2020 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Catherine Meier

2020 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Catherine Meier

Published December 6th, 2022 by Russ White

Inspired by the wide open spaces she encountered as a truck driver, Catherine Meier creates animated landscapes that honor land, time, and memory

MCAD Logo Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship Program. Administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.McKnight Logo

This is the fourth in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2020 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2020 cohort includes Eric J. García, Seitu Ken Jones, Catherine Meier, Teo Nguyen, Meg Ojala, and Maria Cristina ("Tina") Tavera.


Photo by Rik Sferra


Palimpsest is one of those words I always have to look up. No matter how many times I’ve heard it (it comes up in artist statements a surprising amount), I can never seem to remember what it means. Ironic, since it’s all about remembering. By definition, the word means a document that shows signs of its earlier drafts through erasures and telltale marks: an object that has a memory of itself.

Catherine Meier sees that same quality in the landscapes of the American West, and her animated drawings of these places are an attempt to reflect that. Her giant graphite vistas are ever-evolving documents that have been executed and erased – drawn and redrawn – over and over again on the same sheet of paper, each iteration strung together and animated into subtle, silent cartoon films. Anchored by the horizon line, the grasses in her foregrounds dance back and forth as though a steady wind is blowing through. Tonal differences play across the mountains in the background. Quite often, nothing much happens, and it is mesmerizing.

Severely horizontal, at times projected across the width of an entire room, her landscapes are well observed and softly rendered. You can see the physicality of her materials in the small piles of graphite dust that sit on the flat surface and migrate around the drawing, frame by frame, until they are swept away. The films are calm and quiet and contemplative, like grainy home movies documenting and reliving her experience of walking and looking and listening in wide open spaces.

“I think land remembers,” she says. “When I spend a lot of time in a place, I’m listening to land. You can sense the history, you can sense the presence of the people who have come before you.”


Standing Witness, site: Sage Creek, Animation installation, 24 min. loop, Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2015.


Meier grew up in the Sandhills of Nebraska and spent seven years of her early adult life hauling cattle by truck from Montana to Texas, so she comes by her obsession with flatlands and open spaces honestly. “I suppose it’s just embedded in who I am at this point,” she says.

It also explains the need for the drawings to move. “Having spent so many years driving, everything was constantly moving,” she tells me. “So in a way, I think in time. Sometimes it’s hard to be static, to make a static drawing, because in my mind it’s moving.”

Driving truck, as she puts it, took her many places across this country, and now her artwork does the same. Each piece begins as notational sketches in the field, along with reference photos to help remember certain landmarks. When I ask how she scouts her locations, she says she spends a lot of time walking and listening. “Sometimes what I’m trying to evoke is that sense of movement. I’m not usually looking for the idyllic scene.”

Back in her studio, the drawings take shape on large rolls of paper, methodically and laboriously – drawing, photographing; erasing, photographing; drawing again, and on and on. Once completed, however, the animations often find their way back out into the wild, as projections against the landscape itself. Many of her works in recent years are scenes documenting the Badlands (translated from the original Lakota name “mako sica”), and they culminate in an outdoor presentation in the exact spot from which she first drew.


Standing Witness, site: Sage Creek, Projection on location, 2014.


It’s quite surreal actually, to see Meier’s documentation of these makeshift movie nights. A white cloth stretches across the horizon line, dwarfed by the vast open landscape it obstructs. Beamed onto the screen, a black and white drawing manages an uncanny bit of trompe l’oeil, perfectly completing the very mountain range it interrupts. The image calls to mind René Magritte’s painting of a painting, The Human Condition: a canvas stands on an easel in front of a window, the painting indistinguishable from the bucolic landscape behind it. 

“There is so much joy in that for me, to take those there and to see the drawings against the landscape,” Meier says. “It’s almost more of a gesture or an offering to the land itself than it is to an art audience.”

The art audience in this case were unsuspecting strangers gathered at a popular, nearby campground. With the Park Service’s permission, Meier staged her impromptu screenings over several days with no sense of how it might be received. “When I’m asking people to look at the land, I’m taking it out of the perfection of this idealistic view that they’re encountering in their experience. If you have to look and consider, maybe you might consider what’s happened here or this history or to think about the land itself."

During one screening, just as dusk was darkening the landscape and the projection began, a man emerged from the grasses to confront her. “He has no shirt on,” she tells me, “just jeans, he’s got long hair and this claw necklace, and he says ‘I just gotta know what you’re doing here.’ He was kind of hostile. He came to find out what I was up to. He and his wife had just spent six weeks in the Wyoming mountains horsepacking. I was such a disruption of wilderness for them in that moment.”

The man's skepticism is understandable in a land so defined by intrusion, especially in the case of an unexpected, high-art light show. In the end, after many minutes of wrangling, she was able to explain that she grew up a few hours away and truly had a personal connection to this place. “And finally he was like, ‘Oh, it’s your backyard.’ And then he was done. He needed to know there was an authentic and actual relationship to that place for me to do that work.”

Meier has a lot of stories like this, well-told and a little bit wild. Her 2009 MFA Thesis from the University of Michigan begins like a novel, with a tense account of her travels in Mongolia on the hunt for some open space that would be unfamiliar, unburdened by her own life experiences. Later in the paper, she writes of a particularly fraught trip hauling cattle to a farmhouse that had exploded the day before; it is sad and intense and not at all what you would expect to find in an art school thesis paper. But that experience, that life, informs her curiosity to this day.

“Growing up in the Plains, in Nebraska, you grow up with this really strange narrative of the place. ‘Oh it was blank, and we just showed up, and we’re just amazing.’ My family history goes back to the early 1900s, to early settlers. As a kid, I couldn’t express it, but some part of me said this doesn’t make sense.”

“When I am walking," she continues, "say out in Sage Creek, there’s this decompression of layers where I feel like I slide into a time that is beyond our timeframe. Acknowledging the Lakota in that specific place, but also that the land is so ancient. That’s what I’m really fascinated by, that deep sense of time that land can give you if you pay attention.”

Meier was first inspired to make moving images when she saw the South African artist William Kentridge’s charcoal animations – politically charged palimpsests about the people and problems of his own country. On a single sheet of paper, Kentridge would also draw, erase, and redraw, taking photos at every step. In an interview with SF-MOMA, he reflected on his process: “You can kind of change it as quickly as you can think. I suppose it became a way of thinking rather than a physical medium.”

“The first time I saw his work in person,” Meier says, “I had this inner call like, ‘This makes sense to me, and I could do this.’” Her first major animation, A Time To Speak, begins with a breathing, billowing field but transitions to an allegorical account of meth addiction in her own family. Later animations would also feature characters from her life, but over time the people seem to have faded out, leaving only the landscape.

Watching site: Sage Creek, one of her Plains animations, you may not even realize that something else is missing. A full two-thirds of the composition is empty; the sky is left blank. The entirety of your attention has been directed to a few blades of grass dancing at the bottom of the screen. The vast flat field is alive underneath the static, stoic line of foothills in the distance and the crushing emptiness of the sky above. In a sense, her drawings are rooted in the horizon, defined by that dividing line between detail and vacancy. “Sky is a big thing I’m trying to navigate, because it’s so abstract,” she admits. “There’s no underlying scaffolding to put it on.”


Top: Night Lands / Yellow Mounds , Graphite and ink drawing, 30 x 21", 2019. Bottom: Field Trials, animation installation, 2019. The white lines are a visualization of movement in the sky.


Time passes in these animated places, but there are no narratives, no compelling novellas, no beginnings or middles or ends. Plants grow and die and grow again, grasses sway in the breeze, earth moves and shifts before our eyes. It’s a sort of endless present rooted in this particular moment only by the fact that we are here to witness it. The mountains, the sagebrush, and the long, flat earth have been here far longer than any European settlers, longer still than the ancestral indigenous nations before them. The land is old and ever-changing, and one day we too will be part of its memory.

Meier’s MFA thesis wound its way, in the end, to a single question that informs her practice to this day: “How do I describe in visual form the human encounter with vast, open landscape?”

Many artists spend their lives trying to boil down their creative motivations into a single sentence like that. Hers is a simple question that opens a million possible avenues, and so, mercifully, the work can continue. When we spoke, Meier had just returned from a ten-day residency in Homer, Alaska, spending her time – how else? – walking. This adventure found her on the beach, walking along the surf, at the border between the water and the land – a different kind of horizon line altogether, and a natural palimpsest itself. 

What drawings will come of it yet, she has no idea. Meanwhile, even now, as I type this sentence and again as you read it, the waves come in and they go back out. The grasses sway, and the sky hangs empty. And there again is that deep sense of time, like an endless animation reporting back what’s right in front of us. ◼︎



To see more of the artist's work, visit Meier's website or follow her on Instagram @catherinemeier.

Banner image: The Distance of Horizon, 2009, installation view. All images courtesy of the artist.

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