Written by Doug McCash for the Times-Picayune.
Internationally known artist Katie Holten is attempting to obstruct the New Orleans Museum of Art atrium with a set of huge drawings suspended from the ceiling like fabric walls. The biggest of the drawings, Holten said, is a 12-by-36 foot behemoth that will act like a barrier, confronting visitors as they enter and preventing them from reaching the center of great hall. The reception desk is being repositioned to the side. "It's quite a nasty thing to do, to block the entrance," said Holten, who was born in Ireland. "You have to think, 'Why do I have to go this way; differently than I normally do?'"
The reason for Holten's "architectural intervention" is to alter the familiar museum environment in the same way that modern man has altered the natural wetlands of Louisiana. Straight lines, she explained, don't usually occur in nature. But her aerial survey of the Louisiana coastline - conducted by computer map searches and an airplane tour - revealed a pattern of innumerable straight channels created since the 1920s to explore for oil and access oil reserves. By angularly slicing up the museum atrium with her drawings, Holten hopes to communicate the disquieting unnaturalness of the coastal landscape.
Holten, 37, is a Fulbright scholar with several museum exhibits under her belt. She represented the Emerald Isle in the 2003 Venice Biennale - the art world equivalent of the Olympic Games. Growing up in the rural countryside, she explained, she was always aware of the interwoven patterns of nature.
"All of these cycles happen around us, and it's just who I am, and it's just natural that it comes out in the work I make," she said.
Her interest in environmental themes is always at the heart of her artwork. In the past she’s produced fill-sized trees from paper refuse and black tape. But mostly, her drawings and three-dimensional art has remained quite small. Part of the thrill of her NOMA show, titled "Drawn to the Edge," she said, was blowing everything up so big.
Holten familiarized herself with the Bayou State wetland environment in early 2012 during a six-week residency at A Studio in the Woods, an artist retreat in a forested river bottom on the West Bank. When she first got to New Orleans, she was surprised at how difficult it was to make her way down to the banks of the river, because of levees and development, she said.
Once she reached the banks, she gathered mud, which she used to paint a few of the huge sketches. That mud is the fertile raw material from which all of Louisiana was made, of course, but it's also somewhat tainted, she said, with pollutants from the whole center of the country. The alluvial outflow of the Mississippi is said to have created the infamous oxygen-starved dead zone in the Gulf.
Holten used the Mississippi mud to render the precise overview of an island that confronts visitors as they enter the museum. The island, which is directly south of the French Quarter in Creole Bay, looks to Holten like a prehistoric animal drawn on a cave wall, or maybe some kind of bone. Marrying the image of a delta island rendered with polluted sediment with an extinct animal is the sort of subtle but penetrating metaphor Holten hopes to achieve in "Drawn to the Edge."
But the exhibit isn't meant as an exercise in ecological finger wagging. Holten sees man as a part of the natural pattern. She describes her dramatic Dalmatian-spotted maps of oil wells as constellations and acknowledges their odd splendor.
"I'm not saying, 'Oh, this is a terrible thing (or) this is a fantastic thing,'" she said. "I'm just looking at what it is, and I see these patterns and how we people interact with the planet and world around us and how we create these systems."
One set of Holten's drawings got an unexpected dose of Louisiana wetland reality. The weather was so gorgeous when she began the project that she used the sunny rooftop of her temporary studio, NOMA's enormous storage facility, with its view of the city, to work on sundial-style canvas panels.
She returned to the roof again and again to make periodic sketches of her shadow as the hours went by. She was shocked when an unexpected cloudburst flooded the roof with inches of standing water, submerging her drawings.
"You should have seen me skating around," she said of the soggy drawing rescue.
"Drawn to the Edge" is the second in NOMA's annual Great Hall Project series that began in 2011 with the memorable "Thalassa" sea goddess sculpture by street artist Swoon.
Click here to view the original article and a video on Katie Holten.