In the many forms it takes, the many mediums through which it is expressed, the creation of art is often seen as a solitary activity.
Images come to mind of the hermitic writer locked away in his office, staring at a blank page. The painter toiling away at her latest masterpiece in a lonely studio.
But for painter Erin McGee Ferrell, of Moorestown, art is a performance, requiring an audience. She sets up her easel in highly visible, touristy spots around Philadelphia—the zoo, Independence Hall, Love Park, the Italian Market, the Ben Franklin Bridge—and draws people in.
"There’s something about watching a piece of art done from beginning to end, and watching something come to life in front of you, that is just really engaging," she explained.
Pushing the performance aspect of her work even further, Ferrell, when she’s working in public, dons ball gowns she finds in thrift stores.
“You’re on a stage,” she said. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”
Most performances—movies, TV shows, plays—generally involve the performer telling the audience their story, with very little give-and-take. Through her art, Ferrell strives to beget a sense of communion with those around her. She wants them to be part of the process, to share the spotlight, so to speak.
“It’s a conversation,” she said. “You become part of the environment … People come up to you, they share their stories. You open yourself up to opportunities.”
Listening to Ferrell, it becomes clear the stories behind her paintings are as important as the paintings themselves. Whether it’s something as subtle as the parking attendant in Chinatown who brought her a cup of hot tea, or the conversation she had with an Occupy Philly protester who was more interested in the idea of sleeping in a tent outside City Hall than the actual protest, or the eventful day she had painting Tony Luke’s Cheesesteaks in South Philadelphia.
She’d parked her husband’s pick-up on the concrete median across from Tony Luke’s and had set up her easel in the bed of the truck. As she began painting, a line of semis pulled up to the light, blocking her view.
“What I didn’t realize is that this is all the huge warehouse district … There was going to be an hour of trucks waiting at this light to get on 95,” she said. “The other thing that became clear was the people in the cabs were on the exact level (with me). We would just stand there and just look at each other till the light changed.”
The concept of public painting is also a business strategy, she conceded. Ferrell well recognizes the dual role modern-day artists have to play as self-promoters, self-marketers. To that end, in addition to her highly visible live painting sessions, she’s also created a YouTube page featuring time-lapse videos of her work.
“To be an artist in America today, you have to have a niche, and you have to be as equally an entrepreneur and marketer as much as an artist,” she said. “I want who I am to be connected to my paintings and the stories that surround me. I want people to connect me with scenes of Philadelphia: ‘Oh, here’s that crazy woman in the ball gown dress.’”
'Women don't have to choose between family ... passion'
The crazy woman in the ball gown dress is also a wife and mother. And how Ferrell balances those roles with her life as an artist has as much to do with her success as anything else.
Though the seed for her artistic career was likely planted at a very early age—“I just remember I always liked cutting and pasting and gluing”—her present-day approach to the profession took root in college.
Ferrell attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, an all-women liberal arts college, where she majored in fine arts. She recalled a piece of advice one of her teachers shared with the class.
“One of my primary art mentors told me, told the whole class, that as women we would have to make the choice between becoming a recognized artist or having a family,” Ferrell said. “That we could not do both. And I feel like since then, I’ve been trying to prove her wrong. That women don’t have to choose between family and following your passion.”
Her work week consists of three days at home teaching art classes, one day spent on the computer taking care of marketing and networking, and a half day in the city painting, though she has to be home by 3 p.m. for when her kids get home from school. And the rest of the week is spent on “mothering stuff.”
"There’s always that conversation between being an artist and being a mom," she said. "They're both really important ... (Being a mom) adds depth and meaning to what I do (as an artist)."
Ferrell’s self-described “hand-to-mouth” income is derived from two sources: the Philadelphia tourist market (reproductions of her work on $5 magnets at visitor’s centers) and high-end originals ($2,000-4,000 large oil paintings, including her most recent of the Art Museum).
For anyone who thinks $4,000 is excessive for a work of art, Ferrell offers the following: “Everyone has a big flat-screen TV. Generally you spend about $2,500 on the TV, sound system, whatever. So a person can choose to spend $2,500 on a TV, which’ll last them 10 years, at most, or you can invest that $2,500 in an original oil painting of a family member … which then can last generations, and it can become one of the most valued, treasured possessions of your family.”
Ferrell’s own paintings of her family are the only pieces of art she won’t sell. They hang on the walls of her home, alongside dozens of other pieces, to be passed on to her children when they’re old enough to have homes of their own.
This is how she maintains the balance, keeps the two worlds separate, yet intertwined.
“When I’m at home, I’ve got dishes and cooking and laundry,” she said, “and when I go out to Philadelphia … I’m being crazy, I’m standing on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge with rhinestone earrings and a ball gown dress and it’s totally opposite than my life at home, that I love it ... It's not one or the other. I actually need both to be fully who I am."