Erika Givens is a contemporary mixed media artist and photographer living and working in San Diego, California. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area with a fascination for drawing, creating elaborate Lego cities and towns for her Hot Wheel cars. Focused on becoming an urban planner, she graduated from UC Santa Barbara (in Environmental Studies/Political Science) but the pull toward art eventually lead her to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After graduating, she landed at the Nokia Design Center in Los Angeles to work as a Senior Graphic Designer for the Asia Pacific region. She later moved on to other creative pursuits at various design firms in the Bay Area. Her corporate experience at the time spanned from art direction, graphic design, and copywriting, to branding, identity, exhibit and multimedia design. Several of her projects found recognition in various publications worldwide, like I.D. Magazine and one earned a spot in the New York Film Festival.
In 2004, she got an itch to venture out of the corporate world and whip up a little fun on her own. She launched GLEAUX (pronounced *glow*), an uber-custom San Francisco-based stationery and invitation design studio. Here she spent years of late nights masterminding and meticulously hand-assembling elaborate, out-of-the-box paper creations. Before she knew it, without ever spending a dime on advertising, a 6-page feature story in the SF Chronicle Magazine and mentions in the Oakland Tribune, InStyle, SF Magazine, 7×7, and NBC’s Today Show carried her the rest of the way.
After relocating to San Diego in 2012 along with her husband Chad, and three young children, Luke, Reid, and Brooklyn, she transitioned her studio from primarily graphic design and invitations to photography, drawing, painting, and eventually the building of mixed media wall sculptures. These days, when not driving carpool, helping with homework, or camped out at youth sporting events, she finds pockets of time to venture out of her suburban bubble to the outskirts of greater San Diego and far beyond. She tries to seek out the unpolished, gritty, forgotten, uncultivated, and unfamiliar corners that most people typically avoid, or pass-thru en route somewhere else. She likes to practice the difficult but, as it turns out, the extremely rewarding discipline of being QUIETLY ALONE for long periods of time. She focuses on just BEING… seeing, blending, absorbing, recording. In disconnecting like this, she finds she is actually reconnecting… she more easily and earnestly notices true color, pure light, subtle smells and sounds, uninterrupted energy, and organic form. She scribbles, photographs, wanders, jots, touches, sketches, collects, asks, listens, tastes, feels, gets lost, and ultimately, after returning home to create, gets found. Over time she’s managed to build a uniquely personal portfolio of artwork that has found its way into distinguished galleries, several international art shows, a handful of world-class hotels (ie: The Bellagio in Las Vegas), and into private home collections across the globe.
Whatever experience her pieces leave art lovers with, her hope is that they serve as reminders to slow down, take a side route now and then, observe the details. Wander, blend, breathe, disconnect, go from macro to micro, get a little lost once in a while… because she says “you just never know what you might notice and how it might shift your perspective just a little… just enough”.
When did you begin doing art and how did you get started?
Erika: From a very early age, I had a fascination with drawing people, buildings, and patterns, as well as creating elaborate Lego cities for my Hot Wheel cars.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Erika: When I was young I wanted to be an archeologist or an architect. As I grew older, I became focused on becoming an urban planner, majoring in Environmental Studies/Political Science in college. But my interest in drawing, and fascination with patterns, systems, spacial layouts, and sequencing of meticulous details, eventually lead me to art school to study graphic design.
Tell us about your artwork, medium, style, subject matter etc.
Erika: My pieces are one-of-a-kind labors of love. While communicating their own visual cadence and dimensional rhythm, each piece represents a different process and aesthetic. The inspiration behind most of my work springs from the organic, geometric, textured, patterned, curiously meticulous, and peculiarly beautiful. The components of my pieces tend to come from nature, usually either the sea or the soil. Building original wall sculptures using raw material components from the natural world, such as pieces of dried plant life, marine material, pods, seeds, wood, shells, natural botanical fibers, clay, etc., has become a trademark of my work. These natural objects are then hand-manipulated, resurfaced, reshaped, and rearranged, in such a way as to become a new abstracted whole.
An element that inspires, and is central to a lot of my work, is the circle. The symbol can mean balance, healing, self, interconnectedness, infinity, perfection, cyclical time/movement, and unification. In studying the circle, I have also found inspiration in repeating patterns, micrographic line art, antique botanical and aquatic engravings, the vector of a curve, the fluidity and life force of water, dimension in sculpture, and texture in organic surfaces.
And what is the most challenging part about being a mixed media artist?
Erika: By far the most challenging part of being a mixed media artist that I am in the constant and ever-changing rotation of new materials through my work. With each new material incorporated into my work, new considerations must be made as to process and workflow, as well as how to manipulate, arrange, adhere, secure, finish, protect, crate, pack, and ship each piece. I very rarely create the same piece twice. The learning curve in creating my work is a steep one, where unfortunately many mistakes have been made! But constant change, experimentation, and the realization of creations that had once been only in my imagination leads to exciting, original, and fresh work that keeps me moving forward- learning and growing as an artist.
What is a day of working like in your studio?
Erika: A typical day in my studio begins at about 5 am with a few moments of stretching at my window to catch the first tiny bit of light break through the mist onto Black Mountain. Then armed with a cup of coffee and a blanket, I peruse my online world for urgencies, emergencies, surprises, news, etc., tune into NPR for a bit, turn on one of my favorite streaming radio stations, settle into a podcast of one topic or another and finally and eagerly sit down to pick up wherever I left off the day before in the concepting or build of that week’s wall sculpture. Like most working parents, my workday is wedged in between preparing meals, carpooling, after school activities, and homework. And as my own boss, marketing guru, agent, creative director, bookkeeper, sales rep, production department, web designer, social media ninja, etc… my workday is often an unglamorous juggling of actual productive creativity and tedious administrative busywork.
Do you have any rituals that help you get motivated or in “the zone”?
Erika: So all of that being said, getting into the “zone” is critical given the precious windows of actual hands-on artistic work time I do have. Getting into a productive and creative headspace usually requires 2 things… perusing the “Bin” and listening to music. The Bin is a somewhat chaotic hodge podge gumbo of curious and personally stimulating things – tear sheets, photos, packaging, tickets, tags, lists, charts, receipts, labels, menus, leaflets, old ledgers, typography, patterns, cloth, fabric, trinkets, tiny toys, wrappers, postcards, bark, moss, leaves, pods, shells, seeds, driftwood, packing material, fibers, string, handwritten poems, scribbles, sheet music, swatches, things stained, soaked, faded, torn, damaged, etc… The music ranges all the way from Kenny Burrell and Herb Ellis, to Chris Stapleton, Zac Brown Band, Andre Segovia, Bob Dylan, Bach, Indigo Girls, Creedence Clearwater, Alpha Blondy, and Flogging Molly. Each art piece is usually birthed from some portion of the gumbo bin and has its own soundtrack!
When did you realize that disconnecting and being alone helps you in your creativity?
Erika: I figured this out very early on… probably in middle school. I am an extroverted introvert – I love being around people but for usually short spurts of time. The right people in the right bursts definitely invigorate me, but if the balance is off for too long I begin to wither and shut down, becoming abnormally exhausted and depleted. I spent half a lifetime feeling ashamed about this and worked relentlessly to override it with extroversion to no avail. Once I finally accepted and owned it, I decided to embrace every day as an exercise in finding sanity-saving alone time. The discipline of being quietly alone for periods of time, whether venturing out and about or hunkering down in my studio, is usually really rewarding as it permits me to truly see, blend, absorb, and record life without all the distractions. In disconnecting like this, I find I am actually reconnecting… I more easily and earnestly notice the true color, pure light, subtle smells and sounds, uninterrupted energy, and organic form. I allow myself undivided attention to scribble, photograph, wander, jot, touch, sketch, collect, listen, taste, feel, get lost, and ultimately, after sitting down to create, get found. In the end, recognizing that this formula of self-preservation and self-discovery was not “weird” and was actually a good thing, came not only as a huge relief but a blessing.
You are a wife and a mother as well as a successful artist; how does family life influence or affect your art?
Erika: I have found that working in a home studio that is integrated and completely enmeshed in my noisy, robust, and colorful family life can be challenging at times but also positioned as a huge opportunity. My kids have not only witnessed but participated in my inspiration gathering methods, creative process, production lines, how I package and present my work visually and verbally to the world, how I handle success, but most importantly, how I handle defeat. When a piece doesn’t turn out the way I’d intended or isn’t received the way I’d hoped it would by those I’d hoped would notice… how do I behave? Knowing that my kids are watching makes me a better, more responsible, and authentic artist. I try to use each new situation as a learning opportunity from which they can really experience the value of persistence, resilience, hard work, authenticity, grit, and finally, not only believing in but forgiving oneself
What is the best way to reach people that are interested in your art?
Erika: I have worked with brick and mortar galleries in the past, but in my experience as an emerging artist, I have found that compared to the exposure artists can receive online, physical galleries can be somewhat limiting. Having work available for viewing in online galleries, blogs, Instagram, etc really exposes me to many more genres of people interested in art – collectors, investors, curators, consultancies, interior designers, creatives in the hospitality business, etc. I also find that participating in local/regional art shows can be very rewarding because it brings you face to face in a very intimate and personal way with people I can engage in meaningful conversation with. They can walk around my pieces, touch them, watch light catch and shadows cast upon them, ask questions, and make up-close observations about them, ultimately walking away with a deeper connection to them and me. This is a very gratifying and valuable experience for an artist and a potential collector.
Are there any upcoming shows or workshops we should know about (or canceled due to the Covid-19 situation)?
Erika: I feel very lucky to have been able to participate in ART Palm Springs right before the world went into quarantine. Since then my plans to participate in the The Beverly Hills Art Show this spring have been postponed until October 2020. I also have a few pieces on exhibition in a group show currently at Sparks Gallery in San Diego.
And what is the message you are trying to give with your art?
Erika: I don’t really create with a specific purpose or the intent to send a message. I suppose the endeavor of my work is ultimately very self serving… it feels good to me. A huge part of what I do comes down to execution. As prolonged and laborious the process of creating many of my pieces is, it is the result of the accumulation of slow, methodical, patient gestures, repeated over time to transform tiny single units into a larger ordered, interconnected system. Working in this way is considered REALLY TEDIOUS by most and clearly is not for everyone, but for me personally, these small actions and the gradual evolution of a whole, as revealed day after day and week after week, is extremely gratifying to experience. This mindful and methodical process usually makes the meticulous labor, long hours, and dedication well worth it in the end- especially when that tranquil sense of peace and calm settles in you, as if having meditated… making any stress arising later in the day just a little easier to move thru. I have been told that viewing my work can be a soothing, peaceful, and comforting experience and if that was how I felt while making it and I was able to pass that experience on to the viewer, then hallelujah! I also like to think of my work as a little reminder to slow down, take a side route now and then, observe the details. Wander, blend, breathe, disconnect, go from macro to micro, get a little lost once in a while… because you just never know what you might notice and how it might shift your perspective just a little… just enough.
What advice would you give to upcoming artists, how to think out-of-the-box, and grow?
Erika: My advice to an upcoming artist just starting out is to really sit with yourself, and take a long hard look at who you are, or want to be, as an artist. Try to quiet all those voices pressuring you to be a certain kind of artist, have a certain vibe/style, create out of certain angst or rebellion or irony or smugness, or have a certain commercial appeal. Work hard to harness your authentic inner voice and process that is all your own. In my opinion, every good artist must also be deeply in love with their own work (if you don’t love it then don’t do it). They must also have a deep understanding of the why behind their creative expression. Ask yourself what original or provocative question, viewpoint, angle, perspective, reaction, or emotion viewers might experience from an encounter with your work? And if the answer to that is merely that they feel good, calm, or at peace… be OK with that! Art doesn’t have to be perplexing, outrageous, controversial… it’s ok if it just feels good, mesmerizes, invites you to stare a while. And lastly, try not to let the world’s art critics, who invariably come in all shapes, sizes, and creeds, intimidate, stifle, or creatively block you. Continue always to do your research and self-discovery work, but then just dive in mostly with blinders on, do what you do, and do it with all your heart… it may take time, but you will be rewarded for it in one way or another in the end.
What’s next on the horizon for Erika?
Erika: Having just wrapped up a large commission for the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, I am currently taking a little breather in the aftermath of the pandemic lockdown and exploring some personal projects. I am looking forward to the start of several exciting hospitality commissions this summer/fall, as well as, participating (pandemic permitting) in a few art shows and my first designer showcase. But mostly I hope to continue to love what I do and feel the fulfillment of being able to share it with others. Best feeling in the world : )
To find out more about Erika and her work, please visit: