about the pieces the two of you are working on, and how the act of collaborating affects the creative process when two artists are developing a shared vision.
I have known Ishmael for a long time and trust his vision and talent implicitly. I can’t speak to how it will be to work with other artists, as I haven’t yet endeavored to do so. But Ishmael and I work together well. Thus far, we haven’t really disagreed on much in terms of how we want to bring across our ideas. We have a very similar outlook on life and appreciate the strengths we both respectively possess when it comes to bringing forth our values in an artistic fashion. We give each other the space to contribute to the piece the way we see fit. There is definitely some back and forth conversation that happens in terms of how best to achieve our common vision, but in the end, our aesthetic senses seem to be on par with one another.

Your work seems to be a natural fit with the k2 Studio aesthetic that values creativity and craftsmanship. How did you make the connection with k2? 
I approached Kim at K2 shortly after I had branched out on my own. I had been in K2 before and love Kim’s taste and the way she uses space. I think her innate sense of good feng shui is spot on. I found an awesome antique chair on Craigslist, tore it down and recovered it in a really funky indie tapestry print. Again, I really enjoy the aesthetic that results from the marriage of the modern and the antique. I brought the chair to her and asked her if she would sell it for me. It was a weird piece, for sure, in part because it sat really close to the ground. She definitely lifted an eyebrow at my chair, as it was so unusual, but she saw what I saw: a functional and completely unique work of art. She warned me that it was going to take a while to sell, as it was the type of piece that was going to appeal to a very specific individual. Sure enough, she was right. It sat on the floor a few months, but it found a home with a couple who adored it. The work that I generate is definitely outside the “norm” in terms of either upholstering or decorative art. I guess my goal is to merge the two, as I have a deep connection to both. Kim sees my vision and encourages and supports me, doing her part to find a market for what is essentially unexplored territory.

Please tell us about The Recovery Project and the overall theme of escaping captivity.
The Recovery Project is the altruism in me, escaping through my physical and professional outlets. I struggle on a very personal level with many aspects of environmental degradation and social oppression and the myriad causes behind them. I have spent years trying to find my place as an activist for positive change in an increasingly apathetic world. I believe that The Recovery Project is the product of finding my activist voice. As a culture of convenience and entitlement, we have created a set of completely erroneous ideas surrounding our personal ability to create lasting and positive change. We tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter whether or not we recycle because we are just one among so many. We turn away from inconvenient truths because there are professionals who know more about it than we do and claim that there is no cause for alarm. As we fortress ourselves against outside threats, so too do we imprison ourselves, hindering our ability to act with real intention. We have created a culturally sanctioned mental cage.

The concept of the show hinges on the notion that escaping this cage is essential to achieving our highest selves. The imagery that Ishmael and I—and many other contributing artists—are working with is of birds leaving a cage, though we have invited other interpretations of the same idea. (In an interesting parallel with the show, my collaborator the artist Ishmael takes his name from the book Ishmael, written by Daniel Quinn. The premise of the book deals with escaping culturally endorsed mental captivity.)

We’re looking forward to the “Murmuration” installation at k2 Studio from Feb. 15 to March 15, the first in a series of shows in The Recovery Project. How did this show come together, and what do you envision as the series continues?

“Murmuration” is the first show in a series because recognizing the need and having the desire to escape metal captivity are only the first steps toward actually creating change. The shows to follow “Murmuration” will deal with more specific subject matter as an opportunity for people to learn about some ways in which they can turn their ideas into action. The subject that we will be looking at for the mid-spring installation is the plight of the honeybee. As a tremendous bee enthusiast, this portion of The Recovery Project is very near and dear to my heart. I am working with local apiarists to launch an “Adopt-a-Hive” program that will enable people to support the bees (who are responsible, by the way, for 70% of the world’s food supply) without actually having to don a veil and step into the midst of thousands of stinging insects.

Not many are aware that Asheville is also Bee City, USA, in addition to being (formerly and imminently) Beer City, USA. The first, in fact; the initiative is geared toward increasing awareness about the importance of  pollinators to a healthy, sustainable ecosystem.  My goal with the bee show is to encourage people to invest (literally) in the future of the honeybee—indistinguishable from the future of the human.

Photos courtesy Erin Hardy

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