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Catherine Courtlandt-McElvane

The artist

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Catherine Courtlandt-McElvane lives in a world of swirls, dots and abstract objects. A world full of goddesses and spirits — a world that she conjures up using colored pencils, markers and whatever materials are close to her fingertips when she's inspired.

"There's always dots and swirls in my work," said Courtlandt-McElvane, 43, as she laughed and flung her long locks over her shoulder. "These are not things that I sit down and think ... it just comes out of me."

And what comes out of her is a bold, colorful expression of her spirituality, emotions and dreams that she lets viewers interpret in their own way.

"It's always a blast for me to hear what people have to say about my work," she said. "Because I'm just creating something for me, something that just found its way out of me onto paper. So when people tell me what they see, I'm always amazed because sometimes I don't even know what I'm thinking when I'm creating. I just do what I feel."

Although Courtlandt-McElvane says she's just doing what she feels, it's a little deeper than that. She has not only natural artistic abilities that started emerging when she was 4 years old, but she also has the formal training that helps her bring her visions to life. An accomplished artist who studied art and film at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Temple University and San Francisco State University, she has held many titles in the art world — from artist to grant writer to curator to teacher to her current title of manager of education and outreach programs at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

"I've been the kid learning to make art, the artist, the person who teaches art, the person who gives away money to art programs, and the person who gives artists opportunities to do what they love," she said. "I've done everything in the art world, and it's been an amazing experience."

Courtlandt-McElvane also had the opportunity to illustrate two bilingual (Spanish and English) children's books with Charlotte author Iranian Patterson. The books, 2010's Winds and Dreams: The Legend of Angel Falls and 2005's Chipis Chipis, Small Shells of the Sea, the latter of which was awarded the Children's Choices award for excellence in 2006; that book also represented a new phase in her work, a phase that saw the merging of her world of dots and swirls with her formal training.

"Working on the books gave me the opportunity to mix my two styles and opened me up to create more work that combines abstract with portrait painting," she said. "It really let people know that, yes I will always do my geometric, funky designs, but I can still get down as an artist. I can make a fish look like a fish and make an apple look like an apple."

As Courtlandt-McElvane — whose drawings and performance pieces have appeared in exhibits in her home state of California and here in Charlotte (her home of 10 years) — looks into the future, she's thinking of new ways to create her work. She's now exploring the idea of using glass and light to construct new designs.

For her, there is no better time than now — and no better place than the Q.C. — to be imaginative.

"When I moved to Charlotte, I didn't see it as a place where I could be an artist, but I was wrong," she said. "It's a wonderful place to create art if you try."

All Black History in the Making content:

Calvin Richardson
John W. Love Jr.
Ayisha McMillan
Quentin 'Q' Talley
Ida Divine
Catherine Courtlandt-McElvane

Black History in the Making homepage

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