Peterborough artist Erin Sweeney wants you to touch her art.
Her exhibits will never be roped off with signs that read: Hands off! She is an anti-rope kind of artist, and if her art were to have a sign, it might read: Please handle, play, interact.
Sweeney, 47, and her husband, Jason Lambert, who is an actor, teacher at ConVal Regional High School and co-founder of Firelight Theatre Workshop in Peterborough, have only lived in their Union Street home since 2016. Despite travels, Peterborough has been her home base since she was 4, the place to return.
She grew up in town and has spent years away for numerous reasons, including her undergraduate and master’s degrees, which she obtained at Maine College of Art in Portland, and University of the Arts in Philadelphia, respectively.
Her parents’ divorce when she was a child and her father’s subsequent purchase of a home in Ireland meant she was often traveling between addresses and spaces. And at each place she’s lived, she says, she has put down roots, creating a sense of home and community, a theme that runs central to her artwork.
“I was always packing a bag to go somewhere,” she recalled. “Home base was always very important. I love to travel, but I’m eager to get back.”
Her mother, she says, has always been a huge support and encouraged her love of art and the educational pursuit of an art career from a young age. Her father admittedly landed more on the pragmatic side, but still saw her passion, Sweeney says as she recalls a moment in the second grade and a scrap pile of lumber.
“My dad said, ‘here’s a hammer,’ and I just made stuff,” she remembered.
And this 2019 Ruth and James Ewing Arts Award recipient in 3D Visual Arts has never stopped doing that, although the mediums may have changed and evolved through the years. Her bachelor’s degree is in sculpture and her master’s degree is in book arts and printmaking.
But wood has continued to play a role in her life, too.
Maybe some of that developed after grad school, when she moved back to Peterborough, frustrated with taking side jobs like waitressing to fill in the financial gaps with her adjunct teaching. She asked her brother to help her find a job and ended up working for a builder for a year. After that, she went to work for her brother, a site contractor, learning lots of manual labor skills like grout work.
“My drill is my favorite tool,” she says in emphasis. “I like to put things together.”
Right now, she’s building a Little Free Library from scrap wood, which she plans to install outside her home, part of a national program that encourages the sharing of books among community members.
And, as her online artist bio points out, she can also “drive a backhoe, rake gravel for extended periods of time, and install septic pipe.”
In fact, a lot of the materials she uses in her 3D artwork are upcycled from her brother’s shop. The recycling of found materials is also omnipresent, and recently she’s been inspired by building products, such OSB, or oriented strand board, a product similar to plywood, and Tyvek in her work.
Tyvek is a DuPont-made material that is used in construction to wrap the walls of homes to separate the interior from the exterior, keeping air and water out while also being vapor-permeable. Book artists such as herself have found they can buy the Tyvek without UV Shield for use in their work because it takes the color from printing well — in Sweeney’s case, she’s also using it to make a series of dresses.
Her home studio is a piece of art in and of itself. Wire-framed houses, colorful garlands of fabric squares, shelves of jewelry and 3D paper-covered sculptures of people surround visitors.
A work in progress, she calls the studio, it incorporates multiple stations for her most-used mediums. There’s a sewing machine table for fabric, a press station for printing, a paper station for book binding — and of course, there’s a chop saw.
Art pieces are hung and displayed throughout the studio she’s named Lovely in the Home Press, including some smaller pieces for sale and others made by her young niece and nephew, ages 6 and 8, who are frequent artistic collaborators. (Their aprons hang on nearby hooks, self-decorated with paint and faux gems.)
She holds an open house at the studio twice yearly, along with the two children who sell their own work and donate the proceeds to Fast Friends Greyhound Adoption in Keene and Kitty Rescue & Adoption in Jaffrey. She says she has not been able to participate in local art tours since her move but hopes to resume involvement in those as well.
For seven years, she shared a studio space in downtown Peterborough with artists Jane Simpson (also a 2019 Ewing Arts Award recipient) and Margaret Baker called 30 Main. She says she misses the opportunity that studio created in terms of holding community events, and she hopes to be able to “pick up that stick” once more in the future.
She is currently part of the 2019 Biennial Regional Jurors’ Choice Exhibition at Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery at Keene State College, which runs through September and will also have a show at The Derryfield School in Manchester at the end of the summer. She has exhibited at Lewis Gallery in the Portland Public Library, both Kelley Stelling Contemporary and Jupiter Hall in Manchester and the Sharon Arts Center Gallery in Peterborough.
Although selling her work is not a primary focus, she does sell some prints, and during December she traditionally sells work at the Philadelphia Center for the Book.
Her love of book arts stemmed from its interactive nature, she says. When she found letterpress printing, it was a “whole new world.”
“People are handling it, not just looking,” she recalls thinking. “And I was thrilled by that.”
“There’s always a communal element (with my work),” she says. “I’m always encouraging people to interact with the pieces… That’s the magic thing about books. Everyone’s handling them.”
Sweeney shares her passion for bookmaking through teaching, currently at the Institute of Art and Design at New England College as well as the many workshops she travels to teach throughout the year, to places like Monson Arts, a new artists’ residency and arts center in Maine, and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine. She primarily teaches college and grad students, although she has also taught some youth workshops at points along the way.
Her work teaching allows her to create community in the spaces where she teaches and to also create a feeling of community for the college students that is both linked to space and not linked to space.
“I love teaching,” she says. “I can’t imagine not teaching. And then when I see a student teaching another student, I say, ‘there it is.’ That’s the best.”
As a first-time homeowner, it’s satisfying to have finally settled somewhere she can officially call “my house,” she says, along with Lambert, their two cats and a 14-year-old lab mix who she laughingly explains “came with the house” when the previous homeowner was unable to take him to his new location.
An avid gardener, when she’s not creating art, she’s growing beauty in her big garden and likes to be outside as much as possible. Her installation pieces extend out past the doors of her home and studio into the yard where she’s created an arch of old wooden chairs that extends onto the roof of the porch over her front steps, intended to be a trellis for the creeping vines of some still-growing morning glories.
Like her art and the sense of home and community she strives to create with it, the garden is a space where she can touch, interact and play.
“I weed, see what I’ve done and like the work of it,” she says. “I just do it; I don’t think about it. … I just need to make things.”