Erin M. Riley: Taboo Tapestries - Taboo Week


By Molly Freeman


When someone mentions a loom, the first image that comes to mind might be a giant cumbersome contraption, maybe colonial women weaving clothes for their children, or a historical museum display. Selfies, nude portraits, pictures of drug paraphernalia, or any other controversial depictions probably aren’t very high on the list of words associated with looms.

However, Erin M. Riley, a textiles artist based in Philadelphia, PA, weaves the traditional with the non-traditional by depicting these provocative images and more into her tapestries. Riley tells BTR she originally went to art school for painting, but fell in love with weaving along the way. She explains that weaving and painting have completely different ways of approaching the creation of a piece.

“With painting it’s a very different process, you can add layers. But with tapestry you have to commit to what you’re doing and be more confident in your work,” she says.

The process of simplifying an image in order to weave it on a loom is another aspect that Riley enjoys. The images she chooses to depict run the gamut of taboo subjects from naked selfies, hickies, and girls kissing other girls to bongs, lighters, and empty Ziploc bags that presumably contained various drugs.

For example, the piece “Spit Up” portrays a girl holding a drink while simultaneously vomiting. Another tapestry, “Other Girls”, is a still life piece of various objects a girl might possess: a smoking bowl, a vibrator, some earrings, and a bottle of nail polish.

“Other girls”

Riley’s series nudes portrays girls in various states of undress taking photos of themselves in mirrors. Nudes 13 depicts a girl taking a picture of herself on a cell phone in the bathroom mirror.

These tapestries, as well as some others such as “No Means No?” and “Serenity”, have garnered a significant amount of attention on Tumblr. One post even accrued over 50,000 notes (likes and reposts). It’s appropriate that so many on Tumblr enjoy Riley’s work, since many of the pieces are actually based on pictures that she found on the site.

While going through photos online of girls in various states of undress, Riley explains that she thought about how private and incredibly personal the moments really were and who they might’ve been for. She wondered how those pictures ended up online for complete strangers to witness — either posted by the girls themselves or the people to which they were sent.

Riley says she wanted to slow down those images that girls spent so much time perfecting — doing their make up and hair, contorting their body into just the right position, taking multiple pictures in order to choose the best option — that ultimately are quickly deleted or scrolled past online.

The particular photos she chooses for her Nudes series are images of a girl paying attention to every detail in the appearance of her body, but not bothering to clean up the mess that’s in the background.

“I really love the curling irons and the brushes and the dirty clothes on the floor,” Riley says. “I really love the details that people forget to edit out, [the ones] that we’re not normally used to seeing in traditional photographs.”


From Instagram selfies to mirror pictures that were all the rage on Myspace, many are guilty of the incongruous photo with the perfect hair, make up, and facial expression but leaving a mess in the background. It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to women, either, men are just as guilty.

However, Riley chooses to portray mostly women, with very few men making appearances in her work, because that is her perspective. She also notes that the nude images men take of themselves are different than those taken of and by women.

“With men it’s usually close ups or really in-your-face pictures without any body,” she explains. “Whereas [with] girls there’s this vulnerability, because they show their whole body, they show their faces.”

Riley goes on to say that she isn’t opposed to weaving nude male selfies, and that she has some idea of how to portray them differently than women, but for now she’s working on other subjects. Currently, she’s developing a series depicting the trash left after a party: empty beer bottles, cans, and solo cups. She says the details will be challenging to weave, but she’s excited about the series.

Additionally, Riley has a sequence of pieces depicting the not-so-pretty side of being a girl. She’s woven tapestries of different used condoms, such as “Magnum Man”, which she takes photos of after sex to use as references. Riley’s also created images of various other birth control methods, like “Plan B”, as well as sex toys, like “Vibrators”, and a used tampon: “Crimson Landslide”.

“Magnum Man”

Riley explains that she wants to portray aspects and items that are staples of many women’s lives, but that people shy away from or flat out don’t discuss at all. Though she admits that her tapestries have gleaned criticism — called “shocking” or “abrasive” in the past — Riley believes many young people can relate to her work.

If so many people relate to these images of nudity, female sexuality, drug use, and binge drinking, then why are they still such controversial subjects to recognize or talk about? Riley goes beyond discussing such things. Instead, she uses a long-established medium of art to slow down these hyper-modern images. Her work forces people to think about what really makes nude selfies so provocative, and by doing so she turns authentic aspects of life into art.

All photos courtesy of Erin M. Riley.