SHIPPENSBURG – “This is what brought me back,” says Erin Saliga.
She is looking at a particular piece as she says this – a digitally-edited, three-panel image of a forest scene whose palette is constantly shifting, as if animated, under the glow of a string of color-cycling LED lights.
The “this” that she’s referring to is the artistic journey that has led her here.
It is a little after 1:00 p.m. on December 6, and Saliga is taking a break from hanging the 50-plus pieces of her exhibit aptly titled “Sojourn.” The reception is only a few hours away and there are still some lights to move into position and the pieces still need their title cards.
There is a table set up with stations where attendees will be able to make their own pour paintings under Saliga’s supervision, and there is a box to collect donations to Toys for Tots: the first five people who arrive with a toy to donate will get to create a free piece to take home with them.
Saliga’s husband Paul, who will be providing the music for the reception, strums an acoustic guitar on The Thought Lot’s (37 E. Garfield St.) low stage. The laughter of children playing near the entrance of Whiskers Vintage and Vinyl reverberates throughout the otherwise empty 10,000 square foot contemporary arts center.
“My mom had passed away, and I found myself kind of lost,” said Saliga of her sojourn into the world of art.
Where her mother had painted landscapes, Saliga took the first step into photography.
“I took pictures always,” says Saliga, “but I never shared them with anybody because they were kind of a like a journal, my dear diary.”
It was only at a friend’s urging that she eventually started printing them and making them available for sale – starting with the three-panel forest scene.
And it was also a friend who made the observation that led to one of Saliga’s most significant breakthroughs. It was the result of a chance placing of some extra lights that transformed Saliga’s piece so drastically that the stunned friend insisted that Saliga take a step back and look.
So Saliga stepped back and looked, and she saw that:
It was a similar twist of fate that ultimately led her to take up painting. About a year after her photo-light epiphany, she was invited to Fashion Week in New York City by someone who had mistaken her photographs for paintings and wanted to commission her to paint cherubs in the style of the Sistine Chapel on his bathroom ceiling. It quickly became apparent that the project wasn’t going to happen, but when someone else was a no-show, Saliga jumped at the chance to be an impromptu photographer of Fashion Week.
This was Saliga’s first close call with painting, but painting wasn’t done with her yet.
When she returned home, she was approached by somebody to do an abstract memorial painting. She demurred – “I don’t paint” – but they were insistent.
So she tried it.
And it worked.
On top of that, the painting responded to the LED lights in the same transformative way that her photography had.
“What happens is that between the texturing and the layers and the colors that you use – it’s not a special kind of paint,” she explains. “Depending on how you layer them and how you contrast them with each other, as the LED lights come through, they pull out the different pigments of the paint.”
Then her sojourn led her to The Thought Lot where she had her wedding reception. Here she met Hannah Nawa who owns Whiskers Vintage & Vinyl and oversees The Thought Lot, who invited her to participate in the inaugural Creators & Makers event last July.
Saliga’s success here led to her being invited by Nawa to stage her own show.
Saliga’s latest innovation to create a sense of defamiliarization between the viewer and the work was physically changing the orientation of the paintings themselves.
“If you get bored with it or you’re in a different mood, you can flip it around,” she says demonstrating with one of the pieces. “It’ll change what you see. You’re not stuck with one thing. It’s an interactive piece, and it causes people to talk.”
As she’s speaking, she refers to an abstract piece that is reminiscent of an underwater scene. As the LED lights change around it, a mermaid emerges and the fish swim.
She flips the underwater painting over, and it’s transformed into an aerial scene complete with rising phoenix.
“You can have five people stand right here and look at the same painting, and say, ‘What’s the first color that pops out?’ A couple people will say blue because that’s the primary color. Or red. And then you’ll have one person who will say purple because there’s just one speck of purple in the entire painting, but that’s what they connected with immediately.”
By refusing to assign her works a “correct” orientation, she has ensured that no two people will ever have the exact same reaction to her work.
Not feeling it today? Flip it over. Getting too comfortable with it? Change the lighting. Eventually even these novelties might wear off, but by that point you will have changed.
“My whole objective, I guess,” says Saliga, “is that this helped heal me. Finding art and doing this and explaining it to people, it helped heal a lot of things that I didn’t even know.”
She continues: “I did what I felt I needed to get out. Whatever that was. I didn’t even know what that was. Abstract art is from you soul. It’s something that you’ve never seen. You’re not painting a landscape from Virginia. You’re painting something that’s from here.”
Working with pour paintings has also taught her lessons in what we can and what we cannot control. The artist has control over where the paint goes, but only so much. And there are other factors beyond her control such as her son’s thumbprint in the middle of one of her pieces.
“It’s taught me patience,” she says. “I’m a very fiery, active, reactive kind of person, and it’s taught me that I have to have patience. You have to let it dry even through you’re at the point where you just want it to be done.”
But there’s also liberation in the chaos.
“You can’t mess it up. If you don’t like what you made, you just scrape it off and start over again.”
Throughout the interview, Saliga mentions several instances where she has used abstract pour painting to help people identify and express their traumas.
“With the panting, she felt comfortable,” Saliga says of one girl who had put herself completely into getting straight As even as she increasingly acted out in other ways. When the girl was threatened with expulsion, Saliga turned to art.
“As you’re turning the painting, you can’t focus on anything, so you’re not focused on what you don’t want somebody to know, and it comes out…The only happy thing in the whole painting was all the way on the other side – a tiny little flower. And that was it.”
With her guard lowered and her tension eased, they were able to address the situation.
Saliga works full time as an RN, and uses the money from her paintings to buy more supplies and help other kids on their sojourns.
Saliga is currently in the process of painting a mural at the Something Wicked Brewing Company in Hanover. She is one of thirty artists participating, and she is tasked with painting an entire room.
“Sojourn” will be on display at The Thought Lot through the first week of January.