The artist and musician will debut two new bodies of work at Secret Studio during Franklinton Fridays on Feb. 14

Courtney L. Hall teaches art to kids in elementary and middle school, and toward the end of 2019, one of her students had some questions for her: “Ms. Hall, are you an artist? Where do you work? Where’s your space?" 

Hall paused and told her student that, yes, she is an artist. But not an active artist. “That really hurt,” Hall said recently at her home near Eastland Mall. “It was hard to hear me have that conversation in my head, where I realized, ‘Oh. I've really lost my practice.’”

Art had been a part of Hall’s life since she was a Navy kid, relocating from town to town. In a kindergarten assignment, she proclaimed that she wanted to be an artist when she grew up. At age 12, her family moved from California to settle in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and the transition was not smooth. To Hall, the Knox County community northeast of Columbus felt like a world away from the West Coast.

“The only escape that I saw was going to Kenyon College and hanging out at the bookstore and getting art materials and sketching in the coffee shop,” she said. “In this repressed space, it kind of forced me to be more loud and be more myself, unapologetically.”

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In high school, Hall longed to go to art school, a place she envisioned as a supportive oasis of creativity, so she headed to CCAD in 2005 to study printmaking. But the art school experience wasn't what she thought it would be. It all felt too high-brow, serious and self-focused. “I was so fed up with talking to people about [art] that I would just pretend like I didn't know any of it so I didn't have to engage,” she said. “It was, 'If you're rejecting me, I'm going to reject you.'”

Eventually, after a falling-out with the printmaking department, she switched to painting and decided to graduate early. “So two and a half years in, I'm now a painter and I have a painting studio. And I’ve literally never painted,” she said. But Hall pulled it off, graduating in 2008 and then heading to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to get her master’s in painting.

Hall also grew up playing drums, but while pursuing art degrees for more than six years, music had taken a backseat. That changed after moving from Wisconsin to Columbus, where she dove into the music scene and shelved her other artistic pursuits. (You can catch Hall behind the kit in former Alive Band to Watch wyd and in Classical Baby, a recording project with husband and fellow Columbus musician Joe Camerlengo.)

But in December of 2019, her student’s question kept nagging at her: Are you an artist?

After taking a long break from visual art, Hall realized she missed it, and she wanted to start making art again. So one day over winter break, she backed the car out of the garage, got rid of some junk and and cordoned off an area with bed sheets. By the end of the day, she had an art studio.

Once she began making things, another latent interest began to surface: fashion. “Alongside wanting to be an artist, I’ve always been interested in clothes and personal style,” said Hall, who finds inspiration in everything from fashion magazines to thrift stores. As a child, Hall started dressing herself the second she was physically able to put on her own clothes, and on cross-country trips with her family, Hall’s mom would pack a couple of naked Barbie dolls and a box of tissues that she could use to make clothes for them. 

In the mornings, when Hall stands in front of her closet, she thinks of her outfit as an art project, using colors and fabric and broaches to make a sculpture out of herself. And in her new studio, Hall began to wonder, “What if I styled myself, but as a piece of artwork?”

At first Hall worked on abstract paintings, and then she began making collages on cardboard boxes using paint and pieces of everyday items: egg roll wrappers, candy wrappers, tissues, broaches, magazine clippings, a Happy New Year tiara.

“Being a childhood educator, I see something that's made on cardboard the same as I see a marble statue. There's no hierarchy to me as far as where things go on the creative scale. It's all valid,” she said. 

Hall calls this body of work “Fashion Dolls,” which she’ll debut at the new Secret Studio at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 14 (part of Franklinton Fridays), along with a second recent collection she dubbed “Nature Boy,” which originated from science classroom materials her school was tossing. Hall painted on top of large-scale life-cycle charts and Ranger Rick posters, adding bits of text and isolating plants and animals in the collages. 

“Reflecting on them, I realized, ‘Oh, this is some subconscious way of me talking about the state of the world right now and the state of the environment right now.’ I'm literally editing their homes out of the book. I'm taking out their environment, their habitat,” she said. “I like that reductive process. I like whiting things out. I literally use white-out on a lot of my stuff.”

“Nature Boy” and “Fashion Dolls” will be displayed in separate rooms at Secret Studio, but the soundtracks for the two rooms will bleed together, with field recordings of the Hall family farm in Mount Vernon blending with a more upbeat fashion-show playlist. “I'll blare them both, and then hopefully you'll get this weird Brian Eno sound experiment out of it,” she said. 

It hasn’t even been two months since Hall started making art again, but she already has found outlets for her work. The Secret Studio opening reception, for instance, will feature a beer tasting from Nanodog, a new subsidiary of BrewDog run by Nick Manos, who enlisted Hall to make the label art for Nanodog beers such as January’s “Snoball Effect” and February’s “Pretty, Pink and Practical.” (The tasting at the reception will feature infused BrewDog beers.)

In thinking about her recent artistic renaissance, Hall keeps coming back to one of her art heroes, Robert Rauschenberg. “He wanted to make art that looked like what he saw out of his window, not what he saw in his studio. And after seeing ‘Fashion Dolls’ as a whole … I'm like, ‘Oh, I get that.’ It's little pieces of ephemera from actual life. It’s retail wrapping. It's little bows from things that I've gotten, packages in the mail — or even the actual package itself,” she said. “I think that in using those everyday objects, there's kind of a secret power to it. It’s instantly relatable.”