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Turning Over the Soil: Erin Woodbrey, BFA '07

Mixed media lights installation with found object by Erin Woodbrey

Erin Woodbrey, BFA ‘07, works in rhythm with the sprawling garden that sits just beyond Woodbrey’s art studio. 

“The garden is very much a part of my art practice,” Woodbrey said.  

Arguably, the bees, containers, and seeds are a literal extension of the multidisciplinary artist’s work. A few years ago, a pile of tomato cages in the corner of the studio turned out to be a breakthrough. Now the cages form the foundation for a body of work called The Carrier Bag Series.

Woodbrey grew up in Maine–the child of an avid gardener and the grandchild of farmers. Work by hand–whether art-making or growing–is intrinsic to Woodbrey’s process.   

This morning, Woodbrey is photographing and boxing up a crop of sculptures from The Carrier Bag Series, recently featured at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Philadelphia, as part of a two-person show with Megan Biddle. Titled Here After, the exhibition examined time and the spectrum of states between permanence and decay, themes that Woodbrey has long been exploring. 

In the studio, the sculptures are arranged in a precise grid, staggered in rows identical to those Woodbrey plants in the garden. “I want to eventually exhibit all of them together and give people the chance to walk around and between the sculptures. It should feel like visiting a garden in the spring after the soil has been turned over,” Woodbrey imagines. This idea forms the seed for a new body of work currently coming to life in the studio. 

Making deeply conceptual work built on thoughtful research and experimentation was something Woodbrey first learned at SMFA, which at the time was still known as School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

“You had SMFA with its open curriculum and experimental ethos and then the coursework at Tufts. Together the two experiences informed the work in the studio and provided a conceptual framework for research, thinking, and making,” Woodbrey said. 

While at SMFA, Woodbrey took classes in the papermaking and printmaking studios and interned at the Carriage House Research Institute of Paper History and Technology, now the International Paper Museum in Brookline, MA. “Working in the paper studio provided the foundation for my future work,” Woodbrey said.  

In 2018, Woodbrey was the recipient of an SMFA Traveling Fellowship, an annual prize offering $10,000 to 10 alumni each year to be used towards research and travel. Woodbrey used the award to work with dendrochronologists, scientists who date events and archaeological artifacts, at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest Snow and Landscape Research. 

“The fellowship was such an incredible opportunity outside of school or university setting to do intensive research,” Woodbrey reflected. 

The result was Before Present, an ongoing series including a video installation and book project. The project questions the linearity of time by examining ice age era tree stumps and their corresponding timestamps gleaned from clues interpreted by the dendrochronologists.

The concept for The Carrier Bag Series also weighs time and mortality. It came to Woodbrey during a 2020 residency at Mass MoCA. One morning plaster bandage strips paired with wood ash was wrapped around a disposable coffee cup, encasing and opening up a new material potential for the usually discarded object.

Intrigued by ancient Roman recipes for mixing concrete, adding materials available in the studio–wood ash, eggshells, and seashells became the catalyst for this body of work. 

“I wanted to create a new material with what I had nearby.” Woodbrey explained. It was a direct reaction to how extraction-heavy daily life can be–whether it’s plundering the earth for clay, or mining gypsum to make plaster. 

A version of that process appears in Cities in Dust–a gross aerial display of human consumption meant to jolt viewers into an awareness that our material waste will long outlive our bodies.

These sculptures combine multiple containers into mythological vessels meant to tell a story, and perhaps even predict how single-use plastics will ultimately turn into a monstrosity, piled high enough to threaten wellbeing. 

Woodbrey said, “My recent work has become somewhat more narrative. I hope that the art will tell a new story about objects and containers as well as build a wider vocabulary for material potentials.”

Lead image: By Erin Woodbrey, courtesy of the artist.  Illuminators for the Geologic Afterlife, mixed-media light installation with found objects, 2022. Installation view from, Assembly, Group Exhibition, SPACE Gallery Portland, ME

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