For Petra Cortright, flowers are always enough ✿
In a Q&A, our first Founding Artist shares how she made her stunning new animated work, "Flowers For Gemma"—and why the pursuit of beauty makes life worth living.
Petra Cortright’s art career took off when she began self-publishing webcam videos to YouTube back in 2007. In a piece from then titled Vvebcam—now in The Museum of Modern Art’s collection—the artist films herself playing with various camera effects, seemingly unbothered by the act’s implied voyeurism. Now, 16 years later, Petra continues to play with ideas of performing and recording, while simultaneously exploring new ways of making and releasing digital work.
The below interview between Petra Cortright and Gemma contributor Willa Köerner offers context for Petra’s newly commissioned Founding Artist Edition, Flowers for Gemma.
Willa Köerner: Flowers For Gemma seems to channel the feeling of being in an ethereal world, surrounded by magically blooming flowers. It feels effortless, in a way. How’d you make it?
Petra Cortright: I used a program called FlowScape, which is a landscape and terrain-building game. The piece is a screen recording of me clicking around within the software, selecting different flowers and changing their growth rates, while running a script to hide the mouse. It's a similar thing that I've done with my webcam pieces in the past, where I'm applying live effects while filming myself interacting. It's not unlike someone streaming a game that they're playing, but for me the game is creating, or painting with, the landscape.
I was initially working on a more complex idea for the Gemma commission, with a lot more going on. But as I was working on this little patch of pink flowers within the larger landscape, I realized that the flowers were enough—because flowers are always enough, at least for me. I just intuitively felt, “This is the piece that needs to be made for Gemma.”
Can you say more about this idea that “flowers are always enough?”
I read somewhere that a vase of cut flowers is considered one of the first human luxuries, since it served no practical day-to-day survival purpose other than just being beautiful. It’s the same kind of thing with art. Beauty is very important for the human spirit and the human psyche. Even though beauty doesn’t literally keep us alive, it makes life worth living, in a way.
Do you feel like you've gotten to a point where you don’t need to bring a ton of conceptualism into your work, and you can instead focus on the more painterly quest of locating beauty?
Yes. I think the pursuit of beauty is very honorable. I like making work where I'm not overthinking it, as my best work comes from an intuitive place. I’ve been trying to push back against overly complex approaches since very early on in my career, just because art making didn't seem to be much fun when everything needs to become a massive research project. I've seen a lot of people stop making things because they start thinking too much about what they’re making or doing.
I respect conceptual artists, but not everybody has to do it that way. Creating is more enjoyable for me when I make things quickly and simply and intuitively.
You’ve always had a really nice way of translating your digital work into prints, and experimenting with different printing processes. How do you decide what kinds of work you want to print, versus release digitally?
I've always felt that the spirit of all my work is digital. When I print physical pieces, I’m always working from a digital file, in which there is a lot of transparent brushwork and colors that I use because I know they’re going to layer very beautifully in the physical print. But even when I'm saving those pieces from Photoshop, I'll save a TIFF file that contains all the transparency layers, as well as a JPEG, in which all of the transparencies are flattened. And to me, the JPEG version is still a valid form of the painting. With the way that I work, there are always multiple valid forms of the final piece.
I like this idea of the “spirit” of the work always being digital. It makes me imagine that each of your works might have one originating spirit or soul that can then be translated across formats.
Yeah, there is a kind of soul or spirit that I try to search for in each piece. With something that I know is going to be released online, the difference is that I know exactly what it's going to look like. When I'm painting with a computer, there's literally light involved with making the painting, from the screen, that won’t be there once it’s printed. But still, both iterations of the work still feel valid to me, if that makes sense.
When you're not making conceptual work, or when the work isn't meant to critique anything, creating can feel very simple. I've said this before, but I feel very selfish making my work. I'm happy that other people like it, but it really is something I do for myself. There are a lot of elements built into that process—from what makes me feel good, to what things I like to look at, to listening to my inner voice.
I also like mystery, and I like when I don't know what's going to happen. That's totally what happened with the Gemma piece. I thought I was going to do one thing, but then it was just so clear when I started working on these flowers that they were the most important part of the environment. The little nagging voice in my head said, “Just stop and look at the flowers. That's all you need to do.”
“Hidden Gems” are beautiful, rare, or meaningful finds from across the internet. Here are a few from Petra Cortright:
Bing image search is Cortright’s preferred search engine for images, because it pulls from Blogspot instead of Pinterest—as she says, “it feels more olde internet.”
Wandering Vertexes is a painting blog where she pulls images that inform her work.
“Been around forever but always hits.” — Petra Cortright
Gemma is an emerging community co-inhabited by artists, curators, and contributors with a shared vision for how culture can shape our future. This summer Gemma is releasing weekly open editions from our Founding Artists. Subscribe and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to be notified about new drops.