Photography by Marcus Ezell
Styling by Fatiyha Johnson
Makeup by Saj Mack
For Erin Henry, art is a way to process where she is in the moment. Passionate about her field for as long as she can remember, she progressed from kindergarten dreams to selling her work at just 15, and later briefly attending art school before dropping out to create work full time, all without much overthinking or doubt. It seems her art career was always meant to be, having led to an impressive amount of success for an early twentysomething.
But far more than simply being a talented young artist, Henry is using her work to comment on current issues. So far, her most successful collection is “It Could Be You,” a series of paintings that bring awareness to the unsettling prevalence of sexual assault. A project that premiered right after Time’s Up and #MeToo brought the issue to global prominence, it comprises 50 painted faces, in every color, style, and expression. Henry often gets inspiration for her faces from unknowing people she discovers on Instagram, so she wanted to draw viewers in with the literal possibility a painting could depict them while also commenting on how sexual assault, like this artistic process, does not discriminate. Through her own creative tendency, she brought attention to a much darker topic, which in turn contributed to the increased awareness she emphasizes is necessary to decreasing instances of misconduct.
“It Could Be You” is a standout example of Henry’s process, as she uses art as a medium to think about her current condition, reflecting on the relationships between her inner self, her creativity, and the events and issues happening around her. In today’s fast-paced environment, where technology allows news to spread faster than ever (and anyone to quickly and easily share opinions), this method is a promising way to create works she is truly passionate about as well as start a dialogue about relevant issues. Though many people share words or photos about what’s going on in the world, the artist is making an original mark through her timely oil-painting commentary, using her talents to help viewers see current complexities from a new perspective.
“I have often seen our intentions at odds with our actions,” Henry said of what she hopes to explore and communicate through her work. “How can we align our minds and bodies and be better people?”
Furthering the strength of her commentary, Henry prioritizes inclusivity and intersectional feminism. A queer woman herself, she sees the importance of representing femme people of all backgrounds and identities, something that’s visible in the diversity of the subjects she paints and ever-present whenever she gets the chance to speak. From the darkly striking message of “It Could Be You” to the female nudes that are a consistent motif in her work—always a powerful statement after a history of unequal access to practicing this artistic pillar, as anyone who has read Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” knows well—Henry truly displays femininity as a spectrum, and something worthy of more exploration. She also is signed to Freedom Models, and her work in this sphere with clients like Fenty Beauty has only furthered the combination of creativity and inclusivity that defines her artistic rise.
With a strong vision and prominent accomplishments already under her belt at just 23, Henry looks set to continue to rise as she shares more creative contemplation with the world. L’Officiel USA had the chance to ask the artist about her upbringing, her thoughts on the state of America, and her plans for the future.
How did you know you wanted to pursue art as a career?
I think I’ve always somehow known that I would be an artist. I actually recently found one of my old assignments from kindergarten, in which I wrote about how I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I never consciously realized that I was an artist until I grew older and realized that I devoted myself to art in a different way than my peers. Once I first started selling my work at 15, I knew this was what I had to do for the rest of my life.
How has your upbringing in Marietta, Georgia influenced your work?
Growing up in the Bible Belt is a double-edged sword for an artist like me. What I find interesting is that most people in Marietta typically haven’t seen art like the kind I make. My paintings are edgier than what this traditional Southern town is used to. Viewers usually have strong feelings about them, good or bad. But a reaction is what is important.
I’ve always felt like a “black sheep” growing up, so being able to put my experiences into art that people react and relate to is one of the best parts of being an artist. I can’t say I don’t enjoy standing out; for the most part, I’ve always enjoyed being different.
Related, you now spend a lot of time traveling to cities around the country. How has that impacted you and your creative vision?
I think one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that, as an artist, comfort and complacency will kill you. I spent the first 21 years of my life growing up in the same town. I tried my best to curate the most comfortable, perfect life around me only to one day realize that’s what was giving me stress. One day, I spontaneously decided to pack up all my things and move across the country to Los Angeles. It was exciting and scary, but ever since, I’ve made it a mission to never settle or get too comfortable. With every new city I spend time in, my work evolves a little more. Art is a response to life, and unfamiliarity is a beautiful place to begin.
What do you like about working with oil painting and this medium’s impact on your ideas?
I love oil paint so much because it is so dynamic. There are a million different ways to manipulate and experiment with it. Sometimes it feels like you can almost let go and let the painting create itself. It also allows for “happy accidents” which helps me to be more flexible with my vision.
You’ve stated that you use art as a way to record your current condition as well as reflect. What’s on your mind right now?
I’ve been thinking a lot about people lately. Analyzing relationships, how people communicate with each other, and the impressions from personal encounters. I have often seen our intentions at odds with our actions. How can we align our minds and bodies and be better people?
A lot of your work engages with the nude female form. What do you hope to convey through this, working within an industry and environment that has often regulated how to display women’s bodies?
I want to paint bodies in the same way Monet painted his Water Lilies, the same way Hopper painted his rooms by the sea: with care, intention, and consideration for the subject. It’s important to normalize the nude body. I don’t paint nudes for the “shock value” that may come with the subject matter; I paint nudes because that is just what feels right to me.
I stopped taking art classes early in high school because I wasn’t even allowed to sketch a semi-nude figure in my own sketchbook during class. My teacher made a scene out of me, so part of my first experience with art education included censorship, and that felt wrong to me. I think art should be whatever it can be, respectfully of course. So in this sense, I definitely want to convey a feeling of freedom and power with my work.
Can you discuss the series you created on sexual assault last year, "It Could Be You"? What did it mean to you then and what are your thoughts reflecting on it a year after its initial release?
This collection started as an exercise, painting a new random face every day. I would open Instagram, scroll until I saw a face that caught my attention, and then paint in the next few hours. A few faces in, I realized that each of these faces could help tell a story. It was the height of the #MeToo movement, and so many brave women were continuing to come forward and tell their story. I chose to call it “It Could Be You” because predators don’t discriminate- just like I didn’t as I was picking random faces. You never knew if your face was going to pop up on my canvas. It could be you.
Overall, I want to help dismantle this narrative of victim-blaming that is still so prevalent in our society’s thinking by encouraging the viewer to put themselves in the victim’s shoes. The opening night of the exhibition was successful and even helped raise money for a local advocacy center, Safepath. It was a nice way to be a part of the community, so I definitely want to do more social projects like this in the future.
An inclusive vision of feminism has been a priority within your work. How do you hope to see the creative sphere evolve to accommodate and celebrate a more diverse range of women, femmes, and non-binary people?
We always need to remember that art is for anyone and everyone. I think visibility and representation is a major key right now. Providing spaces and platforms to promote creatives of all kinds is how we will truly succeed the most in this new Renaissance. I have been able to create a beautiful life where I can proudly represent the LGBTQ community and I want to show others that it is possible to find their space as well.
What are your thoughts on the current state of America and how you’d like to address this through your work?
America is in a dark place right now. Art helps us to share ideas, communicate, and make sense of the world around us. Art can give us hope. I strive to use my platform to always keep promoting positive movements and messages. We need to give visibility to things that are important and encourage people to use their own voice.
What is the most important thing you hope people will take away from seeing your work?
As an artist, I think the simplest thing I can ask for is just a little bit of the person’s time. The rest is up to them. I would encourage anyone not to shy away from any thoughts or feelings that may come to you. Consider it all; explore something new. Anything is possible. Overall, I just hope that they enjoy the visual experience.
What is some art that you’ve seen that inspires you?
Some of the most potent work to me to this day is the photography of Sally Mann. I think her art is a big part of why I’ve fallen so in love with the human figure. I've always felt great nostalgia when viewing her work, and I think that is one of the most gripping, yet difficult feelings to evoke within art. The process and result are unique and inspiring.
In addition to being an artist, you’re signed to Freedom Models. Can you talk a bit about your work in that sphere? How does it intersect with or influence your work in art?
Like I said earlier, it’s all about your experiences…and modeling is a unique way for me to get to explore the world and meet great people. Of course, as a figurative artist, all of these things also mesh together so beautifully. I am a better photographer because I model, and a better painter because I get to photograph women around the world. My idea is to continue collaborating with the other artists I meet, and also push to merge art and fashion more.
You’re still so young but already have accomplished a lot. Where do you want your career to go from here?
My main motto of the moment is “keep moving forward.” I take every day as it comes, and just try to keep my “project list” busy. I want my art to go all over the world, and it’s on its way. I just need to keep working hard, painting, and letting my work speak for itself.
Are there any upcoming projects in the works you’d like to speak about?
I was just sponsored by Xfinity to design a t-shirt for the Atlanta Braves! It was a fun challenge because I’ve never really done graphic design before, but I’m really happy with the final design. It was an honor to create something for everyone in my home city.