Derek Courtney is an Omaha-based artist whose time spent growing up in rural West Virginia led to his current exhibition "Folklore of Labor." The exhibition depicts similarities Courtney identified between modern day blue collar workers and manual laborers from the early 20th century. We asked Courtney a few questions about himself, his work and how his experience as a West Virginian led him to create the body of work on display in the W. Dale Clark Main Library's Michael Phipps Gallery through the end of August.
How did you get started as an artist? How did you end up in Omaha today?
I was born and raised in WV at a time when it was still a blue state. I assume this was the case because of the strength of the labor movement at the time. I left shortly after graduation to follow a girl and ended up in Omaha.
As far as my start as an artist, I can't remember seriously wanting to do anything else. When I was in third grade I did a drawing of a sumo wrestler. It was the first time I can remember being told that I was good at something. From then on I just figured that art was the thing I would do. I was lucky enough to get some really great instruction from Caryl Toth through a program offered to kids in my county. She is still the greatest influence on my approach to art. I owe her more than I could ever articulate.
Explain what your work in your exhibition “Folklore of Labor” represents.
Do the various mediums used in your pieces hold any particular significance?
The original idea that got me started was drawing parallels between the miners in the early 20th century and the current conditions for blue collar workers. I was intrigued by the similarities between the company store economy and modern day banking. I was also interested in a comparison of the physical toll of blue collar labor.
Naturally, as the show took shape, other themes branched off and the show started to become more personal. I think that where the "self portraits" came into the picture. I guess I was trying to imagine myself in other contexts based on specific scenarios related to the original theme.
The medium used in specific works doesn't necessarily hold any particular significance. However, it does affect the way I execute a piece. I work very differently when painting as opposed to other works. Naturally different media require different techniques but, in my case, they also change my cognitive approach to making art. That being said I did make decisions on which medium to use based on the images I was trying to make.
Why is it important to tell this story through your art?
I've put it off for a long time. Bits and pieces of certain issues would peek through in my work at certain times but I usually went out of my way to avoid a specific message in my art. It was important to me as an artist because it forced me to deal with the themes that shaped me as a person. For the viewer it's a bit different. What I view as important might not be the exact thing the viewer experiences. That being said, I think it would be helpful for all people living in our post-everything world to consider a few things. Not the least of which is the cost of labor in human terms, environmental terms and socioeconomic terms.
Are there any region-specific elements present in this exhibition that may require more of an explanation?
There are messages that may not be apparent to someone from the Midwest. I included references to a canary in a coal mine, a blood disease that turns one's skin blue (attributed to inbreeding) and coal mine scrip (which was currency paid to the miners that was good only at the company store). I'm sure there are other small examples but those are probably the best examples. Moving forward I'll probably include more regional idiosyncrasies in my work. It took me a long while to realize the importance of where I came from in regards to the person I am today.
"Folklore of Labor" is on display at the W. Dale Clark Main Library's Michael Phipps Gallery through August 28.