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Life & Work with Erin McCluskey Wheeler

Today we’d like to introduce you to Erin McCluskey Wheeler.

Erin, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I grew up in Richmond, California, across the Bay from San Francisco. I started taking art classes at a young age at my local community art center. I always loved color and loved working with paper. We were encouraged in the kids’ art studio to make colorful drawings and then collage these into larger paintings. So in a lot of ways, I still work the same way in my artwork – making smaller paintings that I then collage into larger paintings. I studied art and art history and East Asian poetry and art at Beloit College and Kansai Gaidai University outside of Osaka, Japan. I learned a lot about using white space and composition in my painting studies in Japan. After college, I moved back to the Bay Area for graduate school at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. When I finished my MFA in writing, I moved to New York and worked in museum education for almost a decade. It took moving back to the Bay Area (here for good now!) and working in career development at CCA to realize that I really needed to be an artist again. I hadn’t made art for twelve years but I got out my paper and paint and scissors and glue and restarted the conversation I had put on pause.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Growing up, I was fortunate to have very supportive parents and live in a very creative place. But I didn’t know anyone who was a professional artist so this life seemed really out of reach. I had to really figure out how to put together a portfolio career with lots of different income streams so I wouldn’t be fully dependent on anyone way of making a living. What I think of as success changes every year. I like that I set goals for myself as an artist and then keep shifting those goals once I’ve learned what those goals look like.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
My work is all about reinvention and restoration. I cut up, group and rearranged my paintings on paper and found papers in a process of transformation – an intentional act of breaking apart and putting things back together. My process starts with color and texture and is additive and iterative – letting the pieces determine the final composition and shape of the pieces. I use paper, with its ubiquity, ephemerality, and lack of intrinsic value, because it can be transformed from the ordinary to the extraordinary through the application of paint, the cutting of shapes, and in combination with other papers.

Often the papers are sourced from other artists – students and collaborators – and this act of using paper that has passed through other’s hands is a way to create community and long-distance collaboration. I am interested in the materiality and weight of paper, the surfaces it leaves behind when torn and removed, and the way colors can evoke memories of people and place. I approach my work almost as an art restorer – completing shapes that have been cut, finding the forms under the layers, and matching the colors found with paint mixed directly on the surface.

This way of working is a direct result of my experience as a caretaker for both her parents with early onset dementia. As my parents’ sense of self, autonomy, and connection to the world got smaller and more fragmented, art really saved me; I found beauty in peace in reconstruction and in the careful placement of small things.

Have you learned any interesting or important lessons due to the Covid-19 Crisis?
Teaching art has always been a part of my creative practice and I’ve shifted to teaching visual art online. At first, it felt like a struggle, but I have grown to really love holding space for a community of art students who are from all over the world. I’ve also been really excited to work on commissions for people. Seems like a lot of people are home reevaluating their empty walls and thinking about what’s important. I worked with a couple in New York who asked me to incorporate postcards they’d collected on this honeymoon into a large collage painting. It was such a pleasure to transform something with a lot of meaning into something that they could really enjoy in their home.


  • My work ranges in price from $100 – $5,000

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