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Native Memphian Catherine Erb began honing her talent behind the lens at a young age — a high school art teacher encouraged her passion by giving her unlimited access to a camera and darkroom. For about five years, she worked closely with photographers across Europe, from Greece to Austria and several countries in between. When she returned home to Memphis to raise her family, Catherine continued taking pictures, using photography as a visual journal and creative outlet. In 2003, with the help of a large-format, fine-art printer, she began turning her photojournaling project into an extensive body of work that comprises her experiences at home and abroad. Recently, she took part in a group show in New York called “The Memphis Bowery,” a two-day exhibition featuring the work of five Memphis fine artists. Her art is also on display all this month at David Lusk Gallery, in an exhibition titled “Thin Air.” Today, we’re thrilled to welcome her as our FACE of Memphis. Welcome, Catherine Erb!

Catherine Erb

Catherine Erb, today’s FACE of Memphis

When did you first know you wanted to be a full-time artist?

I don’t know that I ever set out to be a full-time artist, but one day I realized I was making art full time. It started in the ’80s, when I began shooting and spending time in the darkroom. In the early ’90s, I worked with photographers here and in Europe and continued to learn. Then from the late ’90s on, I was using my camera to journal and slowly over the next 15 years developed a body of work and a full-time habit.

Tell us more about the work you create. Where do you find inspiration for your pieces?

Photography has always been a form of journaling and meditation for me. I am inspired by relationships — how we relate to the world around us, how we relate to ourselves. And I am especially fascinated with our relationship with divinity and spirit and find that the series that I spend the most time on have to do with searching for glimpses of a thing’s divine essence and being still and present enough to capture those moments. There is a little break in time that occurs after something comes into my viewfinder, but before I have had a chance to react or form a judgment; there is clarity in that interval of time and I try to shoot and capture that moment. When I am successful, the result is not just an image, but a feeling and reminder that the magic always happens in the present.

Catherine Erb

Here, Catherine puts finishing touches on one of her images. Her process includes layering on encaustic wax and pigment that she works until she achieves the results she wants.

We’d also love to hear more about your current show at DLG. How did that exhibition come about?

I’m showing a cloud series there called “Thin Air” that I’ve been working on for years now. Every time I’m flying or traveling anywhere, I have my camera, and I’m leaning practically out of the airplane taking pictures. There have been some commercial flights where I know people have been like, “If I hear that click one more time, I am going to kill this woman.” (Laughs.)

In the David Lusk show, there’s a series of pigment prints on Gampi paper, a really thin Japanese paper, then I varnish the paper. Those are really unique and special. But always, at the base of what I do, is the image or the photography. It’s always going to start there.

What is your proudest moment so far, career-wise?

My proudest moments happen when I see my work installed and hanging in my clients’ spaces.

Catherine Erb

You refer to your early work in photography as “photojournaling.” How did your initial commitment to journaling come about?

I wanted to journal, and I would make these resolutions, “You’re going to write in your journal every day.” That was never going to happen, but when I started taking photographs and letting images speak for me, then I could do it every day, and I did do it every day. I’m always hearing younger girls say, “I wish I could do this. I wish I could do that.” I think it’s so important to be open to meeting your artistic ability wherever it presents itself to you.

What are your five favorite things about Memphis?

The arts, music, people, community and, of course, our grit and grind

What’s your biggest dream for the city?

I would love to see even more start-ups, more creative energy that would encourage our young people to come and stay here for careers.

Catherine at work

Catherine pages through prints taken straight from her large-format, fine-art printer. “If I’m going to put pastel or gold leaf or things like that, I apply it then, and then attach that paper to a board and start layering on the wax,” she says of her process. “In between the layers of wax, I’ll add pigment.”

What do you love to do when you’re not making art?

I love spending time with my two daughters, my family and my friends.

Did you always know you wanted to come back home to Memphis?

We live in California in the summer because I have a daughter with asthma. We take her there, and she’s a healthy kid with no asthma — we’ve been doing that since she was a baby. So we’re gone a lot, but there’s something about getting back to Memphis that always feels really good. I always knew that I wanted to raise my kids here and that I wanted to come back, even though I’ve lived in a lot of different places. There’s just something … I can almost taste it. You can’t put it into words, but it’s unlike any other place in the world. It’s a secret sauce. And the support! I’ve been able to express myself artistically, and the support I have gotten has just been incredible. This city is full of art angels that have been so gracious and supportive. I feel encouraged to keep pushing and keep working.

What website do you never go a day without viewing?

Is Instagram a website? I am not on a computer every day, but looking at the Instagram app on my phone is a guilty pleasure.

Some of Catherine's work on display

Catherine’s cloud series, called “Thin Air,” is on display all this month at David Lusk Gallery.

What’s your best piece of advice for others?

It’s Gandhi’s, but it’s one of my favorites: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?

Art, fresh flowers, frequent belly laughter

Special thanks to Micki Martin for today’s beautiful photographs!


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