"Steady as Sunshine": A conversation with Erin Tapp

By Jess Bernhart

Erin Tapp's gallery show, titled "Steady as Sunshine," is currently on view at our Octane Westside location. The show includes expressive and vibrant paintings, ranging from tender landscapes to bold abstract forms. Erin graduated as a Presidential Scholar for the Visual Arts from Wake Forest University, and works full time as a painter at Atlanta's Goat Farm. We visited her studio to talk colors, nostalgia, and vulnerability.


Jess Bernhart: A lot of your work is Atlanta-based, or evokes a very specific location. Can you tell us about where you're from, your upbringing?

Erin Tapp: I grew up in Atlanta, in Roswell and Dunwoody. Then I went to college at Wake Forest, but after graduating I moved back to Atlanta for friends, family, and the community I grew up in. I loved growing up here, but found I didn't know the city at all. It’s been amazing coming back as an adult – Atlanta’s such a fun place to be right now. There are a lot of opportunities, especially within the creative realm.

JB: Do you feel like Atlanta has a particular visual style that you're picking up on in your work, or that you were raised with?

ET: One of my paintings is actually called "96 Olympics," and I feel like there's a sporty, nostalgic 90s vibe to Atlanta. But there are also layers of freshness, hipsterness, modernness, that are overlaid. When I think of Atlanta, I think of iconic 90s nostalgia, but with this fresh wave of artists and doers and spaces.

JB: What is your working process like?

ET: It's a bit all over the place. Before I start a fresh body of work, I go through old artist books, browse through pictures – really saturate myself with images that I love the colors or composition of. I'll loosely organize them into different paintings that I see in my eye, with all these different elements coming together, these little moments of inspiration. Then I typically start two or three paintings at once, work on them, set them aside, start another two or three. From there, I just work on them all in rotation. I take a couple steps back, pick one out to work on, set it down, pick another out. And ultimately, I'll start to see when they're complete. I can stand back and say, "That one came together," or "That one didn't."

JB: How has your process evolved?

ET: In college I was really close with a professor who used to make us sit down and write a “how-what-why,” because to be a successful artist you can't just sit down and paint flowers. You need to know why you're painting flowers, why it's significant, what do you want to convey, what do you want people to feel? She would have us write these multi-page write-ups about what we were doing. And I hated it. I was like, "Please, just let me paint the flowers!" But I've realized since that my favorite artists are the ones that go there, that have that level of richness in their work. So in my own work, I've found myself returning to that process. As I'm working, I'll write notes in my sketchbook, things like: this color means this to me. This shape, for me, evokes this memory. That kind of thing.

JB: The paintings that are created together, do they feel like a series? Are they children of the same family?

ET: Sometimes I step back and think, no one would know this is the same artist. Other times people say, "You have a very distinct touch - we can always tell." But I’m at a fun stage of my career – I’m still so early on that I don't really have a defined style. A lot of artists are recognized for a certain thing that they're really good at, and they do it over and over.

JB: And there's a lot of pressure to develop that “brand.”

ET: Right. And I think that it's very fun and exciting, but also a little scary at the same time, to be all over the place. I can put a bunch of stuff out there that's loosely tied together and see which ones people are most drawn to, and what about them they're responding to.

JB: Is it intuitive, what you want to create at any given time?

ET: Yes!  I haven't really found an easy recipe for how to organize myself every day. Some days I come in, and a million things happen that I'm excited about, and other days only one thing happens that I'm excited about, and it's a matter of learning how to capitalize on the days when things are really rolling. 

JB: What does your ideal day look like?

ET: My ideal day is when I can come in and paint straight through the day. Sometimes it's nice to break up my time – tweak my website, send emails, that sort of thing. But my happiest days are when I don't have any near deadlines, I don't have any commissions that need to be delivered. I can just come in and have free reign. I also love going out and taking pictures and sketching. It's my time to just go out and gather information.

JB: What drew you to painting?

ET: As far back as I can remember, I've just loved painting. In my parents' house in Roswell we had an unfinished basement, and I was a pretty introverted kid, so for some reason I just loved going down there. It was like a dark hole, and I would go down there to draw and paint. Every opportunity I got, from when I was 6 or 7 on, I'd go down there in my free time. My siblings called it my "lair." One Christmas, I asked for it to be my official "studio", and my parents got me my first studio table and easel. It's something I've just always loved to do. I really started to pursue it in high school, and the same, through college. I just kept chasing it. It's like an itch. Painting feels like a puzzle that I really want to figure out. Or I love these colors so much I want to hold onto them forever within this piece.

JB: What is your favorite thing about painting?

ET: I come in every day and know I'm leaving a little bit better. It's the appeal of forever wanting to be better and bring more to the world. I know that not everyone loves art and gets excited about art – but to me, seeing a beautiful, colorful painting out in the world somewhere can make my entire day. I just want to bring people joy through my paintings. And every day when I step into the studio and feel joy by doing what I love, it makes me excited to be able to bring that to others.

JB: What would you say you struggle with the most?

ET: I feel drawn in a lot of different directions right now: working on commissions, my own experiments and ideas, and I find myself chasing things that are going to sell. I find myself thinking, "How do I brand myself as an artist and get my name out there in a consistent way?" But also, how do I balance it all? How to have time to experiment and try new things, but also make sure I stay on schedule and crank things out that will sell?

JB: Do you think the way that you paint has changed, now that it’s your business?

ET: I've only been doing this full time for almost a year exactly. I think that since I started, I've improved significantly as a painter. Just by doing so many different commissions of things I've never done before, my skill and ability to render things has definitely improved. But when I was at school, there was no pressure to make money, of course, from my paintings. I could go as weird as I wanted and didn't have to worry about it selling - I could just think, this is a solid piece of art. It salutes art history, it has depth. And I think that's been the hardest thing to figure out – how to stay true to my own style and interests, and use my fullest talents while also making something that's marketable. So my style has been slowly evolving towards more marketable and sell-able work. Which I don't think is a bad thing, but my style is a little on the safer side as of late.

JB: What have been the most important touchstones in your understanding of art and aesthetics? Any particular artists that really resonate with you?

ET: Basquiat, Cy Twombly, de Kooning, lots of very expressionist type artists, very edgy and felt type work. They taught me how much you could feel things through simple mark making, how they evoke certain things. And like I said, I love colors, so I've always loved Matisse, Manet, Van Gogh - the “pretty” artists. I also think  there is something so beautiful about classical sculpture, and those shadows.

JB: What’s your biggest takeaway from the past year?

ET: Over the course of the year, I’ve definitely grown more confident in my work. I’m not quite there yet, where I can look at a piece and think, “Yes, this is definitely done and I love it.” Some of them I’ll set aside and think, “Maybe it’s done.” But that’s something I’m hoping will continue to get easier and easier over time. Doing shows is really helpful towards that, because you have to be so vulnerable. You have to trust yourself enough to say, “Hello, Atlanta, this is my work.”

JB: Last question - how do you drink your coffee?

ET: Regular coffee with milk. And I drink lots of it.

Erin's website can be found here, and she's on Instagram at erintappart.