By Meda Kessler
Photos by Joyce Marshall
Using bits of slate and stones shaped by rushing water, artist Erika Bushee creates multidimensional landscapes that make you want to look — and touch.
Sharing a paint-covered leather chair with Wubby, her 15-year-old Pekingese, artist Erika Bushee rummages through a pile of broken slate on her work table.
She finds a piece she likes, trims the edges with special scissors and then lightly sands the edges. After she’s satisfied with its shape, she adds it to one of the many metal bowls filled with more thin slivers of slate, all shaped like perfect feathers of different
sizes and colors. Erika repeats this task over and over until the bowls are full.
She wipes dust off her hands and surveys the scene. “People always ask me how long it takes to create one of my pieces. I tell them it takes two months. This is why,” she says. “The prep work is critical.”
Her business is named Art Rocks Studio, inspired by her use of river rock from Colorado along with the slate and occasional gemstones. She also sleuths out driftwood for special projects. “In Colorado, no one wants to go hiking with me because they know I’ll make them carry wood and rocks.” In February, she traveled to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, one of the largest in the world, to find a few treasures to take home.
Erika has been busy this winter getting ready for Southlake’s Art in the Square, which is April 26-28. A featured artist for this 20th year of the festival, Erika was first selected for the juried exhibition in 2002. Her mother, Arlene Voelker, who lives in Plano and also is an artist, has been part of the show five times. While Erika always sells well in Colorado, where she lives part of the year, she has cultivated an appreciative audience in North Texas.
Most days find her in the Flower Mound studio in the back of her home on the northern edge of Grapevine Lake. Filled with raw materials and works in progress, the shop has been made cozy with a television and a dog bed for Wubby. A power saw sits at the ready outside the back door. In the driveway, Erika’s trusty Sprinter van is full of wrapped pieces ready for delivery.
“My first project involved fitting a broken pool table into my little car so I could use the slate. The weight of the thing broke the axles.” Today, she uses slate floor tile sourced from various retailers. “I use slate from India, as it’s easier to work. It has more iron, which makes it flakier.”
Using a chisel, she breaks down each tile into thin layers, which are used to create the feather shapes. Bigger pieces of tiles are cut and chiseled to give the edges a more free-form and natural look. Then there are the piles of river rock, scattered in and around the studio. She splits the smooth stones, making them easier to attach to the base board.
“When I first started, my work was much more geometric and angular. I used glue, but now I use resin, and it has become part of the artwork, too. The stones look like they’re sitting in water.”
Before she begins setting a single piece, she sketches the design on paper. The resin gives her about 12 hours of working time before it sets. Most of the large works are done in panels, making them easier to transport and hang. The multidimensional artwork is tactile; it invites the viewer to move in closer to see the marbled colors in the layers of slate, the hints of glitter that fill in nooks and crevices, the curved paths of stones she has created to look like rivers. “Sometimes I like to add a little color using a gemstone such as labradorite. For custom work, clients have asked me to use rocks that are special to them.”
Erika was inspired early on by her mother. “As a girl, I went to a private school where French nuns were the teachers. It had a great art program.”
While her mother works in oils, predominantly making paintings of birds, Erika always has loved the mixed medium. “It’s hard work, especially on the hands. When I need to relax, I paint.” Her husband built a large easel that sits on a flat clearing on the hilly lot. “Sometimes it’s nice to finish something quickly,” she says with a smile. “When it comes to the rock art, I’m a perfectionist.”