MANY YEARS AGO, WHILE READING THROUGH SOME ANTIQUARIAN DOCUMENTS, I was struck by how single penstrokes in 19th century manuscripts can conjure an era so keenly. Encompassing my interests in American cultural history and literature, formal issues of stroke and texture, the vernacular, and American folk art, this phenomenon of line propelled my work forward. Since then, my paintings have investigated the everyday handwriting of 19th century Americans by recontextualizing these artifacts in fields of color and language.
Over the past several years I have examined collections in the Montana Historical Society, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and regional historical societies in many other states. I collect 19th century American penmanship manuals, arithmetic workbooks and handwritten ephemera. Through various digital and printmaking processes, I incorporate facsimiles into paintings.
These transferred marks (crisp, dense black) punctuate the atmospheric space of the mid-sized and larger paintings. Color is space. Experiencing the layered space of the painted canvas is analogous to peering back into time. In sharp contrast to today's "data streams" of keyboarded letters, there is an object-like quality to quoted text fragments. "Drawn" letters and numbers can be storytellers without being literal. And the signatures of ordinary people, their schoolbook exercises, and even their stray margin notes are revelatory. To me they narrate the conflicted Victorian longing for convention, alongside a passion for flourished excess.
I am especially interested in ferreting out instances of deviation from Victorian writing standards. These tiny gestures express an improvisatory spirit at odds with strict rules of stylistic conformity. Here one can see the human impulse to let the mind stray, with pen in hand. My handdrawn meandering lines reflect appropriated text within each painting. The awkward marginalia and impulsive flourishes of past scribblers attest to the humanity of our ancestors, long gone. In my work, I want to remember that, despite the radical social transformations that technology has brought, those ancestors are not so different from us.
Exploring parallels between drawing/painting and handwriting/markmaking, my most recent group of paintings magnifies intimate handdrawn marks into more explosive gestures.
—Catherine Courtenaye, 2012