Article by April Clark Honaker and Photography by Kelly Moore Clark
Over the past year, Courtney Wentzel has found herself inspired by children’s portraits with an artistic eye, Wentzel’s gouge has carved countless images of local families.
When Courtney Wetzel posted portraits she’d made of her children on Facebook, she wasn’t prepared for the response. She said, “One of the greatest things we can do for our kiddos is teach them an appreciation for art, and why not start with them?” With this in mind, she had created the portraits for herself and her family but hadn’t imagined that anyone else would be interested in them. So when people started requesting portraits of their children, she was pleasantly surprised. “I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive reaction,” she said. In fact, interest has grown so much that Courtney now has a waiting list.
When she posted the portraits of her children earlier this year, Courtney had recently begun making art again after a thirteen-year hiatus. In the midst of life and family, she had let her art fall to the wayside, and said, “I never thought I’d pick it up again.” But watching her children tackle new things motivated her to try. “Our children inspire everything,” she said. “They inspired me to start back again, and it was scary, because I’d been away for so long, but we learn lessons from them. They try new things, and they may not be good at them at first, but they keep trying.” For Courtney, creating portraits of her children brought her talents and background full circle, allowing her to rediscover a creative side of herself that she first noticed as a teenager.
While growing up, Courtney expressed herself through theatre. “Because we moved around so much, I had a hard time finding a peer group,” she said, “but theatre was always welcoming.” She felt accepted there and loved that she could be whomever she wanted, whether it was herself or someone else.”They were my people,” she said.
During high school, Courtney’s involvement with the Meridian Little Theatre in Meridian, Mississippi, allowed her to meet the renowned painter, Greg Cartmell. At the time, Cartmell had a frame shop in Meridian, and Courtney earned a job there as a framer. Although she never put a brush to canvas, she watched Cartmell and absorbed everything he did. “I didn’t think I would be able to do those things and didn’t know if my ability went further than a stick figure,” she said, “but maybe that was the confidence of a teenager.”
In college at Northwestern State University, Courtney continued her involvement with theatre and started dabbling in costume design. Designing for the stage showed her that creativity came naturally to her, which led her to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in graphic communications. After earning a bachelor’s degree, Courtney continued to pursue what she loved, earning a Master of Arts in studio art. Despite being driven to expand her education in the arts, Courtney never dreamed her workload would someday require a waiting list.
As an artist, Courtney has never been comfortable with the idea of marketing herself. Not only does the label “artist” spark resistance for her, the idea of actively promoting her work makes Courtney cringe. “I do it for me,” she said, “and I have a hard time with the term ‘artist.’ I never really think in terms of being creative. It’s just what I do.” According to Courtney, when something is labeled, it’s being viewed from a certain perspective, which makes it less pure. She believes labels can be limiting, especially if we cling to them. With beliefs informed by Anthony De Mello, who was an Indian Jesuit priest, Courtney prefers to be in the moment and do life without labels.
Since she doesn’t have a website and hasn’t done any real promotion to speak of, Courtney attributes her success to timing and word of mouth. “I hit the right audience at the right time,” she said. “I think people are looking for art that goes along with the movement toward contemporary, sleek, minimal looks, and I think my art fits that aesthetic. It’s something different.” According to Courtney, oil portraits are timeless and traditional: they have their place. But she chooses to create handmade, linocut prints and said, “I think one of the interesting things about this kind of portraiture is you’re not limited to one.”
Courtney provides customers with a limited number of prints and then paints the carved block for them to keep. In terms of process, the family’s input is needed at various points from photo selection to ink and paper selection. “We do it together. It’s a journey,” Courtney said. “I want them to be there every step of the way.” At the same time, Courtney’s knowledge and experience with her medium call for a certain level of control. “It’s definitely an effort by both of us, and it’s a process we can’t make it through without each other,” she said, “but I want to be the guide.”
Being the guide allows her to ensure the portraits successfully represent their models. Greg Cartmell once told her that a portrait should be an example of a person’s best self. Although she is careful not to change an image, she said, “I try to put myself in their shoes and highlight their best features.” Even then, the family is the best measure of success. She said, “If the family loves it, and they think it not only looks like the child but takes on a certain personality and portrays the child in a certain light, it’s successful.”
When she’s not creating portraits, gauging success is simpler. “I like to make things that make me feel good—that I like to look at,” she said. Until recently much of Courtney’s work has consisted of nudes, and she described them as her “comfort zone.” Courtney started creating woodcut prints of female nudes in college, and she approaches these works and presents them to the world in a completely different way than her portraits.
One of the reasons she hasn’t promoted them more openly is the nature of the subject matter. She’s deliberately treated them in a more private way and said, “I’ve wanted people who bought them to have privacy.” Modesty is also one of Courtney’s comfort zones, but she chooses to work with female nudes because of her confidence with them. “I know what a female figure looks like in any pose,” she said, “and it’s really hard to make a female figure not look pretty.” She also appreciates the variety she can achieve with them by changing the emphasis of lines, light and shadow, or by changing the pose or level of movement.
Regardless of the subject matter of her prints, being able to make them brings her the most joy. “My favorite thing about what I do is just the fact that I get to do it,” she said, “because for so long I was scared to try.” Through the inspiration of her children and the support of her husband, Zeke, who she calls her “biggest cheerleader,” she has found her way back to art and is growing in confidence. “I think we all need something that’s ours,” she said. “As mothers, we give our lives to so many different things. To have something that’s mine, that’s part of my identity, I think it helps complete me.”
She’s grateful for the time to create and the therapeutic impact it’s had on all facets of her life. “It really allows me to disappear into another world,” she said. “I can literally completely disconnect, and that’s pretty fantastic. How many people can say they have a job or hobby that allows them to do that?” The time alone with her work and her thoughts allows her to process things going on in her life and nourishes her soul. “I can keep at it for hours and muscle through it,” she said. “I have a tremendous amount of time to think—or not think. I can work out a lot of problems during that time.”
Since Courtney has taken up art again, the impact on her family has also been positive. “I think my family appreciates it,” she said. “I have something of my own, and I think it makes me a better mother, a better wife and a better human being in general.”
Another thing Courtney loves about what she does is the process itself. “I love that it’s multistep,” she said. “It’s like each step creates its own work of art, and there’s a little reward at the end of each phase.” Because Courtney likes to have a plan, she always draws out the image on the computer first. When this step is complete, she said, “I shouldn’t run into any obstacles along the way, and that speaks to me. I don’t like surprises.”
At the same time, Courtney doesn’t expect perfection. “If you strive for something to be perfect,” she said, “how can you enjoy it?” Instead, Courtney chooses to embrace imperfection. “I know this process isn’t perfect. I know when I make a print there will be places that aren’t perfect, but it will be unique, and I think imperfection makes it special. My imperfection will be different from someone else’s imperfection, and there’s no use in me striving for perfection.” Some viewers may not even notice what the artist perceives as imperfection.
For Courtney, art is all about perspective. “It just depends on who’s looking at it,” she said. “I’m not the only one viewing a piece. Others are going to see it in a completely different way, and that’s okay.” For this reason, Courtney strives to look at each of her pieces from other perspectives. “They can add to your frame of reference,” she said.
A person’s perspective can also change from one day to the next. This is something Courtney has learned from her own art collection. “I like to walk around and look at the pieces I’ve collected, and I always see something new,” she said, “and I hope that people can do the same with my work. I hope everyone will find something they can appreciate about it, whether it’s the aesthetics, the medium, the time or the process.”
For Courtney, meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. “I would love to say there’s some deep meaning behind what I do,” she said, “but there isn’t. I enjoy it. I like to make things that are aesthetically cool, and I like the process.” As part of the process, meaning-making has never really been on her radar. In fact, she compared her attitude toward the meaning of her art to the attitude held by famous surrealist Salvador Dalî toward his art. Dalî was a master at promoting his work and loved to hear others interpret it, but he admitted that he had no deep meaning in mind at the moment he created the paintings. Still, his paintings have stood the test of time and have been interpreted and reinterpreted innumerable times.
For Courtney, art’s longevity adds to its value for the owner. Each day is an opportunity to see something new in it or for someone else to see something new in it. “Art lasts long after we’re gone,” Courtney said, “so I would hope that my work would be something owners can enjoy for the rest of their lives and be passed down to the next generation.”