Meet Eugene Courtois
Introducing The Honor Project—a living history of stories and images—portraits of older adults we admire. This is the first in what we hope will be a long and diverse series.
Eugene Courtois was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on January 10, 1933. He studied Fine Art at the University of Wisconsin and at Layton School of Art. Courtois has lived in San Francisco since 1959. We met him at his home, a lovely little house he and his wife bought 40 years ago.
San Francisco artist Eugene Courtois—painter, sculptor, and printmaker—also worked as a commercial photographer. He still takes photographs, paints, and draws in his home studio.
What do you love most about your home?
My studio is my favorite room in the house. It connects the kitchen, where I love to cook, with the back deck that overlooks the yard. I recently christened it La Terrasse Diane in honor of my wife. After the sun goes down and the solar lights go on, I have been enjoying coffee and dessert on La Terrasse Diane. City lights are too bright to see many stars, so I watch airplanes on landing paths to SFO, Oakland, and San Jose airports. They cruise in an arc across the sky at altitudes that muffle the noise of the engines with lights flashing and take 45 seconds to a minute before they disappear to the east.
His work, including portraits of his wife Diane, covers nearly every wall of his home. La Terrasse Diane, charcoal on found wood, rests above the back deck.
How old are you on the inside?
This may sound crazy but… I feel 22. I was so happy then. I was out of the military, I’d started college, I was taking photographs. Life was great, full of possibilities. I was excited about my future, and knew good things were ahead. And I was right. I met Diane, who would become my wife, the next year.
Two of “his Girls,” woodcuts of Wisconsin dairy cows, were carved into both sides of one piece of cherry wood by artist Eugene Courtois. “I think I was trying to economize back then,” he said with an amused grin.
How did you happen to do paintings and woodcuts of cows?
I think it all starts with my uncle Ed Halloran. He inherited the farm where my mother was born because all of his siblings but one had left and married.
We used to visit the farm a couple times a year when I was a kid. So I grew up enjoying the chickens and pigs and dairy cows even though I could not stand the smell. The farm still had an outhouse then and a hand pump to a well for water in the house. Very primitive even for the 1940s. But they did have a $10,000 milk separator and electricity in the barn even if the farmhouse was still lit by oil lamps. It was not until years later when Diane and I lived in California that I really came to appreciate the cows. On a trip back there, we drove our rental car out to the farm, fewer than 25 miles away from Appleton, although it had seemed far far away to the kid I was. This time I spent hours with my uncle Ed while Diane gossiped with Aunt Tress. He gave me a lecture on the whole art of being a milk, butter, and cheese farmer. I took photos in the barn and that’s what inspired the cow paintings and woodcuts. Uncle Ed had 60 dairy cows and he had a name for every one of them. Seeing the magical rapport between Ed and “his girls,” I sort of fell in love with them too. I hope some of that love comes through in the pictures.
In his home studio, Courtois enjoys a view of his lush backyard and an abundance of natural light. He often plays with watercolor and loose brush strokes to see what appears.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m cooking for Thanksgiving this year and I’ll be opening a ten-year-old bottle of wine. It’ll either be fantastic or very exotic vinegar. My nephew is bringing another bottle of wine, just in case.
Photography by Wesley Verhoeve