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Femme fatale: Erika Thurkins explores the female form in her first solo exhibit at VanOver Fine Arts

IN THE FLESH — Artist Erika Thurkins of West Falls poses with one of her paintings, “Nude Lounging in a Field,” on display as part of her exhibit at VanOver Fine Arts. Photos by Sandy Dashnaw.
SPRINGVILLE — Erika Hess Thurkins has been making art her entire life. Now, she is also making a living with it. On Sept. 7, she opened her first solo exhibit at Vanover Fine Arts in Springville, “Dames: An Exploration of the Figurative Female.”

“I come from a pretty artistically-inclined family. I think it’s in my genes,” Thurkins said. She started making art when she was 10 years old and the rest, as they say, is history.

Thurkins started out with acrylics, but said she “fell in love” with oils during her senior year of high school. Her first professional paintings were acrylic. Those included a large-scale, cooperative mural in Grove City, Pa., but she switched to oils upon taking painting classes in college.

She added that she discovered pastels by accident, when she was mistakenly enrolled in a figure-drawing class for which she had not taken the required pre-requisite course. After that first “sink or swim” experience, Thurkins said “things really clicked,” and her passion for art was rekindled.

“Since then, I did some experimentation with something called conté crayon that I really came to enjoy the effect of. Most of my recent works are done in this medium, since I’ve gravitated towards more simplicity and an emphasis on lines, to capture a figure or emotion,” she explained.

Thurkins said she did not originally set out to become an artist.

“I actually became pretty disenchanted with the idea of art classes, since I had a really dreadful experience with one teacher, in high school,” she said. The artist originally went to Shippensburg University for psychology, but switched to art, after talking with members of that art department.

THE MUSIC MAN — The Knapp Street Trio performed at Thurkins’ opening. Pictured, from left: Nick Thurkins, Sarah DiChristina and Phil Elinski.

Thurkins said that even though she felt “completely intimidated and out of my element at first,” the professionalism of her teachers impressed her and encouraged her to continue. “They were a wealth of knowledge in all of their fields; they were open-minded, but, most of all, I always felt like they were genuinely there for the students and that spoke worlds to me,” she explained.

“I didn’t think twice about switching my major. While it may not have been the best choice in having to graduate and then face an economic recession shortly after, I wasn’t a business major, so I had no way of predicting that. All I knew was that I found something that made sense to me and made me ineffably happy, so I stuck with it.”

Thurkins graduated with a bachelor’s degree in arts and sciences for fine arts and has been painting ever since, although she said her time to do so is limited.

“I really only like painting in the daytime,” she explained. “I do not have a studio, but I do have a corner with a professional easel. My drawing board is about the extent of a studio space for me.”

In addition to painting, Thurkins said acting is her “second passion.

“I definitely watch a good share of movies and love watching the performances. In fact, a lot of my newer art pieces are stills from movies. There are some times where an actor’s portrayal of emotion strikes a chord in me and I just have to try and capture it,” she explained. “What’s neat is that taking the emotion of a scene out of its context leaves it open for interpretation in its new setting, as a drawing. I love getting people to think.”

She is also an avid videogamer. Another of her hobbies is learning about herbal medicine. She is known as a local tea connoisseur.

“I used to work retail for a renowned tea franchise and learned a great deal. Now, I’m a complete tea snob and love making blends for my friends,” she said.

WOMAN OF THE HOUR — Nick Thurkins, left, is shown with his wife Erika and Rich VanOver, owner of VanOver Fine Arts.

The artist, who said she considers her greatest influences to be Frida Kahlo, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Peter Paul Rubens and Lisa Yuskavage, said that there has always been something about people that has inspired her, from a young age.

“I learned how to draw by doing portraits and people-watching. It progressed over time, with the help of the works of some artistic legends such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whom I’m convinced I may be a reincarnation of, where I learned that the very composition of a person’s body, in association with their environment creates its own narrative.

“Body language and facial expression are huge inspirations for me,” she added. “I love trying to capture an emotion that just puts me in awe, because of the story it tells me. I live to recreate that.”

Thurkins called the female body her greatest inspiration, because it is “so essentially beautiful.

“I just find that the curves, the colors, everything, is a work of art on its own, and so I just try and recreate what I see.”

The artist said that she is “notoriously fast” with her work, although highly-rendered works do take longer.

“It’s hard to know when to stop when you are drawing or painting in a realistic fashion. With drawings, as long as you stay aware, they will tell you when it’s time to stop. Once a piece is over-worked, there’s no going back, so it’s a huge challenge sometimes,” she explained.

“The pastels take a great deal longer, because you have to layer and layer and layer until you get it just right. The big pastel pieces in the show were all done from life in about 2 hours. The small pastel piece “Stop, Look” took about 4 – 5 hours, collectively. The oil paintings took about 8 – 10 hours each. The conté drawings are rather gestural, so they took about a half hour to an hour. The graphite sketches ranged from 15 – 20 minutes.”

After putting on her first solo exhibition, Thurkins said she is giving herself some time to breathe before moving on to the next thing, although she does have some ideas in the works.

“Richard VanOver has been hosting some life drawing sessions right at the gallery that I have been so excited about, so I’m developing some new content from that and looking forward to more,” she said. “My husband keeps telling me that he wants to pose for me, but I always tell him, ‘You’re not a woman!’ I might take him up as practice,” she added.

Thurkins called her husband, a musician, “my No. 1 fan.

“He has a great knack for illustration and he also wants to get into ceramics. His real passion is music, though,” she noted. “He’s been loving that I’ve been busy with preparing for the show, because, when we first got married, I was just coming out of college and was riding high on my reputation there. He’s been so happy to see ‘Artist Erika’ again and is pushing me to keep with it.”

Thurkins was born in the Philadelphia area, but called herself a “Central Pennsylvania girl,” since her most formative years happened near Gettysburg, Pa., where her parents still live.

“I relocated [to West Falls] as an adventure! The day after I graduated, I moved up here with my husband and got hitched two weeks later,” she said.

“I’m a country girl, and I need to be able to see green from my window,” she said, of her decision to live in West Falls, rather than in an urban setting.

“Space and nature are important to me; I breathe easier. Sure, I miss things for convenience and I love bustling culture, but, in the end, the choice is easy.”

Thurkins, who had her first child, Phineas 15 months ago, said that she tries to fit art into the one free period during her day: nap time.

“I get a nice, 3-hour block in the afternoon to do what I’d like, and luckily, when I’m inspired to do art, I can usually work rather quickly,” she said.

Thurkins and her husband also run “art parties.”

“It’s nice to have designated time devoted solely to the creation of art and drinking wine, where I can get a lot done and have a fun time while sharing in the creative energy amongst friends,” she said.

Although Thurkins said motherhood has affected her schedule, she does not foresee shielding her son from her body-conscious subject matter.

“[Motherhood has] just added to my fascination with all of the struggles a woman can endure during her life,” Thurkins said.

“It definitely deepened my understanding of the emotions behind motherhood and partnership whilst being a parent. I’m not planning to suddenly clothe all my nudes as he gets older, because it’s nothing to be ashamed of and I’m proud that he’ll be able to have a deeper appreciation of the human body and see it as something beautiful and artistic, no matter the shape or size.”

Thurkins’ exhibit, “Dames: An Exploration of the Figurative Female” will be on display at VanOver Fine Arts until Sept. 28. The gallery is located at 49 East Main St. in Springville.


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