Q&A: In Conversation with Courtney Egan




Courtney Egan is among the artists whose work is on display in Pride of Place: The Making of Contemporary Art in New Orleans, an exhibition of more than 70 works donated to NOMA by renowned gallerist Arthur Roger. Her projection-based sculptural installation, Sigils, features two ironwork tree branches draped in wire mesh upon which a high-definition video projection imitates Spanish moss. Sigil is a Latin word defined as an inscribed or painted symbol considered to have magical power. Egan describes her work as “botanical art combined with technology” that is strongly inspired by the profusion of flora in New Orleans, where she has lived and worked in since 1991. Egan will describe how her work digitally manipulates the natural world, and in turn questions human perception of nature through the lens of technology, at an Artist Perspective lecture on Friday, August 18, at 6 p.m. Arts Quarterly editorial intern Starlight Williams spoke with Egan in advance of the talk.

How did you find and develop your style of art?

I grew up on a river in a tiny Mississippi town, Pearlington, and I was on a constant quest to photograph the alligators in the river. I got my own camera and took photography in college, where I fell in love with the darkroom process and the philosophical nature of photography—questions about how photography can be manipulated and how seeing is not always believing. Alternative processes were my special interest—this was pre-Adobe Photoshop. I learned about artists like Hannah Hoch and John Heartfield, and my desire to create lens-based collages, still analog, was spurred.

I also fell in love with television at an early age, when unrestricted viewing in America was the norm for kids. My parents were fans of public television, one of the four channels available, and it rubbed off on me. Nature documentaries were on almost every night, and I spent many days exploring the marsh by the river. A friend of my parents gave me their old Super 8 movie camera, and I got into stop-motion and time-lapse.

Later, in graduate school, I was interested in combining sculpture with photography, and tried many variations on mixing the media. It wasn’t until got into the computer and projection that I finally started to find some possibilities that seemed to work for me.

What was it like for you to work with the Arthur Roger Gallery? How has it helped your career?

Arthur has been extremely supportive, and I was thrilled that he was interested in my work. It has been invaluable to have his guidance. From my first years in New Orleans, decades ago, I was continually drawn to the artists and works he showed and am honored to be a part of the community he supports.

Your work titled Sigilis is on display in Pride of Place. What inspired you to create it?

I was lucky to grow up in a small country town filled with natural beauty. Pearlington is a 200-year-old town, and local lore has it that the main road through it was once a Native American trail. Roads cut around live oak trees that have been there for 300-plus years, and the sense of ancient time embodied by the huge oaks is a constant source of awe for me and many I’m sure.

Children love to play with the work, and that always confirms for me an experience of mystery or magic that I am going for.

What is something you want people to know about you and your work?

The lens is a piece of clear glass, but the seduction that the lens holds is powerful. I see lens-based work as the extension of painting and drawing, not necessarily the opposition to it. Seeing through a lens brings a wide range of considerations to bear, which are pretty much the same as with traditional media such as drawing—close observation, patience, attention to light and color, and awareness of the window through which we are presented with a slice of the world, composition. The main difference is the addition of motion to the image, and the addition of the digital manipulation of the photographic image, and the constant push and pull between what’s real and what’s imaginary, or you could say altered by human desire. The seduction of digital alteration of the natural world is fast process, completed through off-the-shelf software products, whereas hybridization and cultivation is a slow process, more of a collaboration with nature.

There’s often a discrepancy, when one sees a thing in real life, and then when one sees it again in a photo and sees different things. That gap between experiencing something in real life, then seeing a representation of it, can be profound. I often find things that I wasn’t aware of in my photos. This enchants the process of vision for me.