Courtney Griffith is a San Francisco based artist originally from San Diego, California. She studied painting at Santa Clara University, California and Syracuse University at Florence, Italy. In addition to a degree in fine arts, she also has a degree in mathematics. Many see the two fields of study as opposite, but she sees them as similar in a sense that they both deal with abstract thinking.
Griffith is primarily interested in exploring the concept of ephemerality. through images of decomposition and the use of natural dyes, handmade paints and canvases. Her most recent work attempts to deconstruct archival painting traditions through the lens of ephemerality and sustainability.
Kacy (K): Hey, Courtney, how are you? Good to see you. Thank you so much for doing this interview again. Do you mind telling me again your name and some brief introduction to your art?
Courtney (C): Thank you! Some of my answers might have changed by now, especially post-pandemic. But yeah, my name is Courtney Griffith. Lately, I’ve been sustainably focused on ephemerals, like temporary art, to talk about our relationship with resource consumption, environmental empathy, and nature in general. My paintings were primed to gesso, so I was essentially creating plastic. That got me thinking about what other toxic elements are there. What is an oil painting, what is canvas, and the idea of making everything from scratch?
Personally, I drink a lot of tea and tea has a very temporal element, right? It changes colors as time progresses. So I would paint with the tea and the tea would keep growing on the canvas and then the tea leaves. They’d slowly fall off, fade, and change over time. Or the vegetable dyes decompose on the canvas. I have a lot of fun going from talking about time and ephemerality to actually visually showing ephemerality. During that pandemic, I’ve been making my own oil paints from natural earth pigments. I want to source my own pigment, like go on a hike and collect my own pigment and make paint. I also got super into charcoal, so I was making oil paint with charcoal from burnt wood.
K: It’s very interesting to see the way you lead your project and the way it evolves. You were a mathematic and art double major when you were in undergrad, right? Can you tell me how was your life when you were a double major? How did you decide which field you want to pursue?
C: I had quite a journey there. I guess a lot of uncertainty. Like a lot wasn’t intentional in the beginning.
I was an undeclared student for two years. I took classes like drawing, painting, and calculus. I kind of thought of math as my more practical side. Maybe I’ll be an engineer. And then art is like, just a hobby. As I kept taking math classes, I realized I didn’t like applied math. I like theoretical, pure math more. So suddenly, my math degree became less practical. I was doing abstract art and I was doing abstract math, and neither really have a solid career trajectory outside of academics. I eventually declared them both and put one as a minor.
I really want to be independent when I graduated and computer science is the best application of pure math. So I got a technical job at a software company called WalkMe. I worked there for three years. It was fun like puzzles, but it wasn’t like abstract theory, the stuff that I was really in love with. After working at WalkMe for three years, I thought about going back to academics. All the professors I talked to if they were about 50 and above 50 years old, they were quite happy with their life. But they also told me that it’s really different now for people in my age with a Ph.D. I was talking to two of my professors who I’m pretty close.
They literally called in a guy who looked like he was in his mid-30s. And they were like, “Could you please talk to Courtney about how hard it is to be a math professor for you?” It sounds like people can get jobs. It’s just uncertain how long you’re going to have that job. There are no benefits included. And it’s uncertain how long you’ll be located at that institution. I have another math advisor at Santa Clara in my senior year, ended up getting a tumor in his brain. I had a conversation with him. The last thing he said to me was like, “Courtney, make sure you keep painting. “
I’ve been thinking a little bit about there are not really livable opportunities to work multiple jobs, or to work part-time. It’s either making minimum wage working part-time, or you’re committing your entire week to one thing. A lot of times, that’s going to be a corporate job where your head is down, and you’re not really knowing the big picture or being so creative.
K: I always thought academic life would be more stable than being an artist. Your conversations with your professors reminded my graduate school life at UNC. It’s hard for PIs to get RO1 grants or enough funding to keep the labs running. It’s also hard for faculties to get tenure jobs. Do you mind if I ask more about how it was working at WalkMe? Like, what’s the job you do over there, and what’s the routine? I guess I just want to get a sense of life working in a tech company in SF.
C: I did a few different jobs. I did quality assurance. And then I worked in customer service, and then I moved into technical support, which was probably the most technical job that I did. I decided to leave after that. In tech, they will give you everything to make your life so easy. But your life has to be a tech. You eat breakfast here; sometimes you eat dinner here, most of your friends are here, your social life is tied in with the company. They try to make it very tech central. So it was effortless. All my meals were basically provided for me, a very secure income, and great health care. But it was like, on the evenings and weekends, I had no creativity or energy left inside of me. My mental capacity was kept out by the end of the day. I wasn’t able to make a lot of art. I was giving everything to this company.
I’ve been thinking a little bit about there are not really livable opportunities to work multiple jobs, or to work part-time. It’s either making minimum wage working part-time, or you’re committing your entire week to one thing. A lot of times, that’s going to be a corporate job where your head is down, and you’re not really knowing the big picture or being so creative. You’re more solving these isolated problems. Almost everybody I know has a separate passion, such as their families. Like the feminist panels for tech companies that I went to, the central topic that everyone in the audience really wanted these women’s talk about is how they were able to keep working at the pace that they work in these tech jobs, and also spend time with their kids. There was never really a great answer and people spend an insane amount of money on childcare.
K: Is that your friend whose lifetime dream is to be a teacher? But she never takes the leap and also made fun of you?
C: When I was getting to figure it out, some of my friends who all worked in tech, those were pretty much the only people that I had really met would often say that I was unemployed. Even after I started teaching and being an artist, people would still say something like you’re taking time off of work. I had one of my friends was like “Hey, Courtney, do you have to pay taxes since you’re unemployed?” And I was like “I’m self-employed. I paid self-employment taxes.” I felt like I always had to tell people how busy and how stressed I am to prove the legitimacy of being an artist. I always have to remind people that I have a job and I am working as hard if not harder than they are. And people would always like “Oh, you paint and your life must be so fun.” No, I’m really stressed and passionate.
Since we talked, some my friends who are still working in the job that they hate and suffering health consequences from it. When we interviewed last time, I was frustrated with them. But now when I think back, I feel a bit sad. Because they truly think that they can’t do any other things because they don’t make enough money. There’s a clear path for being a teacher. You could get a teaching credential and you can make it happen. And he was like, “Oh, no, it doesn’t make enough money.”
K: It’s pretty amazing to me that, the way people are paralyze by their fear, or create a mold for themselves. As an artist myself, I feel sometimes being an artist, you have to fight the current to make it work or defeat the fear to make it happen. May I ask why art is so important to you?
C: Yeah. That’s such a good question. I think that I would never be able to put it into words exactly. I don’t think I’d ever been satisfied with a verbal answer to that question. My best stab at it is art feels like my most effective way of communication. I’m a very visual person and I feel like I’ve gotten so much from art when growing up. It almost feels like not making art is like trying not to talk to anyone. And eventually, you just have this deep urge that you just have to get it out and connect with the world and be in a conversation.
K: I also want to ask more about when you said, when you were in college, major in math and minor in art, you think art might just be a hobby? What does that mean? And do you still remember what makes you think art is better just to be a hobby?
C: Can I give you a long answer here? I think growing up in the States, and my parents have lived in the States for a very long time, I always knew that it is really hard to be an artist, a musician, and support yourself. My family always discouraged it. Like this kind of narrative of it will be a great hobby for you. I always felt it wasn’t an option because I knew how hard it is to make an income and survive.
You have to be incredibly self-motivated and fairy disciplined to be able to make it work. In my family, there’s a lot of anxiety and depression and I always thought the structure would keep me safe from experiencing that kind of anxiety of being an artist. That’s why I thought I would never be an artist because I thought it was just too brutal. But I can’t really stay away from what I’m so passionate about. No matter what track I take in my life, whether it is a math professor or an artist. I have to prove to myself that I can be strong enough to handle the anxiety, depression, and things that I’ve inherited, struggle with, and still be an artist and still be motivated and disciplined. My parents also really pushed the importance of having a family on me, which is their goal and their dream, not mine. They’re always like, how can you support your children and send them to college? And I’m like, what children? I’m making paintings. But the short answer is I just thought it was too hard. I don’t know, does that make sense?
K: That makes sense. For my experience, I still remember that my parents always asked me to keep up with my academic work and to pursue an advanced degree until there is no next level. They don’t encourage me to do anything other than study textbooks. At some point in my life, I do feel my freedom of choice was taken away. I want to ask more about your upcoming show at Root Division Gallery. Can you tell me more about it? And does your practice informed by your mathematic background in any way?
C: I’m doing a Frank Ratchye Project Space exhibition in March. I’m thinking about it as a hypothesis and trying to be a scientific method-oriented exhibition, especially the topic that I’m meditating on for the show is entropy. My initial ideas are to use the definition of entropy and the general definition of increasing disorder in the universe. I’m thinking about how entropy is an inescapable thing and no matter what we do, we swept away in this directionless, inescapable direction of eventual demise. What’s interesting about entropy to me is this necessity for loss. There must be loss in transformation, there must be a loss, to move forward to continue to exist. There must be this inescapable loss.
It means that every moment, every entity, and every space is sacred. It’s one of a kind and that will never happen again. We’re absolutely a part of this. So it’s something we can observe, but it’s also something we’re a part of. Charcoal is created by an irreversible natural process. And it’s also the increase in disorder, like burning a piece of wood. It also goes from more order to more disorder and increases in entropy. And because of that, it’s irreversible. And this creation in the destruction makes a creative tool. And with that, you make an artwork. It feels almost like an illusion of defying a scientific law. That in reality, you’re just creating something that’s destined to only exist for a fleeting moment, and then continue on the journey towards disorder and decomposition. Is there really such a thing of created creating at all? Or is it all just kind of inevitably trending downwards? So the show is all about charcoal. Everything’s charcoal.
K: Thanks so much for participating, Courtney! I am very excited to see your show!
The show will be up at Root Division Gallery online exhibition from March 1 to March 30.
Website | courtgriff.com
Instagram | @courtgriffith
The interview with Courtney is part of an ongoing photo-sculputure project "21 Grams, the Weight of Souls - Grocery Bag". Her headshot is converted into a soft sculpture to capture the external and internal struggle of who are battling between having a remunerative career and pursuing their dreams.
21 Grams, the Weight of Souls - Grocery Bag #2 Printable fabric and resin 26'' (H) x 13'' (W) x 7'' (D) 2020