Erika Whitney: Inside the Artist’s Studio

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Inside the Artist’s Studio

Wildflowers: Erika Whitney

Derrick White

Teaching art is a rewarding experience. Bearing witness to students gaining the confidence to express themselves freely is extraordinary. Having had a positive impact on the life of another person’s creative journey is probably the greatest satisfaction that comes with the gig, and it is meaningful when former students reach out and let me know they are applying something of value they gained from taking one of my classes. Please thank a former teacher who made an impression on your life. I am sure there are plenty to choose from. As an arts educator, it is thrilling to see the way former students are going out and making an impression on our local visual arts community as well as around the state and across the country. I conducted an informal poll a few years ago and the number of former Tyler Junior College art students who teach visual art at some level, locally and beyond, was staggering. Let me introduce you to one of my favorites, Erika Whitney.

“I started my art education at Tyler Junior College. I had no clue what was ahead of me when I started there but that is where I was encouraged to explore and paint anything I wanted to. I found my excitement for color and non-objective painting at TJC. I was so comfortable in the art department I did not want to go to my other courses. I worked as a student assistant in the art department and met mentors I still reach out to for advice. I met Philana Oliphant, she was inspiring and someone I still look up to and try to model myself after as a professor,” states artist and professor Erika Whitney. She continues, “After finishing at TJC, I worked to earn my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Texas at Tyler. There, I studied with Jim Pace and Alexis Serio. I continued to explore materials and found my love for interdisciplinary art-making. I was encouraged to go to graduate school, and I enrolled at the University of Houston where I earned my Master of Fine Arts degree. I continued to explore materials and found I most enjoyed working with bright colors and shaped surfaces and also gained experience as a professor.”

Erika’s artwork is colorful and free-flowing. It is intuitive and will sometimes create playful and engaging optical illusions. There is whimsy in the compositions, and they simply bring more joy into the world. That’s commendable. Whitney makes art using various materials including watercolor, acrylic, and oil as well as some found materials, wood, fabrics, plaster, and canvas. She describes, “I make non-objective paintings. A lot of times the paintings are sculptural and extend past the rectangle. While my work leans into non-objective, I still reference everyday life, looking at negative spaces for inspiration. I feel the experience of making work is much like living life. The way my paintings are created involves improvised responses and a deep knowledge of how materials work in what I call a file cabinet of moves I have developed over time. In life, we are constantly making a series of choices. Some are simple like taking a sip of coffee. Others are more complex, and we have to weigh the consequences and think about how they will affect our lives. Depending on what our day has been like will influence those choices. I hope the viewer will feel an authentic emotion while looking at my work.”

Like many artists, Erika has been exploring her inventiveness since childhood. She remembers, “I have always needed to be creative. I always felt what I saw around me was not enough, so I had to create to feel satisfied. I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer but quickly realized I didn’t have the patience for sewing. It wasn’t until I went to TJC that I started understanding what being an artist could be like. When I was a kid, there were two passions in my life, making things and basketball. I was a serious basketball player from age eleven to sixteen but once I realized I wouldn’t be able to play college basketball I quit the dream of playing in the WNBA and switched my focus to going to college for art. I am so happy I permitted myself to go to school for something seen by some, especially in East Texas, as just a hobby and not a job.” 

In discussing her studio practice Whitney states, “The amount of time to be able to spend in my studio is not enough. After working and being a human in the world, I do not always have the energy I need and want to spend time making things.” Erika adds, “If I am not feeling motivated in my studio it usually comes out in cooking or teaching. I love creating but just looking and being around it is exciting and fuels me in a way I do not think anything else can. It has opened my eyes to all the inspiration around me. I learned a lot when I took Art Appreciation. It was life appreciation, and it was also a Film Studies course. I found my love for film and learned how to see the world with a new lens. This love of movies is something I think was always on the tip of my tongue, but I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. It is an honor to be able to pass this knowledge along to my students now.” 

Erika concludes, “I am a professor at Sam Houston State and live in Houston. I love the art scene in Houston and the arts community. Some students ask if graduate school is worth it, and it really depends on your goals, but my answer is always yes. I for one would not be a professor and would not have found my community without it. I am an introvert, but I think it is possible to find your people without going to school by being engaged in the art world and putting yourself out there. Always apply to shows and make daily drawings.”

“I appreciate the compliment because I crave praise…but what really strikes me as amazing is that the time she spent in my class mattered to her. I just think it’s remarkable that my job allowed me to come into contact with this person’s life and maybe have an impact on it.  I am reminded once again that what I do is important, and I get a profound satisfaction from having been any kind of influence at all on somebody, and I think, well, yes, I hate the burnouts and moron administrators, and giving grades and having to not lose stuff, but this is a really great gig.” – Losing My Faculties by Brendan Halpin.

Learn more about Erika Whitney at @erikawhitneyg 

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