Erin Zhao

Where are you from and where do you reside?
I am originally from Guiyang, China, a southwest city that’s known for its mild weather, gorgeous landscapes, and rich ethnic cultures. I moved to the US when I was seventeen and currently live in San Francisco.
What’s your favorite part of living in San Francisco?
The diversities of culture and the feeling that you’re still close to nature while living in an urban city.
Describe a typical day in the studio for you.
I got into the habit of morning meditation last year and that’s the first thing I do in the morning. I like to make a general plan and set some priorities for the day or the week, but I don’t have a timetable for all the activities. If my creative flow is strong that day, I tend to allow myself to keep going. Even it means that I need to borrow time from my other tasks, but of course, I make sure it doesn’t affect any deadline or meeting I have scheduled.

I currently work in two studios; my home studio and a printmaking space called Mission Gráfica in San Francisco where I’m the current artist in residence. Depending on the projects, I spend more or less time between the two studios. Generally speaking, before I dive into my studio work, I check emails, read articles or news, and write down some notes or thoughts. After that, I do any necessary preparation for the day, which could include trimming paper, sourcing materials, editing digital files, and organizing the studio. Normally it’s around mid or late morning that I start the real fun part. I work in multiple disciplines. Printmaking is one of the main focuses that I spend the majority of my time working in and which also influences the way I approach painting and installation. Making work six to eight hours straight is normal for me that I get lost easily in carving, mixing colors, printing, and sketching. I normally go back into the studio after dinner to do some extra studio work, or sometimes photographing and documenting

What necessities do you require when making your art?
To be honest, I think just me being present with my mind and with the materials that I need for that day. I do often listen to music or podcasts while I work, but it’s not required. I sometimes prefer the quiet. My studio is close to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and I would hear birds chirping, leaves rustling, and slight traffic noise from cars driving by. It’s never absolutely quiet but the right balance that allows me to think. Another thing that I highly value is natural light. Luckily, my studio has both east and south-facing windows. Seeing the gorgeous morning light pouring into the room always lifts my spirit.
I’m very much drawn into the concept of chance in general. I like artwork that poetically reflects this kind of inconsistency and I appreciate the creator’s courage to embrace the uncertainties. — Erin Zhao
How do you generally start a project?
My sketchbooks serve an important role when initiating and accompanying the thinking process. I write down thoughts from various perspectives based on a theme and start making connections and associations. I often create work to reflect on the inner experience so translating a formless idea to something more palpable is probably the most challenging and exciting step during the process. Researching and selecting materials also help to realize subject to object. Depending on the project, the sketch and design can be very loose or highly detailed. While my monotype series encourages a more intuitive and improvised process, my 3D work requires more precise planning and further assistance of digital tools and fabrication equipment.
Have you always worked with print?
I was actually trained as a painter since the age of 7. I’ve done many types of painting - Chinese ink brush, watercolor, gouache, acrylic, oil, etc. I’ve tried printmaking in college, but it wasn’t until early 2018 that I incorporated printmaking as one of my main practices. I was looking for an alternative way to create marks and decided to give printmaking another try. Besides experimenting on my own, I took various workshops and classes to learn as much as I can and I participated in residencies that focus on print-based work.

There are so many different techniques and processes in printmaking. Generally speaking, the printmaking process is less direct and it requires more planning than painting, but I particularly enjoy the indirect ways of mark-making. I also enjoy the delay involved in its making process and the final reveal of the printed image.

Understanding and building my relationships with various tools and mechanical apparatus involved in printmaking keeps me interested as well. The moment you realize that many things could go unexpected so easily because there are many different components involved, you start to become more engaged. At least that’s the case for me and it’s what makes printmaking truly alluring in my opinion.

What themes or motifs are you consistently drawn to?
Interactions of the transparent layers in my work meditate on memory, time, and the ever-changing nature of life. The recurring rock-like shapes in my work are not only inspired by its physical existence in nature, but also by the meditative meaning behind the Chinese character 磊Lei. The character is derived from pictographs of three rocks piling up; two on the bottom and one on the top. While the literal translations include “a big pile of rocks” and “bighearted,” it further suggests a belief in building something with openness and honesty, as well as a mindset of being fully present, mindful, vulnerable, and courageous. How lucky that my family gave me the nickname 磊磊Lei Lei, showing me their blessing.
Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?
It could be from anything, really. Books, movies, random conversations, walks, nature, or even just the light and shadows I see in front of me.
Are you influenced by any artist that does something completely different than you?
Definitely. I’m inspired by writers, filmmakers, architects, musicians, performers, and many other types of creatives. Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s work left a great impact on me, especially their film installation Floral, which I saw at The National Museum of Art Osaka in Japan. They are an artist duo who create short films, photographs, and sculptures. Their work often reveals multiple perspectives and presents varieties of truths through a hybrid form of storytelling. Ragnar Kjartansson is another contemporary artist I admire. He has mentioned in an interview that he often sees his video installations as kinetic paintings. In a similar way but vice versa, I consider my prints as recordings of ever-changing moments.

I’ve been reading mostly non-fiction. The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron and Devotion by Patti Smith are two books I recently finished and really enjoyed. Next, I’m about to read Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Nausea.

How do you incorporate chance in your creative process?
I’m very much drawn into the concept of chance in general. I like artwork that poetically reflects this kind of inconsistency and I appreciate the creator’s courage to embrace the uncertainties. John Cage’s chance operation is a great example of this. I would say that my process is a continuous effort to balance chance, intuition, and planning. I plan certain aspects of the work and which offers a perspective based on a loose structure but leaving the rest of the process open allows me to discover new perspectives and possibilities. I approach many other things in life the same way, like travel and cooking.
How important is spontaneity in your art?
The Pebbles series wouldn’t exist without spontaneity in the process. I premix and test all the colors before printing, but I do not use any form of matrix for the composition. I want it to happen more naturally. My prints consist of many layers of transparent colors and shapes. The free and organic interactions come from the approach I call “printing in the moment.” For the very first layer, I like to start with two or three shapes with contrasting colors, and then I decide on the next in responding to the previous layer and so on. I truly enjoy the spontaneity in the process and the way it demands me to be present. It’s like participating in a conversation and you need to improvise and respond. It never gets boring.

What tangible objects or intangible moments are you most interested in representing through your works?
I’m interested in moments that seem to blur memory, reality, and illusion; moments that reflect the constant change. We all experience reality under the influence of our perception, meaning that individuals’ reality could be drastically different due to personal experience, culture, memory, and many other factors. It also means that we have the power to influence our experience and emotion. In creating my work, I construct images and space to explore psychological changes and create tentative expressions inspired by the emotions that we experience but have difficulty putting into words.
How does your choice of color inform the final piece?
I’m obsessed with color, and more precisely, I’m obsessed with the interaction of color. Color is such a primal and relative element in art. Josef Albers mentioned in his book, “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is.” When I work on developing my color palettes, I think about the sensations I’m trying to create, and I also make an effort to include some colors that I rarely use in my previous works. The result often surprises me in a brilliant way and teaches me new things about color.
What are your favorite colors?
I love so many colors, but I did notice that blues and greens appear in the majority of my work. I think they have an immersive quality that receives or embraces other colors well. However, some latest works I’ve been creating during the quarantine leaned into a spectrum of more intense orange, teal, and violet.

Close up of "Pebbles #30"

Close up of "Pebbles #44"

How do you choose your materials?
The way I choose materials often starts with the concept. I ask myself how I can realize my concept in terms of the technical and the aesthetic aspect. I consider both aspects and try to find the material that has the right qualities. The transparency and a sense of light and space are pivotal in my work thus I focus on materials that I can manipulate to create complex layers while showing traceable marks and inviting lights. The materials I often use are oil-based ink, cotton paper, tinted-color plexiglass, and aerosol paint.

I think each material has its unique characteristics but also the potential to become something else. We have different connections to materials based on our experience and we might have preconceptions of how they can be applied related to how we were taught. Whenever I work with a material, I keep this in mind and try to jump outside of the box to look at it with a fresh eye. Working with multiple disciplines also helps me to shift perspectives and discover new potentials of materials.

How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has developed in both scale and form. As much as I love working on a small intimate scale during my studio practice, working on a larger scale brings me thrills. In 2019, I got an opportunity to create an installation that occupies 700 square feet of space. The very different dynamic of the project demanded more physical involvement and it also challenged me to rethink the way I approach the work to create not just a visual but an environment. I continue to apply this thinking to my studio work, and it has freed the work in a way how it communicates with me, and hopefully with others. Besides continuing my studio work, I hope to create more installations, especially print-based installations. I’d love to work on collaborations as well, with musicians for example.
For the very first layer, I like to start with two or three shapes with contrasting colors, and then I decide on the next in responding to the previous layer and so on. I truly enjoy the spontaneity in the process and the way it demands me to be present. It’s like participating in a conversation and you need to improvise and respond. It never gets boring. — Erin Zhao
What’s next for you?
I was really looking forward to the year 2020 because I had many exciting projects in store that include a partnership with a major technology company, an art conference in Puerto Rico, a printmaking residency in Basel, Switzerland, and other exhibitions. The current COVID-19 outbreak has hugely impacted my future schedules. Many projects got postponed but we’re trying our best to reschedule and react with flexibility and responsibility. Now with ample time I get to spend in the studio, it gives me a chance to reconsider the various relationships in my work process and indulge myself in some fun experimentations. Meanwhile, I hope everyone stays healthy!

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