ROX Interview: Erica Herman

Local Artist and Teacher

Interview by Bea Lueck

ROX Group has several Erica Herman originals hanging in our offices. She has been on our radar to interview long before receiving the Governor’s Award for Educator in the Arts. During our conversation, the direction of the interview took an unexpected turn. Erica shared how art has been part of her journey with mental illness. Her candor in discussing what many still consider to be a taboo subject is very enlightening and what you expect after you meet Erica in person.

GC LIVING: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about Erica Herman. Where did you grow up?

Erica Herman: I was born at the old Hoemako Hospital on Florence Boulevard and raised here in Casa Grande. I went to school at Evergreen Elementary, Casa Grande Middle School where I work now, and graduated from Casa Grande Union High School. I still associate City Hall with high school.

GC LIVING: Were you always interested in art?

Erica Herman: Always. One piece I have framed in my house is the first picture my mom saved. I was about three years old and went to Mary Moppets Day Care. It was October and we were painting pumpkins pictures. I painted my pumpkins but turned it into a man with the thing coming out of the top of the head and arms and legs and a face on it.

The workers couldn’t believe I had done something so detailed. When my mom picked me up, they made this big fuss.

After that, the first thing she bought me was the ginormous box of crayons with the sharpener on the back. My mom was a single mom. It was me and my little brother and not a lot of extra money for that kind of stuff, but she always found a way. She knew what fueled me.

In school, it was music, and chorus and P.E. but no art class. Art depended on your teacher. If you had a teacher who was really into art, then the teacher would make sure to incorporate it in the classroom. For example, Miss Crow, Phyllis Crow, was my third grade teacher. And she saw a potential in me. She called my mom and said, “I want to take Erica to this art fair in Phoenix.

It’s on Saturday.” She told me it had to be our secret because she couldn’t take every student. But now the whole world knows. (laughs). So thank you, Miss Crow. The art festival was outside and I remember the general feel of it, but what I specifically remember is making paper. They had a paper making station and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, art’s not just crayons or markers or watercolors.’

In junior high I had Miss Hindman. I’m still really good friends with her. I had her for art and advanced art in both seventh and eighth grades. That is what sealed the deal, I knew I was going to be an artist. My backup plan was a teacher. And if those two didn’t work out, then I was going to be a movie star.

GC LIVING: I read in another interview that one of your goals is to bring art education back at the elementary level.

Erica Herman: Yes. I feel there’s a lot more in the arts that could be done, especially earlier in a student’s education. These kids are tested to death. They’re not going to perform if they don’t have an understanding of the outside world. The arts have a lot of problem-solving techniques and correlations into the science and mathematical world I think our kids are sorely missing. Our kids need a balanced education.

GC LIVING: Where did you go to college?

Erica Herman: I went first to Central Arizona College (CAC). Going to CAC taught me what college was about. High school was easy for me. But I didn’t learn things like how to take notes. And then got a transfer scholarship to ASU. I applied for the College of Education but was on a waiting list. I didn’t want to wait 18 months, so I started looking into other colleges. I got in at the University of New Mexico where I completed my Bachelors of Education and my Masters of Fine Arts. Along the way I had my daughters. Then moved back to Casa Grande. I wanted to live and work in Casa Grande, and raise my kids in Casa Grande.

GC LIVING: Now I see you wearing maroon and gold on a regular basis …

Erica Herman: Oh yes.

GC LIVING: What is your affinity to ASU?

Erica Herman: Matt, my husband, graduated from ASU. My goal is to get my doctorate from ASU in arts education. You can build your own program. That’s what I’m working on now. I need to figure out how I’m going to pay for it. A PhD is a personal goal of mine.

GC LIVING: You recently received the Governor’s Award for Educator in the Arts. Did you fill out an application or did someone nominate you?

Erica Herman: Gloria Leija at the city of Casa Grande nominated me. The first phase narrowed it down to 12 people. We were invited to a ceremony in February to announce the top three in each category. It was such a big celebration for Matt, our daughter Jordan, and me to make the top three. That was about a month and a half before the final presentation. I just wanted the day to get here.

GC LIVING: If you had gone the acting career route the Oscars would’ve killed you.

Erica Herman: Exactly! I wouldn’t have made it. I was just a nervous wreck inside because I wanted it to be over, the anticipation was killing me. We had a table at the dinner with my superintendent Dr. Jo Etta Gonzales, Mayor Craig McFarland, Councilman Dick Powell, Gloria Leija and my family. The lights went down and boom, a video starts. The first thing I see is Regis Sommers’ and Gloria’s faces.

GC LIVING: So they knew before you did?

Erica Herman: Everybody knew I won except for me. I can’t believe Matt Herman kept it from me because he is not a good faker. He only found out because someone slipped and told him.

GC LIVING: So now we have Erica Herman Day in Casa Grande.

Erica Herman: Yes, April 8th is Erica Herman Day. I have the mayor’s proclamation framed at home. My goal for Erica Herman Day next year is a mural on a building. It will be all gridded out and we can have a community painting party, with kids from all age groups. Each child can paint a square. Something artistic and fun for everyone.

GC LIVING: What was your first major art project in town?

Erica Herman: Probably the mural at Palo Verde Elementary School. It’s currently the largest mural in Casa Grande, 180 feet long and nine feet high. It took me all summer to work on it. I knew it was going to be hot. But I could only work on it when school was not in session. It took me a week to grid it and draw it out. I got up at four a.m., and worked until six-thirty or seven. And then came home and jumped in the pool. At one o’clock when the wall was in the shade, I’d be back.

I had a group of kids that worked with me that summer. That will show you the dedication of middle schoolers. Their parents would drop them off. I supplied Gatorade, water and music. We worked on it little by little all summer. When school started, we had a couple of after-school days where teachers at Palo Verde wanted to help. When it was done we had a dedication ceremony. The kids presented me with flowers and an artist’s apron that every kid at the school signed.

GC LIVING: You also did the mural at Villa Oasis Interscholastic Center in Toltec.

Erica Herman: Margie Harrow, the administrative secretary, saw what I did at Palo Verde and had the idea. She applied for the grant. It was for a mural but the mural had to be health-related. I said why don’t you have a contest and have the kids design it. So they did. What I painted was a student design.

I’ve gotten better over the years. Disposable 99¢ paint brushes. Disposable paint pan liners. At Costco I buy those metal trays by the stack. They are aluminum and recyclable. When you’re working on a mural and first getting the paint applied, what it looks like doesn’t really matter. When everything is painted is when the fine details come in.
I’ve also done the Sutton Law office and the alleyway by my studio, which is my own personal mission.

GC LIVING: How did you decide to do Frida Kahlo on your building?

Erica Herman: Well, she’s my favorite artist. I believe that she and I have these weird connections. For example, her name if you take out the F and the D and put in an E and C it spells Erica.

GC LIVING: (Laughs) Exactly.

Erica Herman: We were born three days apart. She was in severe accident at age 18 that almost killed her and broke her back and the same with me. I was in a severe accident that almost killed me at age 18 at the Salt River. And of course, we’re both artists. We just have a lot of connections, I’ve always loved her.

The mural on my building began because of the transient population in the area. There was a lot of litter in the alleyway. There were lots of nefarious things going on. And there was a lot of tagging.

One of the things I know is if you put art on a wall, 95% of the time people won’t mess with it. So I thought if I did something on that wall that would stop the tagging at the entrance to the alley. I talked to the property owner about the idea and he said, “Absolutely.”

When I was driving up one day I just saw it in my mind. Those two windows look like eyes, I thought that’s going to be Frida’s big eyes staring out and her flowers are going to be on the top. Then I could tell people, “I’m on Marshall Street. It’s the one with Frida on the side of the building.”

First I did my side of the alley and then talked to the building owner across the alleyway. On that wall I’m doing the history of Casa Grande. It’s partially done, there are some other things I want to add.

What I want to do next is something metal. There’s a chain link fence right next to the wall I’m working on. I’m collecting metal objects for it. I don’t want to give too much away but it’s going to be a hanging metal art piece.

GC LIVING: Your style has really evolved over the years. I have one of your earlier pieces, a crucifix painting with the broken glass and jewelry glued to the canvas. I’ve also seen sugar skulls. What are you doing now?

Erica Herman: Right now I’m working on lots of different things. I’ve got into the arts and crafts movement, so I’m working on a macramé piece. I’m also working on a sculpture. I haven’t done sculptures since I was in art school. I’ve been working on it for three weeks and it’s a sculpture of Frida Kahlo’s face and it’s very detailed and challenging for me to do things that I haven’t done in twenty something years. I’ve never been big on portraiture or watercolor. I truly believe watercolor is one of the hardest mediums because you don’t have as much control as you do with thicker paints. So I started taking my love of cactus and transferring that into watercolors of different desert scenes.

This year my goal, since I’m not good at faces, was to become better at faces. A good way to become better at faces is knowing your own face, inside and out. So I draw a self-portrait every single day, then I date and number it. Every day I use a different medium. I’m currently on day 118.

GC LIVING: Is art your therapy? The way you unwind from life’s daily grind?

Erica Herman: We could talk more about this in a minute because I don’t want to get distracted. Art is a strategy for keeping my mind occupied. I struggle with mental illness, so I’ve learned these tricks to help. Some I learned on my own, before I knew something was wrong with me. Last summer, I did some cognitive therapy, brain therapy, to retrain my brain cognitively. One of the things I do is try different techniques in my art. When I master a technique and it’s easy for me to do, I start working on different angles like shading or add different elements. It keeps my mind challenged.

I did a show at the Paramount Theater with Domingo DeGrazia. He was playing music and my artwork was up, and it got a lot of positive feedback. One of the things you’ll see from my early work compared to now is color. I used to focus on a lot of neutral tones like browns and olive greens, or black or white. Sometimes metallic elements. My work in the past two years is full of every color.

Let me think about how I want to say this. I’ve always done art. (crying) But if you look at my early art compared to my art now, you’ll see the progression over the past almost 20 years. When you look at my earlier stuff it has no color. I see a void because there was no color in my life.

GC LIVING: It was a dark period.

Erica Herman: Yes. It’s hard to explain because I was living my life the way I always live it, but as I got older, the way I always lived my life was becoming more and more difficult to maintain. I know now I suffered with mental illness since I was a kid. But we didn’t know what it was. When I look back, I was surviving because art is what was getting me through, but I wasn’t living. And I wasn’t living because I hadn’t been properly diagnosed. I was in and out of hospitals. In America, our mental health system is flawed and broken. No one knows what to do with someone who has problems, especially if they’re smart and educated.

GC LIVING: You shouldn’t have a problem.

Erica Herman: Right. Why do you have a problem because your life should be easy? But we can’t control the way our mind works, and I think that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to keep it in control but it was getting progressively more and more difficult. You can see that through my art.

Thank God for my family. It was years before I had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Once you get diagnosed with that, everything else in your life makes perfect sense. Everything on the checklist describes me to a T.

I would go through bursts of activity that would last two or three months, producing artwork non-stop and then crash. As I got older the bursts of energy were fewer and the crashes were longer.

Mental health problems are an epidemic no one wants to deal with. What changed it for me and my family is it had to be something bad before it could be something good. When I would go to a doctor or checked into a hospital was usually when I was at my lowest point. A doctor sees that and their automatic answer is, “Let me give you this pill which will cure your depression.” But no one took the time to see if that’s what was truly wrong with me. I was on Prozac, Wellbutrin, and others. Every antidepressant I took was supposed to make me feel normal or what I perceived to be as normal. I now know there is no normal and I embrace being the way that I am.

GC LIVING: Did the antidepressants suppress your creativity?

Erica Herman: Yes. It makes you numb. You’re not happy, you’re not sad. Unfortunately, if you’re bipolar and taking an antidepressant and nothing is controlling the bipolar disorder, it can cause you to want to commit suicide. I was always the person excited for the next day to start, but I became this person where all I could think about was, “What’s going to be my way out? I don’t want to feel like this anymore.”

I’m thankful I told my family. I went to a state facility after Matt and I consulted with several doctors so they could monitor me and get me on the right medication.

It was the single worst experience of my life, but also the single best experience of my life. Everything you see in a movie about a mental institution, it’s like that but worse. It’s this dumping ground for people who come from all areas of life but no one knows what to do with them. I was there for two weeks and had one of the best psychiatrists in Arizona working with us. I was able to get on a regimen of medication and went through the cognitive training therapy. Once we knew what was wrong, then I could learn ways to make my brain work in alternative ways so the medication would not stifle my creativity. It’s been life changing being balanced.

GC LIVING: It’s an evolution.

Erica Herman: I have a good team. I have a psychiatrist who monitors my medication. I have my family doctor who knows everything going on. I have a therapist, she’s probably the one who saved my life.

I don’t want to change me. I like who I am. I am passionate talking about it. Every single person I talk to either knows someone, or loves someone who suffers from some type of mental illness. Project-wise that’s probably been my biggest project. I’ve taken on working through art to share my feelings about mental illness.

I did a nine-piece series where I painted different parts of my body and laid on canvas. One canvas is life size and it has me from the front and back. (See page 18) Black is always representing the depressed side and a very bright color, usually hot pink, is always representing the manic side and then these swirls and dips that go around each body part and sometimes intertwine. I juried at ASU Gammage for the 2019-2020 theater season and made cut one. I won’t find out until July if I made cut two. If I make cut two then it will be hanging at ASU Gammage for the 2019-20 season.

GC LIVING: So what’s your future for art? Do you have something in mind?

Erica Herman: One of the projects that I’m working on is creating a community art project. I got the idea from the AIDS quilts in the 1990s. The idea of my project is this: a specific size of rolled canvas that’s cut, folded and various paints and other supplies along with instructions. This will be put into a large plastic bag with handles. Also inside will be literature on mental health and where you can get services. The bags would be available at different locations around town like the Veteran’s Affairs office, the city of Casa Grande, my therapist’s office, Horizon Human Services and more. The bags are free.

My goal is to piece the canvas together with bright duct tape. May is mental health awareness month and, in coordination with the city, display the blocks in various public places so people can walk between the canvas blocks to see the different things created. I want to start in Casa Grande, but then expand in Pinal County. I applied for a seed grant for funding and hopefully will find out soon.

This combines the two things I’m good at – being crazy and (laughs) art. My family and I laugh about it. I’m usually the first to talk about it or make fun of myself. If you can’t laugh at yourself then it’s even harder.

Another one of my goals is to spend my time working with others through art.

GC LIVING: You’re doing that now. I’ve seen what you are doing with young artists involved in the not quite legal artistic endeavor of painting (tagging) on the sides of buildings.

Erica Herman: Hector. I’ve made him my intern. He can work at the studio whenever he wants. He has his own stuff he works on. He is working on things that are not on a wall. He had his first art show in Phoenix.

GC LIVING: Fantastic!

Erica Herman: Yes. It makes me proud. I would like to do more of that kind of thing, mentoring youth or working with younger youth.

GC LIVING: Maybe be a school teacher.

Erica Herman: (laughing) No, I’ve done that for 21 years! Originally my goal was to be an artist. Being an art teacher allowed me to pay the bills and do art.

GC LIVING: We know Frida Kahlo is one of your favorites. Is there a style that is a favorite of yours? Cubism, impressionism, pointillism. What is your mental go-to?

Erica Herman: I would probably say impressionism. I like impressionism, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s your impression of how you see something. I also mix pointillism in with it, or “dashilism”, that’s what I call using dashes instead of dots.

GC LIVING: Dashes are dots just connected.

Erica Herman: There you go. No! Don’t connect it! (laughs)