Erin Armstrong Took a Chance on Art and Never Looked Back
How a pivotal moment launched a successful career for this emerging Toronto-based artist.
At this point in her career, you’ll find artist Erin Armstrong’s loosely-rendered figurative paintings gracing the walls of international galleries and art fair booths, but that wasn’t always the case. After brief stints working in fashion and marketing, she opted to study towards a degree in graphic design in pursuits of a profession that would allow her more creativity. Then, a last-minute submission to a local artist fair changed everything. The self-taught painter sold out her booth in the span of three days and caught the eye of a New York-based dealer. Within a week, she was invited to present her work in person, putting her on the fast-track that many artists dream of.
She’s since built an impressive following for her work including clients such as Nike and Anthropologie. It’s not hard to see why brands and collectors alike would be drawn to the lush, lively colors and expressive nature of her paintings, but the markedly neutral faces of her figures imbue each piece with a deeper meaning. Through her art, she comments on the shared human experience of living in our contemporary world, which includes navigating such issues as climate change, #metoo, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic.
We had the opportunity to chat with her to learn more about what she advises for emerging artists looking to establish themselves in the art world, her thoughts on the burgeoning art scene in Toronto, and what her plans are for the future post-coronavirus.
Were you interested in art growing up? Can you share more about your experience or memories related to art as a child?
I started making art when I was very young. My mom is a painter and I used to fake being sick all the time when I was a kid l so I didn’t have to go to school and I could go to her studio and paint with her. I remember I would lay on her studio floor and draw what I called “beautiful ladies”, they were like these 18th-century women in ball gowns. My mom confessed to me as an adult that she knew there was no way I had strep-throat almost 365 days a year, but she just let it slide so that I could stay home and make art with her. Now we laugh that I guess it’s kind of paid off.
Tell us about the early years of your professional life and how you began to build your career as an artist.
I knew I always wanted to be an artist but it seemed like an unattainable dream. So I started out working in all sorts of more traditional 9-5 “creative” fields; An advertising agency, a fashion magazine, marketing firm, I even somehow became a travel writer for a hot second and was sent alone to places like Ecuador, where I stayed in the jungle for 3 weeks (I’m a terrible writer, so I’m not sure how I snagged this job).
However, none of these jobs were what I wanted in terms of creativity, so I decided that life is short, I needed to just go for it and if I failed at least I had tried. As a safety net, I started school again, this time in Graphic Design. My plan was that if I failed, I would at least be able to become a graphic designer and eventually an Art Director.
While I was in school, I applied very last minute for an art fair called “The Artist Project” in Toronto. They had a drop out and I was accepted on the terms that I could have work ready for the opening in three weeks. I got 12 paintings done by opening night, hung up my booth, and sold out by the end of the three-day fair. The following Monday I was contacted by a gallery in New York who had seen my work at the booth. I was on a plane the next week with canvas rolled in my luggage to bring down to the gallery. I had my first group exhibit a month later and it just snowballed (with many bumps along the way) from there!
How did you develop your signature style and what helped you hone in on your voice as a painter?
I didn’t go to university for art, so I had a somewhat unique journey learning how to paint and finding my artistic voice and style. I had been painting my whole life though, so it wasn’t like one day I just picked up a paint brush for the first time. However, since I didn’t learn traditional painting techniques in school, it was a lot of trial and error and experimentation, I sometimes get a bit of imposter syndrome thinking I don’t know the “right way” to paint, but I have to remind myself that there is no “right” way. I think this different path of learning and creating helped me carve out my own unique voice. I use the human figure in ambiguous abstract ways, I’m not so much interested in portraying a literal person, rather I use the human body as a vessel to portray an emotion in the paintings. I use a lot of bright pastel colours, set against lush landscapes or interiors, because I like the juxtaposition of a somewhat joyous palette and environment set against the backdrop of sometimes melancholic, abstract and mysterious subjects. I ended up with a style that aims to balance large gestural brush strokes with tight patterning and lines to create a sort of controlled chaos.
What do you think has most contributed to your success thus far? Is it consistently working at your craft, exhibiting, promotion on social media, or something else?
I think consistency on all those fronts is key to success. Mainly though, I think success comes from the work you’re producing, if people are resonating with what you’re making then things kind of fall into line. You start getting contacted by galleries for shows or representation, interviews, Instagram follows, etc.
Is there a mantra that you live by?
I just like to make sure I have perspective. I think too many people, especially in art, lose sight of that and can get wound up over small things that in the grand scheme of things are insignificant. You’ve got to just roll with the punches since there’s a lot of rejection and it can be a pretty intense world sometimes.
Where do you maintain your studio and what is important for you to have in your creative space?
My studio space is in an old factory building in Toronto’s West end. It looks really sketchy and like it’s about to fall over from the outside, but it’s so awesome and has so much character inside. Everyone in the building is an artist or designer of some type. I have two friends on different floors who also work in the building (a jewelry designer and another painter) and we usually work alone during the day and then at night get together in one of our studios for drinks so we have some human contact throughout the week.
You’ve had great opportunities to exhibit and be represented by galleries in your area. What is the art scene and community in Toronto like?
I feel it’s actually a pretty small group of people in the Canadian art scene and it seems most people know each other or at least know of the other’s work. The art scene in Toronto is really booming and there’s a ton of artists that are now showing on a global stage. I see them at all the major art fairs, in big publications, in international gallery exhibits, or doing collaborations with major brands. Overall, I think Toronto is a really creative city that is expanding very rapidly, the only problem with this boom is that it’s driving up the cost of studio space rent and is getting extremely expensive to live and work, which is driving some artists out to more affordable communities.
Additionally, social media has been really helpful to make connections and meet new people, since, again, I didn’t go to university for fine art so I think I missed out on some of those key friendships and networks that most create during art school. I’ve made relationships with a ton of Canadian artists, galleries, and dealers just through Instagram. People reach out to me all the time on social media or via email asking to come by for studio visits, get coffee, participate in a show, etc. so I definitely feel a sense of camaraderie.
Favorite spots in Toronto that only the locals know about?
I don’t think they’re secrets, but I love to go to The Beaches and walk to the water treatment plant. There’s a big hill you can sit on and have a picnic overlooking Lake Ontario. I also love Hanoi 3 Seasons in the East end for the best Pho in Toronto. There’s a little place called Universal Grill across from my studio that has a great half price Wine Wednesday and really good food that me and my studio friends try to go to every week. And finally, I love Pinky’s Ca Phe restaurant which is tucked into a little house off of College.
Best places to see art?
I love going to museums and galleries alone and just walking around by myself for hours. I need a really long time to stop and stare at a work, so I feel rushed if I go with someone else because they usually don’t want to stop and stare as long as I do. My favourite large scale galleries and museums I’ve ever been to are The Centre Pompidou in Paris, Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Tate Modern in London, and MoMA in New York.
How have you been holding up during the COVID-19 pandemic? In what ways has it affected your work?
I’m sure many artists would tell you that life isn’t actually that much different for us in terms of work since I’m alone and isolated in my studio all the time already. My studio is a 20 minute bike ride from my home, so I’ve been able to still head to work everyday. However, there has for sure been a weird feeling in the air and it has been affecting me and my work. I felt a bit strange making art in a time where there is so much anxiety and suffering, painting seemed a bit frivolous and I wasn’t very motivated. So initially I stopped for the first few weeks of the lockdown, but then I slowly started to get back into it (mainly because I had a deadline for a commission) and it brought me a lot of peace to paint. I find it really meditative so I’ve started back up again. The work I’m creating though is definitely reflective of the times we’re in. My colour palette has gotten darker, the images feel more tense and I’m painting a lot of people inside homes.
Tell us about your plans and goals for the rest of the year and beyond?
I’m hoping to experiment more and try to push the work in new directions over the coming years. Before COVID-19, I was slated to head to the U.S. in April to complete an artist residency at The Vermont Studio Centre. Followed in May by a group show in Detroit at The Library Street Collective. Both projects have obviously been halted for the time being, but I’m hopeful once things start opening up again these projects will resume!
Find more of Erin’s paintings on her website or follow her on Instagram @erinaart. Her work is available through Bau Xi Gallery, Duran | Mashaal Gallery, Newzones Gallery, Foster/White Gallery, and Artfully Walls.