In the studio with Erika Alonso

In the studio with Houston-based artist Erika Alonso. We met with Erika to tell us more about growing up in Southern California, finding inspiration through ballet, and her dream-like memories made of paint.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I’ve always been artistic and wanted to be an artist since childhood, but it wasn’t until my early thirties that I started seeing myself as an ‘artist.’ Meeting myself as an artist in my early thirties was meant to be; I had already gotten to the point where my self-confidence outweighed the influence of others’ criticisms. Also, my mindset changed: if I’m making art daily, I am an artist. That makes sense to me, so that’s what I do, and now I can call myself an artist without reservation.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I grew up with my parents and two siblings in southern California, a place that often inspires my landscape-like abstracted paintings. We moved to South Texas when I was 10 and again to Houston when I was 14. My upbringing did not encourage me to pursue artistic endeavors seriously. Art was a hobby. Sure, some artists make a living off of creating their artwork, but those are few and far between—and it’s more likely that I would be a “starving artist,” and they didn’t want that for me!

After high school, I wanted to attend art school, but my parents encouraged me to get a business degree. In retrospect, I’m happy they did—I’ve found that my education and work experiences strengthen me as an artist. Artists have to make their art and run a business. In addition to painting, I can build my own website, install vinyl lettering for exhibitions, plan and manage projects, write successful grant proposals, and more.

Another thing that has impacted my work is how I view work. My father’s family immigrated to the United States and achieved the American Dream through hard work and dedication. I grew up with this mindset that working hard is a virtue in itself and, in time, will bring about success. This mindset is my foundation for making art: work, work!

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you first to pursue art and then continue to practice creative work? 

I’m a contemporary abstract artist working and living in Houston, Texas. While I’ve always made art, I committed to my practice around 2015. This commitment was ignited by late-20s existential dread and continued thanks to my partner’s encouragement and emotional support. As a self-taught artist, I spent quite a few years learning how to make art: the methods, mediums, materials, color theory, etc. Then, in 2018, I focused on what I wanted to paint. By mid-2019, I had found my style—fantastical and curious watercolor paintings—and moved into my first art studio. By 2021, I had taught myself to paint in oils and acrylics and started working large-scale.

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from?

My most recent works are an experiment with abstracting landscapes and figures in a way that conveys a dream-like memory made of paint. These whimsical, abstract-figurative landscape paintings are meant to capture a moment in all of its fleetingness—the movement and rush and whirl of it.
I like to describe my work as an escape from reality: my paintings are places I’d like to spend my time—places that are indeterminate, dynamic, stimulating, enchanting, and complex.

Who are your greatest influences?

My current influences can be seen plainly in my work: I’m inspired by Willem de Kooning and his use of charcoal and blending of unconventional materials, as well as his idea of a “slipping glimpser”; Marc Chagall’s whimsical, dreamlike paintings; Cecily Brown’s fractured and whirring brushstrokes; and Julie Mehtru’s mark-making. Most recently, Ruth Asawa’s tied-wire sculptures influenced me to explore wire sculpture. I’m also influenced by artists from other disciplines, like singer-songwriter Nick Cave and the late musician-poet David Berman.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

I’ve found that ballet is very inspiring! I think it’s something to do with storytelling through movement and rhythm. Over time, I’ve come to believe that everything I see, hear, and experience inspires my art somehow.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I want my work to inspire viewers to engage their imagination to come to their own conclusions. I actively try not to think about the viewer while painting because I am filled with doubt and hesitation when I do. The process is for me; what results is for the viewer.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a ‘good‘ piece of work?

The only difference between a good and bad painting is a feeling. That feeling is what creates the ideal conditions. I have to feel as if I am completely free of responsibilities; I don’t have to be anywhere, meet anyone, or do anything other than make art. I do my best work alone; I cannot be tasked with self-awareness or consideration for others. I have to be free to do whatever I want. If I can feel this way, it brings about an extended daydream, maybe similar to what others call a flow state. The less I think, the better the outcome. Time and again, I’ve found that my best paintings are the ones that paint themselves.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your paintings.

Land(e)scape 02 (2022) is reminiscent of a white-sand beach. It has narratives superimposed onto the seascape and was inspired by the stories of three older women who immigrated to the United States from Latin America when they were younger. I sat down with them and recorded oral histories to capture their memories of their homeland and their experience coming to the United States, and I listened to their recorded stories as I painted.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

In the future, I’d like to explore how I can achieve my watercolor aesthetic on a large scale. With watercolor, timing is everything, and I have to work very quickly—a difficult thing to do when working on larger pieces.

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice & aesthetic?

Getting an art studio made a big difference in my work. I finally had the space and isolation required to make great paintings. My studio allows me to experiment with different mediums and to work larger than I was able to before. As a result, my art has evolved in complexity and confidence.

Describe your work in three words:

Distinct, Painterly, Movement.

What do you listen to while you work? Is music important to your art?

I almost always listen to music while painting. I usually put one album on repeat for many weeks before switching to something else.

What is your favorite read?

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received (any quotes or mantras you particularly connect with)?

The Joy of Painting episode featuring guest painter Ben Stahl—Stahl offers gems of wisdom throughout.

What makes you laugh?

Clever jokes. And watching YT videos of cats doing silly cat things.

What makes you nervous?

What doesn’t make me nervous?!

Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?

How does it feel to be such a famous artist? 🤠💀

Is there anything you’ve recently tried for the first time? 

I recently stayed in West Texas for a short artist residency; this was my first residency and it was an adventure!

Is there anything you’ve been hesitant to try in the past but you’d like to this year?

I don’t hesitate too much when it comes to trying new things.

Do you have any superstitions?

The evil eye (el mal de ojo) is real, and I work hard to keep it and all negative vibes out of my studio.

Would you rather know what the future holds or be surprised?

I don’t like surprises, tell me about my future!

What place in your everyday environment do you go to for inspiration?

I like going to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Menil. I especially like to go to the Rothko Chapel to think in silence.

What are some things you’re most passionate about outside of your practice?

Social justice work and animal advocacy

What is your relationship with social media?

The one thing that I can bring to social media that is unique is my art; everything else is just adding to the noise. So I post about my art and little else.