A Colossal Interview 

Lisa Ericson On the Threat of the Climate Crisis and Why She Chooses Magic Over Scientific Accuracy

October 20, 2020

Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with artist Lisa Ericson in August and October 2020 via email. This conversation has been edited for clarity. Shown above is “Safe Passage.”

Grace: How has COVID-19 been affecting your work? What’s a typical day like?

Lisa: Painting is a very solitary pursuit. I’m used to working from home, grabbing work time whenever I can, and working late into the night almost every night, and none of that has changed with COVID-19. What has changed is that my 6-year-old daughter hasn’t had school or outside childcare since March, and that has undoubtedly cut my available working hours significantly. My work was already slow and time-consuming, but my pace since March has felt glacial. I found it difficult to focus for the first couple months of isolation and worry. I couldn’t lose myself in the work the way I could before. But as time has gone by, I’ve adjusted, and even with fewer working hours, I can usually find that flow state when I work.

I should mention that I’m currently typing this while simultaneously shepherding my 6-year-old, who is set up right next to me in my studio, through her day of distance learning. Now my typical day bounces back and forth between my daughter’s synchronous online lessons while I sit two feet behind her and paint, helping her navigate the rest of her assignments both on and off the computer. I still work every night and grab extra hours whenever possible. Even though every family’s situation is slightly different, the precarious balancing act that parents are doing right now to juggle their own work and their kids’ needs and school schedules is no joke.



Grace: Your work tends to be connected to a larger theme, and previous projects have centered on concerns about coral bleaching and animal displacement. What issues are you thinking about currently? How does that translate to the wood panel?

Lisa: I’m currently working on a much larger, more involved piece about Monarch butterflies, which is a subject I’ve touched on before, but that continues to be a source of fascination to me. Their amazing migratory patterns, their transformation, their overwhelming numbers at their wintering grounds, the way they hang in clumps from the trees, and yet their delicacy, their fragility, and the multiple threats they face due to climate change, habitat loss, and pesticide use.

I’m also interested in continuing to explore the series I started with “Anchor,” “Bleach,” and “Beacon,” with an animal somewhat perilously caught and held in the water, half-submerged, forming its own solitary island. I tend to move slowly through my ideas, exploring them fully before moving on. Beyond that, I’ll have to see where time and inspiration take me.

Grace: Which issue has been the most difficult to visualize? Are there any you’re hoping to tackle in the future that have been elusive so far?

“Last month, as fires raged through California and Oregon, forcing people to flee in its wake, the smoke got so thick and toxic here in Portland, we had to seal ourselves into our house with duct tape.”

Lisa: I have lots of ideas that don’t become composites, and many composites that don’t become paintings. I have half a dozen iterations of a composite of a caravan of animals, which so far I’ve never been able to get quite right. (Someday if you see that painting, you’ll know I finally figured it out.) One challenge is that most of my paintings are on a smaller, intimate scale, so sometimes it’s difficult to encapsulate larger environmental ideas into a small moment. Last month, as fires raged through California and Oregon, forcing people to flee in its wake, the smoke got so thick and toxic here in Portland, we had to seal ourselves into our house with duct tape around the windows and doors to try to keep the smoke out as much as possible for a week. Since then, I’ve been thinking about fire, and what I would do with it in a painting. So I’ll see where that takes me.



Grace: Could you describe your research process, considering your paintings capture the most minute details?

Lisa: I can get a germ of an idea from any number of sources—books, movies, news stories, etc, but the pieces that I generate from those ideas come to life in a variety of ways. First, I need images. A huge amount of visual research goes into each piece. Sometimes I’m able to use a couple of my own pictures. Wherever I go, I’m on the lookout for little moments to photograph, and I have an ever-growing collection of pictures of moss, leaves, branches, flowers, rocks, pavement, etc.

But for the most part, I use stock photography to piece together my compositions. They’re like puzzles with a huge number of moving parts that all must fit together perfectly. Some come together relatively quickly, some I torture to within an inch of their life before tossing them out or overhauling them completely. Some ideas change drastically in the composition. Sometimes one image I find can open the door to a whole new idea. I’m open to anything during this time. I experiment and play.

“I usually listen to audiobooks or podcasts when I paint, but when I’m composing, I can only listen to music because I’m using too much of my brain to follow a storyline.”

I rely on an “I’ll know it when I see it” approach to constructing my pieces. Once I have the major players in place, I work out the details. Sometimes this involves going back and doing a little more research so I know what I’m looking for. And again, I’m back on the hunt, searching for each image that makes the whole work together. The composition stage takes the most focus and concentration. I usually listen to audiobooks or podcasts when I paint, but when I’m composing, I can only listen to music because I’m using too much of my brain to follow a storyline.

Grace: You’ve called your work “science-inspired but with a surreal twist,” and others have categorized it as magical realism. Where are the surreal or magical elements derived from? How do you see their function?

Lisa: I choose to walk a certain line between the realism and the surreal or magical elements of my paintings. The scenarios I’m painting aren’t naturally occurring, and yet they’re also not too outlandish. And I’m trying to depict them so realistically that you’re almost fooled for a moment into believing them. The underlying subject matter may be based on a real-world issue (coral bleaching, habitat erosion, etc.), but my take on it is not scientific, and I won’t sacrifice the impact of the image for the sake of scientific exactitude. I like to spin the story in whatever way creates the most visual and emotional impact for the viewer, and my hope is that the surreal/magical elements of my paintings add to that.



Grace: Often, you position animals and insects on the backs of others, like foxes on a large bird or butterflies on a turtle, so that one is carrying the weight. What’s the relationship between species? Is this commentary on the interconnectedness of nature, the necessity of relying on each other, something else?

Lisa: Yes, these pieces are about our interconnectedness, and they’re also about escape, refuge, and survival in times of peril. They’re tied to the concept of refugia — habitats that remain buffered from the effects of climate change and ensure the survival of species in changing environmental conditions. When faced with threats such as climate change, fire, scarcity of resources, etc., it can be essential that species have the ability to move to places where conditions are more favorable and offer protection from threats to their survival.



Grace: After you graduated from Yale with a fine art degree, you transitioned into graphic design. How does that background show up in your process and potentially, in your finished pieces?

Lisa: I’m sure my years working in graphic design are woven into my painting practice in more ways than I even realize, but maybe the most obvious is that in graphic design work, you’re always thinking about how every decision, every little detail, is a visual clue for your audience. It all must work together and to strengthen and clarify the message you’re sending.

When I transitioned back into painting, I took with me that desire to cut out the noise, be clear about my message and that the piece should have an impact at a single glance. I love details, and they’re a perfect place to linger when you’ve already drawn in a viewer, but I want my work to have an instantaneous impact. It’s one of the reasons I isolate my subjects on black. The spotlight on the subject against the black gives me the instant punch I’m looking for.

Grace: Can you expand on why you depict the lighting the way you do? It feels almost like a photograph is being taken, which to me implies a hidden human capturing that shot.

Lisa: I intentionally use a strong directional light, which makes high contrast lights and darks, highlights and shadows, and vivid color. It’s dramatic and high impact, but it also implies a sort of sudden, perhaps unexpected, illumination in the darkness. I like to leave the specific interpretation, whether you think of it as a camera flash, headlights, a spotlight, etc, up to the viewer, but in my mind, the light does imply a human presence of some kind.


“The King”

Grace: We’d love to know more about your relationship with social media, and more broadly, with self-promotion. You have an active following and frequently share glimpses into your process and shots of works-in-progress, but that’s not always natural for people, especially early-career artists. How has your experience been with social media and the advent of the personal brand, particularly as it becomes necessary to grow a creative practice?

Lisa: I’d say I have an evolving relationship with social media. Currently, I’d file it under challenging but rewarding. Obviously, it’s an incredibly useful tool to reach and expand your audience. And when I share something new, it’s rewarding to feel so tangibly how my work is reaching others out there in the world. I wouldn’t give that up. But I’m an introvert at heart, so it doesn’t always come naturally to me to share and self-promote, and I haven’t found that more time in the game has changed my fundamental nature. I suppose we each have to figure out our own comfort level and how much we want to share of our work and our life.

Grace: What’s next for you? Beyond a specific body of work, what are you thinking about or studying these days that you believe will impact your intellectual and creative trajectory?

Lisa: Inspiration can come from anywhere, at any time, as evidenced by my history of jotting down glimmers of ideas on whatever random scrap of paper I can find. For me, it’s more important to be open to those moments than to know exactly where I’m going next.


To view more of Ericson’s paintings, head to Instagram, and find originals and prints available on her site.