Creatives are known for looking into the future. For imagining a world that doesn’t yet exist. It’s not uncommon, however, for some artists to turn to what already exists for inspiration. It’s another thing entirely though to imagine what once was. To recreate a scene in history that never happened. To depict the narrative of a place with real historical context and its characters. This type of embellished storytelling is what inspired one New Jersey artist’s latest project.
Katrina Eugenia, a New Jersey native from Mount Olive, has merged historical fiction and art at her debut showing inside New York’s The Morgan Library & Museum. Eugenia, whose medium is normally photography, recently displayed a series of sketches in The Morgan gift shop. Thanks in part to the pandemic, it took her nearly two years to complete this series. The iconic institution served as her inspiration and her drawings tell the fictional story of what life was like inside for its original occupants. I recently spoke with Eugenia who took me through how this project came to be and why The Morgan is so special to her.
When did this topic first become important to you?
As a Jersey girl alone in Gotham, The Morgan had become my church. I loved how intimate and quiet it was. It is one of New York’s smallest museums and largest mansions, if not the biggest, and the Morgan’s history is as rich as the man who once called it home. I was enchanted by its opulence and the way it set my imagination on fire. So it had become a place of refuge. A place where I could be inspired and find a little peace. Where I could learn something new, and feel safe. I would go there to see the exhibitions which are small but extraordinary and just sit. Then I’d sit in the library, and draw.
It was from one of those drawings that this assignment was born. A 15-minute sketch of Mr. Morgan’s study that I’d shot off to the director of the gift shop, Sean Hayes. What’s one more shot in the dark when you’re an artist alone in New York? By some tiny miracle, it sparked what was an idea for Hayes and a blessing for me.
What about The Morgan inspired these sketches?
I would say these drawings are the result of a present mind, fully raptured with what life must have been like when it was not a museum. When it was home to one of the biggest bankers in American history. When Belle da Costa, his controversial librarian, ran the show, and his bombshell wife stood among these books. Did she sit in hereafter sitting for John Singer Sargent? Did Mr. and Mrs. Morgan ever do the deed among the books? What was it like to be a child, playing in front of six-foot fireplaces? In contrast to playing in the swamps of Jersey, as I did growing up.
And of course, all of the books…To be surrounded by all of those books. All of that intellect. All of those thoughts and words and art. The library, a quiet room amidst the loudest city. These imaginative aspects were the things that kept me coming back to the museum. They were what lead me to this assignment.
What do these drawings mean to you?
These drawings were an escape. A remedy to un-torture the tortured artist. To quiet an unquiet mind. It was in a state of elevated thinking that I created these drawings. I hope that shows, and that their energy remains with them, wherever they go. This assignment was invaluable to me. This assignment was a gift. The resilience of the human heart is in these drawings.
How do you think they stack up against photos?
It’s funny you should ask because I am actually a professional photographer! I went to school for photography and it makes up the majority of my livelihood, so as a photographer and a painter, I can’t imagine comparing the two. They are each their own beast in their own right. Photography, for me, is about documentation. I have been a compulsive documentarian since I was a kid. Even before the age of Instagram, I had to capture every moment. I loved disposable cameras and still do.
But however biographical in context, the act of painting and drawing is otherworldly for me. It’s how I connect to God, to the universe. It silences all of the noise and nonsense in an extraordinary way that gives me a kind of elevated thinking that is so pure and clear I could cry. I guess that’s why they call it being gifted because it really is a gift. The act of painting is some kind of ethereal channel for me. And then the hope is that the outcome will trigger that same feeling in someone else, but unique to their own journey and heart.
Paintings and drawings are a kind of artifact too. To paint is to pee on a fire hydrant. It’s a way of marking my territory. With every line or brushstroke, I am also saying, I was here.
Part of what makes this particular series of works so significant is that they were all drawn from life. No photographic replication exists. They are purely the interpretation and outcome of a vision that entered through my eyes, filtered its way through my heart and soul, and came back out through my hands.
What was the creative process like?
I have always wanted to be a draftsman the way Michaelangelo was a draftsman. I have always wanted to be a painter the way Van Gogh was a painter. But the moments in which I have the opportunity to paint and draw, are few and far between. Nevertheless, a painter is who I am at my very core. And so, when Hayes, director of the gift shop here at The Morgan, believed in me enough to grant me this assignment, this inconceivable opportunity, it was with my whole heart that I took it on. That was in January of 2020.
With an imagined beautiful year ahead, little did I know the unimaginable was looming. For two months and change, I made the trek through the city’s subways at every chance I got, slowly but surely chipping away at my drawings of Mr. Morgan’s historic and ever enchanting library. These pieces, I had decided, would be done entirely from life. I would not work from a photograph and I would not use a ruler at any point. These pieces would become a journey of trial and error, drawing and failing and then redrawing each and every line and each and every book until I knew with my whole heart that I had tried as hard as I possibly could. So that I could be proud of even their imperfections because they were my imperfections. They were proof that I did it, and no one else.
While I thought these drawings would see the light of day that every year, the planet had other plans. I was forced to put the project aside while the museum shut down amidst a global pandemic. They would be drawn from life. I stuck to my guns. I would not refer to a photograph. So I waited. I waited a whole year. A whole year before I could work on them again. And the moment I could, I did.
What techniques do you use to make such detailed drawings? What was the biggest challenge?
My only technique was my will to learn and never give up. And the biggest challenge? The whole thing was a challenge. I was drawing a very complex subject that I didn’t know how to draw, amidst a pandemic. I started the project without a mask and ended it with one on. Who could have seen that coming?
When does your show run until?
The show is up indefinitely in the Morgan Gift Shop until all of the pieces are sold. It is the first time in history that The Morgan has commissioned an artist, let alone a local, unknown artist, to draw the historic rooms, and furthermore, give them a show! It is the first show to be held in the gift shop, and my drawings are the first and only original works to ever be available for purchase at The Morgan Library and Museum to date.
What concept or medium are you most interested in currently?
As a certifiable New Yorker and a Jersey girl, there has never been anything that has inspired me more than the Meadowlands. The industrial and often broken down landscapes that fly by on the train rides from New York to home, and back again, have always taken hold of me. They are visions comprised of the hard work of generations past, and if you catch a good sunset, God’s light turns it all to gold. The tall grass swaying all about. Bridges and people going over them. To and from. The sparkling, swampy waters. Buildings and trucks and broken windows and bricks. All of this was commonly built by the true grit of Italian immigrants, like my great grandparents who came here from Naples and settled in Jersey City in 1913.
I now live in Union City, or Hoboken Heights, not far from where my ancestors settled and my mom would grow up, and just across the river from Manhattan, where I lived previously. To me, it’s just another borough. Together with my boyfriend, Matt, we cherish the very views that I used to awe over on the train. And it is those landscapes that I wish to paint, in plain air, and in my studio. Those landscapes are all I think about when I have time to think. They’re all I paint about when I have time to paint.
Main photo courtesy of Katrina Eugenia