Traditional methods, contemporary topics

Philadelphia artist Erin Riley depicts issues facing young women today through her weaved tapestries.

Artist Erin Riley portrays selfies and mirror shots in her work and has an exhibit at the Paradigm Gallery and Studio in Philly. | LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ TTN
Artist Erin Riley portrays selfies and mirror shots in her work and has an exhibit at the Paradigm Gallery and Studio in Philly. | LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ TTN

Erin Riley was browsing through an online forum when she came across a video that stirred something inside of her.

“It was these two people on a road and then a car comes by and it crashes,” said Riley, a Philadelphia-based artist. “You can tell there’s more people around and they’re all camera-phoning the accident, but there’s humans inside of this car and no one’s doing anything. I think it made me realize that so much of how we live is behind a screen and when something is right in front of us we can’t break from that.”

Combining traditional methods of weaving while depicting modern situations, Riley uses her art to tell the stories of young people, specifically women, by highlighting the little moments. Not only do the pieces display intimate moments, but creating them is also an intimate process with pieces taking anywhere from 40 to 80 hours to complete, not including prep work.

“It’s what a weaver would make if they were 27 years old and grew up on the Internet,” Riley said. “There’s always this conversation of, ‘why are you a weaver?’ I think my work is two-dimensional, it could be referred to as paintings, but the weaving part of it is just how I’ve connected to make it work.”

Hickeys, bong hits, selfies and used condoms are among some of the subjects Riley showcases in her work.

“I’m super drawn to images of girls where it shows they put a lot of effort into themselves to take the picture, and yet there’s always this weird thing going on in the background,” Riley said. “I like the details [in] selfies, self-portraits [and] mirror pictures, also party girl pictures. Pictures of either girls passed out or girls drinking [make me feel] sort of like the voyeur of the vulnerable person you shouldn’t really be looking at, but there’s documentation of that all over the Internet.”

The emergence of picture and video sharing smart phone applications like Instagram and Snapchat, along with searching through Facebook photo albums, has been a large inspiration for drafting pieces, Riley said.

As of now, Riley does not plan on including men as subjects for her pieces.

“I don’t do men. I think it’s more important to do things from my perspective,” Riley said. “I don’t really know what it’s like to be a guy. Unless there was a piece where I did have some guys and I think it was important as far as the [message].”

Growing up as social media was entering the mainstream, Riley said, has also had an impact on how she lives her life today.

“I think growing up on the Internet – as a 14-year-old who was learning, developing on the Internet – I realize that so much of how I date and how I interact with other people is through Facebook and the Internet,” Riley said. “I’m super inspired, but also a little bit worried and interested in how there’s all these different things and all these different Tumblrs and websites dedicated to collecting [images of] girls. It’s a bizarre world.”

Before depicting the lives of young women today, Riley’s weaving focused on her family throughout her undergraduate years at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Riley has since earned her Master of Fine Arts at Temple.

“I have two sisters, and I grew up with a single mom, and [I was] just [influenced by the idea of] what is a woman, how to be sexual and respectful,” Riley said. “Back then I was working more toward daddy issues, stepfather things and drug addiction – both of my sisters were then struggling with drug addiction so I was obsessing over it personally, so in my art it was very reflective.”

Riley added that through her work she was able to create conversation within her family, and it led her to explore the topics she depicts today.


“Just the idea that college girls start with drinking, and in my family it went from drinking to drugs, but in many cases it doesn’t do that,” Riley said. “What I was interested in seeing was this party girl thing where maybe it does go wrong or maybe they do start experiencing other things or darker things.”

In the future Riley said she believes her pieces will begin taking on a more serious tone.

“My work is changing, I think it’s going to be a little more serious, a little more grown up,” Riley said. “My work changes [whether or not] I’m in a relationship, too. When I’m single it feels a lot more sexual because I am a little freer because of dating and seeing new people. Now I have a boyfriend so I might have time to focus on more serious pieces. I just did a Plan B pack piece and some birth control pieces, just topics more toward feminism and a little more current.”

From Aug. 30 to Oct. 12, Riley’s work will be exhibited at Paradigm Gallery & Studio in Philadelphia, alongside the work of paper cut artist Joe Boruchow.

“This show is going to be small tapestries,” Riley said. “Girls, online [inspired pieces], more subtle pieces of gestures and less sexual – but with nudity. [There will also be] object pieces of things girls will have in their purse and landscape pieces of roads and highway memorials. It’s a very big mix of things which I’m excited to do.”

Among the pieces will be self-portraits of Riley, depicting herself in nude photos she would send boyfriends.

Riley does not have Snapchat, but she can be found on Instagram and Facebook.

“I’m always looking at blogs or Tumblrs just as a daily thing, and some people send me stuff,” Riley said. “I just collect everything in a folder and decide what’s next or what needs to be made.”

Luis Fernando Rodriguez can be reached at or on Twitter @theluisfernando.

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