Artist Profile

Erica Mathews

Story by Jamey Bradbury

Art runs in the Mathews family. As a young girl, Erica Mathews grew up experimenting in the studio of her mother’s stained glass shop. “I think I just really enjoyed having a different outlet to express myself,” Erica reflects upon the years she spent playing and working at Expressions in Glass, which her mother, Debbie Mathews, still runs today in Fairbanks.

By 13, Erica was already teaching classes at her mother’s shop, often taking her adult students by surprise. “People were probably nervous,” she admits. “ ‘Why is a child teaching me to cut glass?!’ But I had grown up with it.”

Not only was she skilled in the techniques her mother had taught her, Erica was an artist in her own right, interested in creating something more detailed than stained glass allowed for. Her first glass mosaic was inspired by a painting she saw.

“I thought, I could never make that in stained glass – but a mosaic would allow me to show something like brushstrokes,” she explains. “I just jumped in, and it ended up being really fun and different than everything else I’d done.”

That first mosaic – a huge tree – showed Erica that she has an individual style, inspired by the techniques she’d learned from her mother but wholly her own. Soon, she was making other mosaic pieces, most of them inspired by her love of Alaska’s natural beauty. As she continued to experiment with color, she branched out, piecing together more whimsical scenes and animals.

She made her first sale at the age of 14 when a regular patron of her mother’s shop spied a “goofy stained glass fish” and bought it. “She loved it, and now when I see her around town, she says, ‘I bought your first piece!’ ” Erica relates, laughing. “It’s very Fairbanks.”

Though both mosaics and stained glass involve similar techniques, Erica says, stained glass is much more precise.

“I really like mosaics because they’re like a puzzle I’m piecing together,” she says. “Ninety percent of the time, I don’t even use a pattern. I just do a basic sketch and I place all the pieces as I go.”

She typically starts with the larger, “chunkier” pieces of glass – the trunk of a birch tree (one of her favorite subjects), or the long tooth of a walrus, for instance – to create a focal point. Then she begins placing smaller pieces to fill in the rest of the details and the background. Once everything is placed and dried and grouted, it’s ready to be featured on her website, Lola Bug Creations, named for a beloved family pet.

Erica offers more than mosaics at the stores that carry her art (including her mother’s studio, Anchorage’s Dos Manos and Salty Girls, in Homer). Her affinity for “puzzling” art together spills over into jewelry-making and “junk art,” custom frames and sculptures she builds from random bits and bobs like nails, washers, old brooches — even pennies!

“I get bored and I want variety, so when I get done with mosaics, there are so many other things I want to try,” Erica explains. “And I don’t want to limit myself! I really enjoy using something masculine, like the nuts and washers – something not very pretty – to create something beautiful. Even with some of my jewelry, I use bolts and washers.”

That ability to see art in something commonplace also led her to create “custom belly mosaics.” In addition to other custom pieces, Erica makes molds of the bellies of expecting mothers, then pieces together mosaics on the surface. “It’s a challenge to do a mosaic on the curved surface,” she says, “but it’s a really neat keepsake.”
Her custom work – pet portraits, memorial mosaics, house numbers – is as much an inspiration to her as her personal creations.

“I’m doing things people really appreciate and that’s special to them,” she says. “It makes it something really personal that they can keep or give as a gift, and I like being part of that.”