Becoming an Insider Again: Catherine T. Nelson in the Studio

April 15, 2016 by


Catherine T. Nelson spent the beginning of her Studio Workspace residency creating abstract monotypes, trying to experiment and play with materials. However, her plans drastically changed after some time in the Etching Studio. “I needed to see if this medium was going to pull the same things out of me as my earlier monotypes,” says Catherine. “By the end of those first few weeks, I realized what I wanted to say wasn’t hidden in the materials.”

In her hometown in Louisiana, Catherine participated in a presentation culture of debutante balls and mardi gras ceremonies. But once she left the South for school, she began to get an outsider’s perspective and question female identity in the face of these rituals. From 2009 to 2013, Catherine had created a series of monotypes in response to growing up as a debutante. In this work, eerie white faces peek out of the inky black background; their toothy grins and elaborate costumes make the women and their escorts almost monstrous.PageImage-495877-2645894-ErinPrincessMonotpye

But while this series aimed to express her frustration with the politics of gender, Catherine’s new project takes a more subtle and gentle approach to the complex roles of women, mediated by memory and family. Catherine has recently moved back to Louisiana after years in the Northeast, and now she’s figuring out how to make work that respects her roots while still bringing a critical inquiry to Southern culture.

“I’ve struggled with this conflicting outsider and insider perspective,” says Catherine, “but once my outsider perspective became one of prejudice about where I came from, I knew I had to rethink my approach.”DSC_2170

After several days poring over the journal her grandmother kept as a teenager and talking to her mother and aunt on the phone, trying to stave off the feeling of homesickness, Catherine felt a spark. She began making preliminary prints for her next big project, focusing on domestic life, women’s work, and the seemingly insignificant jobs that go into creating memorable moments. Catherine’s interest lies in documenting this invisible time that doesn’t make it into family albums, not important enough to photograph.

“I have old photos of me and my family dressed up and smiling, but the preparation behind these moments was invisible,” says Catherine. “So I’m inventing these images.”

To that end, Catherine is experimenting with making sepia-toned 5×7 inch polyester plate lithographs, their size reminiscent of photos developed at the corner store. Her imagery is pulled from entries in her grandmother’s journal, Catherine’s interviews with relatives, and her own memories of watching and helping family members prepare for events.DSC_2386

With this “emotional documentation,” as Catherine describes it, she ponders the importance of tasks that are swallowed up by living. A neatly made bed in a spotless room signifies all of the work that goes into hosting a guest, and is undone once that guest arrives. Shadowy hands changing a baby’s diaper highlight all of the work that is expected when raising a child. Catherine’s imagery is pared down to only the essentials, and her style is raw—visceral snapshots that instead of naturalistic rendering rely on immediacy and familiarity.

“My imagery and tools may be crude, but I have a story to tell,” says Catherine. “It feels honest when the work is clumsy.”

The work takes both Catherine and the viewer back in time, making them consider their own memories of childhood. Through these invented, yet universal images, she aims to memorialize the unseen work of the women in her life, and hopes others will notice and appreciate this invisible, but essential, labor as well. It’s in this new project that Catherine has begun embracing her life back in Louisiana and becoming an insider once again.DSC_2391

Catherine T. Nelson is a multimedia artist living and working in New Orleans, Louisiana. She graduated from Duke University with a BA in Visual Arts & Art History and a Post-Baccalaureate from Maryland Institute College of Art. You can find more of Catherine’s work by visiting her website and see more images from her residency on our Flickr.