It’s not quite the only thing she’s ever been good at, but it’s close.
And now, after a lifetime of practice, Baltimore artist Erin Fostel is very good indeed.
A 2004 graduate of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, the Mayfield resident meticulously draws images of whatever catches her eye, a calling from her childhood.
The daughter of architect Henry Fabian Fostel (1947-2014), her kiddie pictures were not of horses or flowers. She drew houses, not unlike her father did as a young man before he began building houses.
“Lots of houses,” she said. “Even now when I doodle from my head I draw little houses.”
The obsession with structures – a lonely bank on Harford Road (now a Dunkin’ Donuts), waterfront cranes at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, B’Nai Israel synagogue on Lloyd Street and the bedrooms of strangers – never flagged.
“Going to art school was the only thing that made sense to me,” said the 41-year-old Fostel. “Up to that point, art was the only constant in my life. MICA is where, around my junior year, I started becoming good at art.”
An exhibit in a neighbor’s backyard “art shed” during the first wave of the pandemic in 2021 landed one of Fostel’s works in the permanent collection of the 109-year-old Baltimore Museum of Art. On the recommendation of curator Leslie Cozzi, the museum selected “Living Room (Night),” a 42.5 inch x 63 inch scale drawing on paper.
The BMA plans to exhibit the piece this June as part of the museum’s “How Do We Know the World?” collection.
“Erin’s work had reached a level of maturity and sensitivity,” said Cozzi, curator of prints, drawings and photographs. “This particular drawing is amazing – a representation of her living room in the evening [with] passages of texture and abstraction that lifts it out of the [merely] descriptive and makes it unique.”
Cozzi viewed the work several times between July 2021 (when she first saw the piece in the shed) and ratification of the acquisition by the BMA board on December 13, 2022. In addition to visiting the artist’s downtown studio, Cozzi also contemplated the piece at the C. Grimaldis gallery on North Charles Street, the location of Fostel’s one-person show last year.
Asked what made Fostel’s work special, gallery owner Constantine Grimaldis said, without hesitation, “her hands.”
“It’s her ability to be delicate and strong and full of purpose at the same time,” he said. “When people render drawings you usually only see one or two things. With Erin’s there is more and more to see…(particularly) the relationship between the light and the darkness.”
Sculptor Bonnie Crawford has been hosting exhibits in the custom-built, seven-foot-high wooden shed behind her house in Arcadia. It was there that “Living Room (Night)” first hung with its siblings: Morning, Mid-day, and Afternoon.
Crawford echoed the observations of Grimaldis and Cozzi, with the consensus that Fostel’s status as an accomplished draftsperson is a given. It’s an intangible – that undefinable “something more” that makes her an artist.
“Erin has technical skill. With some people that’s the end of what they can do,” said Crawford. “Her work is deeper than that. She creates a body of work around a theme – buildings around the grief of her father’s death; shadows during a miscarriage when everyone was stuck in the house like all of us.”
Said Fostel of the series, all drawn to scale: “I wanted to capture how the light moved through the house throughout an entire day,” said Fostel. When the sun went down, streetlight beamed through the windows of an upstairs TV room. That became “Living Room (Night).”
In the piece, light and shadow highlight three rectangular windows and make silhouettes of plants hanging on hooks and set atop furniture.
“The shadow drawings are about loss and the grief of experiencing that loss (of her pregnancy) while in isolation,” said Fostel. “During the pandemic, it seemed like everyone was photographing light as it came into their house and posting the pictures online. It was a shared observation that bonded people.”
As to her hands, Fostel said they’ve given her trouble over the years separate from the work of gripping a charcoal pencil – “holding my arm up for hours, an endurance sport,” she said – while standing in front of a large piece of paper or fabric. The rigor of the work has led to regular massages for her hands.
“For a few years when I was a teenager I would randomly lose the ability to bend a finger or two or my wrist for a day or so,” she said. That touch of arthritis has gone away. Her adult hands, she said, are often dry because she can’t moisten them with lotion while drawing. “For a long time I didn’t trust my hands to grip anything heavy.”
In late 2019, after a series of Baltimore drawings was complete, Fostel began to photograph and draw bedrooms, mostly the private spaces of people she did not know. She has completed about 33 bedrooms so far and continues to do so, recently drawing on muslin dyed fluorescent green and hot pink.
“I’ve been wanting to shift the focus of my women’s bedroom series to depict transitional spaces used in time of need,” she said.
A prime example is the room of a woman who’d been a guest at a YWCA shelter in South Hampton Roads, Virginia.
“As I was creating this piece, I was aware of how my assumptions were shifting,” wrote Fostel in a blog post about a room so quickly vacated by an abused woman that wigs, make-up and shampoo were left behind.
“I thought about how those items could have been used for disguise,” wrote Fostel. “[That] she needed to alter her appearance while living in Norfolk, but [maybe] she went somewhere where she didn’t need to hide.”
The finished drawing hung in an exhibit called “More than Shelter” at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art for the past five months, a show that ended this week.
When Fostel was in the fourth grade, she and her father made shoebox dioramas together. None of them remain. But when Erin’s mother – South Baltimore native Terry Smoot Fostel – was going through her husband’s belongings after his death, she found a box of his drawings from high school and college.
“I only saw them after he died,” said Erin. “They looked like the kind of drawings I would make. They were in pencil or pen – very representational depictions of spaces. Seeing them alongside my own work made it impossible not to think that I had inherited my style.”
A selection of Erin Fostel’s bedroom drawings will be on display from March to July 2023 at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.
Rafael Alvarez can be reached via email@example.com