Erik Waterkotte: The Imprint of History

By Lisa Rubenson

Grow up in a family of fifth-generation carpenters and builders, and you‘re quick to form your own ideas about architecture and design. Grow up in the 80s and 90s, and you enjoy unlimited access to an image-rich media culture.  

Such are the diverse influences that informed the upbringing of digital artist and mixed media printmaker Erik Waterkotte (also a Summer 2015 Affiliate Artist-in-Residence at McColl Center for Art + Innovation and Assistant Professor of Print Media at UNC Charlotte). They are also the reasons he looks for the imprint of history in nearly everything he creates.

Erik Waterkotte in his residency studio at McColl Center for Art + Innovation

Born and raised in Bloomington, Illinois, Erik traces his family’s roots back to the late nineteenth century and to the small town of Quincy, IL. Located on the banks of the Mississippi, Quincy is just across from the literary stomping grounds of Huck and Tom, is where Erik’s great, great grandfather Johann Albert Waterkotte settled after arriving from Germany. A carpenter by trade, Johann married into a family of carpenters, and he and his extended family set out to help build the riverfront community. 

Among the many buildings that the Waterkottes built were churches.

To Erik, who grew up Catholic, churches always seemed like places of great mystery  – ethereal in form and function. After studying art in college, he came to think of churches as idealized, even utopian, architectural spaces where people went to transcend their everyday lives and to find comfort in a shared faith experience. It’s as though the grandeur and scale of the building helped shape the activity inside it.

“I’m interested in how humans construct not only physical structures,” says Erik, “but also belief systems. In that sense, the aesthetic of a church is a kind of vehicle through which we imagine religion.” He also draws a connection between the way our society builds systems of worship to elevate celebrities – even certain artists. 

Erik’s father gave him a notebook filled with family history, including grainy images of two churches that Johann Waterkotte had worked on in Quincy: St. John’s Cathedral and the rectory at St. Vincent’s. Erik was drawn to the buildings’ neo-gothic design elements and the half-tone quality of the old photographs. 

He would later turn these images into wallpaper that he used in “An Abridged Equinox,” an installation upon which he mounted a series of religious, ritual-themed drawings. By transforming the four white walls of a gallery into a kind of temporary sacred space, Waterkotte asked viewers to inhabit the installation and the idea behind it. 

Installation views of “An Abridged Equinox,” (2014)

Erik brings this interest in architectural spaces and, in particular, the ephemeral qualities of church, to his work at the McColl Center. As one of the Center’s 2015 Summer Affiliate Artists, the focal point of his residency is the building that houses McColl Center itself

Through interviews, archival research and his own artistic interpretation, Erik is exploring the building’s past use as a church, its abandonment and ruin in the mid-80s, its reconstruction ten years later, and its current iteration as a space where artists create, collaborate and engage the community.

“I see McColl Center as a cultural artifact,” says Erik. “There are rich layers of history that can be uncovered and interpreted in new ways through art.”

Erik functions as cultural archaeologist, sifting through the distant and not-so-distant past for inspiration. As he does in the majority of his work, he appropriates disparate images and ideas and assembles them anew. Whether he is working on handcrafted prints or wall coverings, digital collages, or large-scale multi-media installations, his art often does not exist in a permanent state. Like the iconic pop culture images he references, his works are often temporal constructs, designed to elicit an immediate emotional response within a particular context. 

The theme of inconstancy shows up in his modern approach to printmaking as well. The process itself is a pastiche of techniques and images, which is why he was drawn to it early on.

“I was studying to be a painter but took a printmaking class,” he says. “I found I could create layers of images in a way that I could not with paint on a canvas. I also liked the idea that I could make a mark that existed in two places at once.”


Latex brick archway #McColl #erikwaterkotte

A photo posted by Erik Waterkotte (@erikwaterkotte) on

Working in McColl Center’s printmaking studio has allowed Erik to experiment with photo etching. This is a process wherein the artist physically etches an image onto a copper plate, either directly or via mylar overlay. An acid-based chemical is applied to set the image and desired textures, followed by a thick, buttery ink, which is smeared across the plate. The ink is strategically buffed away with a special cloth before the plate reaches the paper waiting in the printmaking apparatus. 

The resulting photo-etched prints are, in themselves, layered with history – of the artist’s process and the strata of meaning inherent in the mark-making. Erik will use these, along with the array of other multi-media pieces he creates during the summer residency, to explore themes related to McColl Center and its storied past: ruin and renewal, shelter and sanctuary, the artist working in community, and – perhaps most compelling – what can be understood and what cannot.



A photo posted by Erik Waterkotte (@erikwaterkotte) on


Erik Waterkotte leads Trace and Texture/Latent Prints, a printmaking workshop, on Thursday, November 12, 2015 from 6-8 PM. Using the sensitivity of Japanese papers, the gestural application of rollers, and the layering effects of printmaking inks, participants will create unique, multicolor monotype prints. Participants already familiar with this process will be shown more complex processes of layering, collage, and over-printing. Learn more.