A few weeks ago I went to visit Erin McManness at her home in Decatur. The charming second floor apartment was decorated on nearly every wall with art. In a workspace nestled into a small corner of the kitchen, Erin sat down and spoke with me for some time about her work and life.
Erin McManness adds details to some typography in her sketchbook.
The cozy space has several work surfaces, plenty of storage, and hanging displays nestled under the desks. Pinned on the bulletin board were print samples, sweet notes and funny doodles. A selection of textiles hung from a screen divider in the corner, and lining the tabletops were bins of special occasion cards ready to be sold.
I first encountered Erin and her work during a group art show at Mindzai. I saw several of her illustrative and fantastical portraits in group shows at the gallery. The rich colors, depth of story and composition of her pieces drew me in, and I have enjoyed seeing her work throughout the last couple of years.
Originally hailing from Baltimore, it was a series of decisions that has led her to live in Atlanta. “I refer to myself as a northerner,” she told me, and her loyalty shines through in her fervent support of Ravens football. “I bleed purple,” she said.
In Erin’s family, art has always played an important role. Her grandmother was an oil painter, and her father is an artist by hobby. She told me of days when she would go with her father and sister to her grandmother’s house with a blank canvas and that they would all paint together.
“The great thing about painting is if you mess up, just paint it white again and start over,” Erin remembers her father telling her. These painting sessions were important to her not just because she enjoyed the act of painting but also because it brought her close to her father and grandmother.
Erin holding one of her father’s paintings, at right a note of appreciation pinned to her inspiration board.
She also spoke of the influence of watching Disney movies during these painting sessions. “I love those old Disney movies because they have the animation, but they also have the matte painting behind them,” she explained to me, “because at that point it was too much to animate what was going on in the background.” This struck me as quite the sophisticated observation for a child of only 8 or 9 years old. After all, I had watched all these same movies, and yet I wasn’t sure I had ever given much thought to the process.
“There’s this great scene where the little mice are running around her skirt, but her skirt is just this beautiful painting in the background. I just loved that… they don’t make movies like that anymore,” she said rather wistfully.
Past design samples and sweet notes from her beau pinned to Erin’s board.
Erin’s mother is also encouraging and enthusiastic about the arts and has been for her whole life. She is a preschool teacher, and Erin told me about many times when she and her sister would act as guinea pigs for her mother’s craft projects. In fact, it was her mother who pushed her to pursue visual arts long before she considered it seriously herself, and eventually had to admit that her mother had been right about that all along.
As a teen, Erin had fallen in with the theater kids at school, and any time that she was not on stage she would be drawing endlessly in her sketchbook. Erin became known as the artsy kid, even among her creative theater friends.
“I actually did musical theater for most of my young life and I went into my undergrad as a musical theater major. I took a scenic painting course as part of the theater requirement, and I started realizing that I really loved that class,” she said.
Hand-cut gift tags.
Erin attended Messiah College as a studio art undergraduate student in Pennsylvania. “For some extra money I had started doing commissions and drawings of peoples’ online role-playing characters,” Erin said, “and I realized that I liked doing that way more than I liked doing my scenic painting work.” After graduation, Erin spent a brief period working at Messiah in various administrative roles.
Erin relocated to LA and began pursuing fashion design. There she worked for several well-known and well-respected designers, coordinating fashion shows, traveling domestically and abroad for special events, and fitted models during exhibitions. The work took her out of her comfort zone and was a good experience for her, but after some time she found herself wanting something else out of life.
“In LA it’s like if you’re not trampling, you’re being trampled,” she said of the year or so that she spent there.
Erin moved several times more before settling down. First she went to Philadelphia, then spent some time in New York City, then headed back to Baltimore. During this phase she worked a variety temp jobs at places like doctors offices. “Everyone was unhappy,” she said of her experiences in that world.
“I realized I couldn’t really get a job doing what I wanted to do- I wanted to work for myself, I wanted to do illustrations, and I wanted to have my own business that was illustration based. I decided I really needed to go to grad school,” Erin said. “SCAD was my top choice, and I got in! The rest is history.”
I asked Erin about the difference between being a student at Messiah and SCAD. As an undergraduate student at Messiah her education consisted of a rather strict, formal training in classical arts and fundamentals like oil painting. There, the bar was set by accuracy, and “the best painting was the one that looked most like what was actually there in real life.” The skills she learned in draftsmanship and drawing during her time at Messiah have served her in many ways throughout her career, and the art history education she received greatly influenced her work.
“I’ve always been a decorative person,” she said, indicating an affinity for the style of art nouveau. “I’m not a minimalist, as I think you can tell.” She gestured to the floral and dreamy paintings around us and laughed.
Later, as a graduate student at SCAD, Erin felt that the standard of achievement as an artist had shifted. She found that “the most successful illustrators break rules, rendering wasn’t king anymore… it wasn’t about how well you can draw, rather it’s about the idea.” She told me of encountering several classmates and friends, like Barry Lee, whose styles she found enviable at times. “I’m still trying to break my own rules about art,” she said and spoke of her desire for aesthetic perfection in her work.
“I believe in conveying great ideas and conceptual ideas, but I also really believe in beauty,” Erin told me. In her opinion you must combine both a unique idea with accurate and purposeful execution according to standards of beauty and aligned with proper proportions. Erin’s clean, romantic aesthetic I could see displayed throughout the variety of pieces and products surrounding her in the studio space and serves to unify her work throughout the variety of mediums in which she works.
Recently, living as a graduate and independent artist in Atlanta, Erin has begun to focus more on networking and online sales. A coworker introduced her to a website called Minted where you can license designs and win prizes as well as earn royalties on products that they create and sell. Instantly, Erin felt quite at home. She submitted a design for one of their contests and won first place. Since then she has introduced a variety of products and designs to Minted and the experience has proved to be a life-changing one for Erin.
Several of Erin’s patterns that are available for sale on Minted.
“I think people really want the touch of the artist. They want to see the actual work- the handprint of the artist,” she said. “People really crave that connection.”
The connections she has gained from working with organizations like Minted have also allowed her an opportunity to meet a larger community of craftspeople and artists who make money from their illustrations. In addition to her flourishing social media supporters, Erin has now attracted the attention of a much larger audience within the online creative world through her connections with sites like this. She indicated just how important business growth is to her in this phase of her career, and talked for a while with passion about expanding through marketing education and networking with social media.
To see her work for yourself, check out her website, facebook, etsy, instagram, twitter, and Minted account. “I really love that stuff,” she said excitedly. Judging by her online presence and the success of her products, her passion is working out in her favor.