Every artist has to eat. A lot of artists teach. I continue with my established career of using two of my artistic talents for monetary gain: writing about and photographing the things that I care about. One of the things I do is string for the art editor of the Provincetown Banner, interviewing (but I shy away from that word; I tell them that we're just going to talk) and photographing the artists that either live on Cape Cod, or come through for other reasons.
Erika Wastrom paints the world she knows
By John Greiner-Ferris / Banner Correspondent
Posted Jul 18, 2019 at 4:33 PM
Artists are often advised to seek out subject matter close to home, to deeply explore the things of which they already have profound personal knowledge and understanding. It’s advice that is often ignored, so it is refreshing to walk into West Barnstable painter Erika Wastrom’s little barn studio and be treated to some very intimate, slightly abstracted, colorful paintings, all about 16 inches square or so, of the things and people that make up her life.
These are paintings she is pulling together for her upcoming show at Gaa Gallery, which will open this Friday alongside the work of Jane Corrigan. They will appear in Gaa’s Provincetown Project Space, a smaller gallery well-suited for the scale of her work.
Wastrom is busy. She has a busy, thoughtful mind that spins and charges, stops short, nearly throwing the rider, then she nimbly changes directions, bumping into herself on the way back, before tearing off in a completely different direction. On this particular day, along with her show, she’s also busy shepherding her two toddlers.
It’s definitely a family thing at her cedar-shake homestead, which sits on the edge of a marsh, set back from the road on the Old King’s Highway. Wastrom’s boat- builder father, Bob, was minding the boys. He then handed them along to her husband, Dan, who runs a landscaping company and rearranged his schedule so that an interview could take place — an interview about Wastrom being a Cape Cod painter and juggling the roles of artist, wife and mother.
A few points to know about Wastrom’s earlier years: She is a 13th-generation Cape Codder, claiming that title back to Constance Hopkins and the Mayflower. (“It’s no big deal,” she says, offhandedly. “There are a lot of us.”) Outer Cape artists Jim Peters and Vicky Tomayko were her teachers at the Lighthouse Charter School. She concentrated in ceramics at Alfred University, where, if anything, she gained an appreciation for surface and an interest in objects. Some of her more productive, formative years came as a grad student at Boston University, or, as some of the women artists called it, BU: Big and Ugly, in reference to the big-ass paintings that were in vogue there at the time. “It wasn’t who I was at all, and it was then that I started painting small,” Wastrom says. “At first, I was nervous, and I thought I’d be ripped apart in my critiques. But I think if I’ve got something big to say, it will come through even if the painting is small.”
And in the end, size mattered less than attitude. “It was at BU where I became more comfortable with myself and my perspective,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to make serious work, and I constantly ask myself, ‘What do I have to say?’ If my paintings don’t have purpose, what’s the point to them?”
It was also at BU that her work caused a fight between her professors. Is it whimsical? If it is, so what? What’s wrong with whimsical? “I like these intimate views,” Wastrom says, looking around at her studio. “I like that they’re small. There’s something about them that is reminiscent of illustrations. They could be a page from a children’s book.”
John Walker, under whom Wastrom studied at BU, told her just to go in the studio and make things. “He’d say, ‘Don’t overthink it.’ If you can let go of being self-conscious, that’s when something interesting happens.”
She’s been painting almost exclusively on paper for about 10 years. “I love paper, because the surface of the paper is fragile, but the surface also does things that canvas and panels can’t do,” she says. “I’m always accessing Matisse,” she adds. “Color holds air within the flat space.”
Wastrom doesn’t consider herself a regional artist. “These aren’t Cape Cod paintings,” she says. “I do think my colors come from the Cape. If you walk the beach at dusk, the sand is a muted neon. If you really look, you’ll see that. But I’m not dealing with Cape Cod. I’m dealing with being a wife and a mother. There are a lot of myths about being an artist and being a mother and an artist. I want to have it all.”
She paints when her kids nap in the afternoon and when they sleep at night. And given her time constraints, the smaller size format makes sense. She thinks of the 84-year-old British painter, Rose Wylie. “I’m looking forward to being an old lady,” Wastrom says.
Mants Landing. The light is soft from the overcast; it's like being in a giant lightbox the light is so consistent. The colors seem vivid, but they don't feel that way. A hurricane churning up the coast, way out to sea.
More from Cape Cod: Living Off The Land And The Sea
These images of garlic sprouts were taken with a simple USB microscope my marine biology daughter, knowing my love of image making and nature, gave to me as a gift off Amazon. I think it cost about twenty dollars. There is a focus, and that's about it, that's about as sophisticated as the technical control gets that I have at my disposal. The image capture-er--I hesitate to call it a camera or even a microscope though we really are capturing light--records the light in jpegs at 72 dpi, and I control the lighting the best I can by paying attention to the background that is reflecting light back into the scene and the ambient light. I print these images small, 5 x 3 inches, centered on bright white pieces of vertical washi paper. That's it for all of us who like to geek out on technology and process.
But...but, it takes an artist's eye and it takes curiosity to be making dinner and see this very tiny green slip nosing out of onion skin on the cutting board. And it take curiosity to wonder, what does it really look like in its own Lilliputian world? And perhaps you might think it's arrogant to say, but it takes an artist's eye and control to see a fleeting image (because hand-holding the mechanism at 500x or 800x and certainly at 1000x only intensifies camera shake) and compose it, and take the image. If you look at these images and think, well, my three-year-old could have done that, I guess all I can say is, Thank you, I've done my job. But I've also done my job as an artist if, when you see these images, you pause and wonder at the beauty of the world around us, and it makes you ask yourself, what else am I missing? And how do I make myself see it?
A selection of images I've been making of Sally Andreola, an oyster farmer in Brewster, Massachusetts on Cape Cod as part of the story, Cape Cod: Living Off The Land And Sea in which I'm interviewing and making images of the people who grow and harvest our food on Cape Cod. The one thing that struck me about Sally and her husband, Scott, as they worked out in the setting sun of Cape Cod Bay was how they work silently as a team, rarely talking, only at times making a few words sentences.
In the forty years I've been doing this kind of work, I never stop being amazed by the people who let me into their lives to learn their stories, who open up to me. I've recently just began doing this work again, after having had taken a hiatus of about ten years to dedicate my life to the theater. I didn't know how much I missed the work, peering into the viewfinder of a Nikon to see what it would reveal to me. The visual language is as real as any spoken language, and I've missed using it. A few years ago I was working with someone in the theater who was directing one of my plays and I kept asking her to repeat what she was saying because, as I tried to explain to her, I couldn't see what she was saying. In absolute frustration she said, you really are visual, aren't you? And she didn't mean that in a good way. But if you tell that same story to a visual person, they just smile knowingly, and perhaps give a small laugh.
Untitled Highway (Riding Shotgun) is a series of spontaneous, contemporary American landscapes I make while sitting in the passenger seat of a car during long-distance trips between places like Boston and New York traveling at a high rate of speed, at least 65 mph or faster.
I am not interested in the mainstream. What attracts me is the beauty of the places and things that others overlook; that others choose to overlook because they're too busy, too distracted by society and or by expectations of what they’ve been told they should pay attention. Nature is almost always the common element in my work.
I know these images don’t document or comment on the dramatic human condition. They don’t show the America landscape in the dramatic way we’ve come to expect the American West or our cities portrayed. They are landscapes that explore and document the fleeting. I feel these are very intimate landscapes, the presumed insignificant made significant for just the viewer whose life is going too fast.
These landscapes slow things down. These images are in keeping with traditional landscapes, for more meditative viewing where the photographer sets up a camera on a tripod and meticulously composes a scene. But our world is too fast-paced and too crowded for that now and these landscapes reflect the speed of our world.
These images were made out of a car window traveling down the Interstate at 65 mph or more. In this type of scenario, there is no time to think, no time to contemplate just like our modern lives don’t allow us to stop and think. Only see and respond before the next landscape is served up in the next moment and the process is repeated. As the image-maker, I am like the harried viewer. I don't ask myself the questions that would normally go through my mind, or through the mind of any artist: Is this a pretty picture? Is it relevant? Will others like it? Will it sell? I just react to what's in front of me for that second. (For that 1/5000 of a second and then it’s over!)
In a matter of a few hours you can be hundreds of miles from where you started. Think of all of the landscapes you've passed! Thousands? Tens or even hundreds of thousands? But you only see them for a second before they dissolve from your consciousness: They're gone for good, replaced by the next one and the next one and the next. Many people's response would be simply to blank out, to stare.
The landscape has changed because our lives have changed. No vistas. It's closed and fast, civilization has encroached everywhere, and snap snap snap. But the world is still beautiful. It has now become the job of the image-maker to compose in an instant.
John Greiner-Ferris is a fine arts photographer and writer in the Boston area.