When I was a kid, I was terrified and fascinated by a series of books called Scary Stories, by Alvin Schwartz. The stories were run-of-the-mill campfire tales, like a spider laying eggs on a sleeping girl's face, or someone finding a toe in their soup. The scary parts that stuck with me were Stephen Gammell's surreal illustrations, which were maybe too spooky to be appropriate for kids. (Newer editions of the books feature much more benign artwork.) Gammell created eerily beautiful and grotesque creatures, looming skulls and decaying faces floating against abstract landscapes, all in wispy, gray-shaded strokes.
Floating skulls or zombie girls made for a brief chill at bedtime, but I could draw up the covers and feel safe. As I get older, I become more aware of the frights that my cozy bed cannot ward off: senility, dementia, the fragility of the human body.
Idaho artist Jen Erickson's large graphite drawings are abstract, but they instantly reminded me of those Scary Stories. Perhaps it's because much of Erickson's body of work is based on themes that are scary for grown-ups, such as death and loss of memory. Her latest series, Elude, opening this month at the Brink Gallery, showcases drawings of meandering, almost fractal shapes composed of thousands of tiny zeros.
In her artist statement, Erickson explains that the zeros represent the "breakdown of time and memories and the sense of loss that this creates ... They act as empty remnants of understanding, tiny capsules of memories and knowledge that have been lost."
Erickson's melancholy imagery comes out of surprisingly scientific and mathematical pursuits, like data entry work and biology classes. She sounds cheerful in conversation over the phone from her home in Hayden, Idaho, just north of Coeur d'Alene, and at one point pauses to say, "Hang on a second, my daughter just fell down the stairs." She laughs and explains that her clumsy 9-year-old will be fine, and continues.
"In between undergrad and grad school, I was working in data entry jobs, where you're trying to preserve all this information," she says. "It got me thinking about where our own thoughts go when we die."
Many of Erickson's drawings look like microscope slides, and she's heard people compare them to the slides of cells called gram stains. She thinks now that she was subconsciously influenced by her first few undergraduate years at the University of Montana, where she started out as a biology major. Erickson soon found that she preferred the art world, but scientific images and terms still appear in her work. Her early drawings were made up of binary code. Now, she drops the ones from the code and takes a few weeks to a few months to painstakingly create meandering structures made up of zeros. She calls it a "meditative process."
"I never really have a preconceived notion of what they're going to look like, it's more of a reactive process," she says. She thinks of her structures as math equations, where one step leads naturally to another to keep a balance.
Erickson says she's surprised when people pick up on the influences in a highly abstract piece. "People would come up and, without reading my artist statement, would talk about memory loss," she says. "I'm always really excited when that happens."
Erickson says it wasn't any specific event that got her thinking about memory loss, other than a normal, everyday contemplation of age and mortality. The artist's own cheerfulness, despite her subject matter, seems to show how we can acknowledge death without letting it consume us. It's easy to get caught up in the looming specter of loss, but eventually we regroup. Kids fall down stairs and dust themselves off. Life—and death—are natural, ongoing cycles. We can draw or write or think about it, and then carry on.
The Brink Gallery, 111 W. Front St., hosts a First Friday reception for Jen Erickson's Elude April 5, from 5 to 8 PM.