By Logan Miller
Resident artist Erika Harrsch handed out paper Monarch butterflies while talking about love, death and the evolution of her work. As the first artist-in-residence to be invited to the University of Nevada, Reno for a full semester, her talk emphasized the important role collaboration plays in inspiring artists.
Inspiration is the drive behind much of the work Harrsch, a multidisciplinary artist, is doing at UNR. She received formal training as a painter, before branching into photography, video and digital composition and collaborating with musicians and composers, she even kept a seven-year correspondence with an entomologist. Harrsch brings her broad skillset to the School of the Arts through a class titled “Art in Public Places” and through working one-on-one with students from the art department. On April 8, her collaborative performance piece “Bodymaps” will be performed at Nightingale Hall.
Born in Mexico City, Harrsch has lived and worked in New York since 2001, but her career and work has taken her to Italy, Germany, Syria and elsewhere. She was on the short list of potential recipients of the artist-in-residence position and, after an extensive interview process, came to UNR to work with students.
Butterflies are a recurring motif in her work. She has worked with an entomologist for seven years to produce millions of composite images of butterflies with human female genitalia in place of their bodies. Displaying these images in specimen cases or by littering piles throughout a small installation space, thus emulating a mass die off, Harrsch asks audiences to contend with questions of identity, gender and sexuality, as well as nationality, migration and the fragility of the human condition.
Most recently, Harrsch has worked with composers, musicians and digital artists on large-scale collaborations set to music, still and moving images. She helped design and create a cello with an LED face that can interact with a cellist’s performance.
Such collaboration is key to much of Harrsch’s art. According to Joseph Delappe, art department professor and director of the digital media program, her interdisciplinary practice was a major factor in signing her on as a resident artist.
“This type of collaborative interaction that she really specializes in is something that I think there’s nascent interest in at the school,” Delappe said.
Every semester, the department provides for a number of professional artists to come work with students for a few days, but it had been a goal of the department to bring in an artist for a longer stay. However, it was not until the department received the necessary financial backing from the school’s artist-in-residence fund that such an undertaking was possible. This fund rotates between the art, music and theatre and dance departments.
Harrsch can trace the foundation of her artistic approach to a playful moment when she first moved to New York. The ability to experiment with ideas beyond painting allowed for new developments in her career.
“My first experiments in New York actually started to grab more attention than my painting at that moment, because it was like a rupture,” Harrsch said. “It was really like being free and experimenting and getting out of my method, or my attachment to the result of painting that I was doing for so many years.”
During her time here, Harrsch hopes to use her expertise with different media to inspire students to look beyond the parameters of their own work.
“We’re not fed by only one thing,” Harrsch said. “So, I don’t think we should ever constrain our creativity or our needs by only one mean. Even if you focus in one, which is always good, because sometimes you have the skill to focus and actually master it, but always have an eye for other possibilities.”
But she doesn’t see being interdisciplinary or collaborative as a benefit to just her art students.
“Everybody benefits from collaborative projects and interaction,” Harrsch said. “You learn all the time. I think that today the individualistic view of creation and existing is not only selfish, but it’s very destructive. What we need is to actually work toward a common, positive development.”
Logan Miller can be reached at email@example.com