Erin Lee Gafill is an award-winning painter, writer, and teacher, with deep roots in the California’s art legacy. Her great-great grandmother was Jane Gallatin Powers, a Modernist painter who grew up in the old Governor’s Mansion on H Street, and who had the first artist’s studio in Carmel-by-the-Sea, one of the earliest artist’s colonies in the United States and home to many of early California’s most influential artists. Erin’s grandparents Lolly and Bill Fassett built Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur, a legendary watering hole for artist, poets, writers, and bohemians alike, where Erin grew up and where she lives and paints today. After the devastating El Nino winter storms of 1998, which left Big Sur cut off both north and south for over three months, Erin with her husband Tom Birmingham founded the Big Sur Arts Initiative, a nonprofit arts education organization serving children living in Monterey County’s most remote areas. Together they worked with local families, artists, and regional resources to bring arts, enrichment, and creativity programs to children and families in Big Sur and beyond. In 2001, Erin was chosen as the first American artist-in-residence of the Hamada International Children’s Art Museum, Hamada, Japan. Works from this trip were displayed in the Monterey Museum of Art and in the Hamada Museum. Erin and Tom were recognized in 2009 by the Arts Council of Monterey as Champions of the Arts for their service to the community through the arts and arts education. In 2011, her work was showcased at the Museum of Monterey (MOM) as part of a group show on “Cultivating Creativity.” In 2012, she was invited to join the prestigious Carmel Art Association, California’s oldest still-standing art collective. In 2013, readers of the Monterey County Weekly chose Erin as the “Best Local Artist of Monterey County.” She is on the creative arts faculty for both Esalen Institute and Rancho La Puerta, Mexico. Her work is collected internationally and exhibited in fine art galleries in California as well as across the country. Erin is the author of the memoir, “Drinking From a Cold Spring, a Little Book of Hope.”
My landscape work is informed by the atmospheric light and dramatic natural forms of California’s Central Coast, especially Big Sur, where I was born, raised, and live today. Early influences include many of the 20th century Monterey Bay painters, early California Impressionists (William Merritt Chase) and Tonalists such as Gottardo Piazzoni, Russell Chatham, and my great great grandmother, and my own great great grandmother, Modernist painter Jane Gallatin Powers. But my eye is always searching for delight in color, form, and composition, and I find great inspiration in the works of colorists Wolf Kahn, Mark Rothko, and Wayne Thiebauld.
My painting process begins with observing what I see every day – the trees, the hills, the shape of sky and sea, obsessively re-examining the familiar. I work in notebooks first, then tonal sketches, selecting ideas that inspire deeper application to explore in paint on canvas. Finally, bold brush-strokes and a full spectrum palette support an expression with which to convey the sense of awe I feel confronted by the spectacular and powerful natural beauty of this region. Memory and dream inform color and mood.
“Looking South From Nepenthe, Big Sur” expresses an almost childlike sense of the beauty and awe I feel confronted with the view from home. Working with complementary colors in the underpainting (yellow and orange) then layering on variations of blues, greens, and lavenders in the sky, sea, mountain, and tree shapes, I wanted to create a painting that recalled the first glimpse of a cherished place as one might paint it from memory. What is left, after you have stopped looking? The afterglow of color, shape, and emotion. That is what I seek to evoke in my painting, so that the viewer takes away the essential power of a place.
include . . .
putting lotion on my hands BEFORE I begin to make clean up easier afterwards.
Buy disposable gloves in bulk.
Paint the edges before I start the painting. And after.
Take pleasure in the processes of the mundane. They account for a larger proportion of time spent, so might as well get Zen about them.
Remember that everything – pleasure, pain – is temporary. This, too, shall pass.
The joys of experience are real and profound. Every mistake is an opportunity to grow, a teacher, if we take the time to learn.
Take the time to learn.
Trust the process. Trust the process. Trust the process. It is not about the painting that comes out of the brush. It is not about putting something on your wall or getting it right. it is about dancing with fear, finding courage, making your mark, showing up for yourself, being willing to fail, being willing to try, being human, finding forgiveness, allowing imperfection to be perfect, realizing we swim in an infinite sea of love and are infinitely loveable as we are, without knowing more than we do or doing more than we do. When I hit the wall, or the wall falls on top of me and threatens to bury me alive, I pull out the paint and the brushes and every scrap of paper or wood or the back of another painting or the back of the door or the top of a book and I paint until my brushes crack and lose all their bristles and the tubes are empty and the laundry line is fluttering with dripping apples, lemons, and their shadows. And sometimes it is only when, exhausted, I stand at the sink washing my brushes watching the paint swirl down the drain that I feel alll that sense of fear and oppression lighten and go away and the delight and fun and playfulness shows up. Aaaaah. at last.
I’ve been struggling to get back into the paint these past few weeks.
I’ve got a lot of excuses for myself, and they spin around in my head as I move from washing dishes to starting a new load of laundry to making the bed to examining old paintings I’m thinking of re-painting.
I walk around the property, sit and look at the fog reflecting the light from the sun, feed the cat, check the mail. I make a new pot of coffee, check my email, snap a photo of the view, notice that one long cane of the Graham Thomas needs pruning.
Delaying tactics all. Necessary to be done – at some point – but all self-imposed distractions now to prevent me from getting in and getting the work done.
Today I will try the “Hundred Roses” method to break through my stalling.
This tactic – one of my creative habits I put most stake in – is simple. Choose a subject and paint 100 versions of it. Small, large, abstract, messy, tight, careful, loose, on paper or canvas or the back of a grocery bag. No matter. Just get in and don’t get out until you’ve got paintings falling off the table, leaning against the walls, perched on every bookshelf and available surface.
At some point – between number three and number 75 – something happens. I stop thinking about the laundry and the garden and the email and the unopened bills and I start painting. Really painting. Painting with the part of my soul that doesn’t think about anything at all.
That’s a really excited place to be – and when I’m that space I am very happy. Happy in a way that makes me very reluctant to leave that space. Happy in a way that will keep me painting until the stars are out because I don’t want to forget how I got to this wonderful place in the first place.
I think of this habit as one of my most helpful because it has never failed to get me into the groove.
How to stay in the groove?
That’s harder. Life gets in the way, with all its wonderful demands. How do you get into YOUR groove? Let’s talk about it!
That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what all teaching is about. Inspiring in our students the love of learning. For children, it is innate. Somehow that craving to create, make, experiment, try – it gets lost along the way. Not for everyone. But so many people seem to feel they have nothing of value to offer, that they are not good enough.
They are. You are. It is. The very act of creating is exciting, cracking open the shell, seeing the inner life (yours) come forth.
Take a class. Paint a picture. Snap a photo. Plant a Seed. Make Bread. Laugh. Sing. Sit and breath deeply for one minute.
Be Your Beautiful Self!
Yesterday my nephew Will spent the day with me and Tom.
We walked through the gardens of Nepenthe taking pictures of things we thought beautiful. Will (10 years old) interviewed Luis, the restaurant manager, about our specials of the day and then we went down to the Cafe Kevah and he took some snapshots of the baked goods, using his dad’s old phone to record the list of goodies on hand.
Then onto the Phoenix Shop, where we checked out the toy department, rated our favorite gizmos, and ended up purchasing a “Make Your Own Chewing Gum Kit”. Then we went home and got to work. We not only made our own chewing gum, but a batch of sourdough bread as well. Tom was busy too – making home-made pasta for lasagna that will be our dinner tonight.
Along the way we learned the first few bars of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, swept the garden, and painted a dozen supports for today’s painting efforts.
Will reminded me to create projects with a “get in and get out” quality – getting out before mental fatigue sets in. Good for 10 year olds and 49 year olds alike.
Today I am painting, home alone, remembering our lovely Sunday, the lightness and play of it, yet so much accomplished. I am striving today to keep my work as light and playful, with gratitude to William for showing me the way.