Alter Egos is a column that highlights talented geeks in the Chattanooga area, tracing the origins of their favorite pop culture obsessions to their present-day hobbies.
For Aaron Cowan, video games—and the technology surrounding them—served as the inspiration for many of his artistic endeavors today.
“I was taking intro computer science courses in high school, and it meshed like melted cheese with my love for video games,” he said. “I started to develop a passion for software development and hardware specs; I think it was around age 14 I knew I was a geek in my own right.”
Cowan spent his teenage years playing games on a variety of consoles, including Nintendo 64, PlayStation 1 and 2, GameCube and a custom-built computer.
When he wasn’t gaming, he was reading the likes of R.L. Stine and J.K. Rowling.
Later on, cartoons such as “The Simpsons,” “Ren & Stimpy” and “Adventure Time” also shaped his tastes. He counts “Bartkira”—an ongoing reimagining of the “Akira” manga in the Simpsons’ universe—as one of his favorite things because it combines his favorite animations with “an intimidatingly ambitious amount of management, coordination and work.”
In the end, though, it all came back to video games:
I was passionate about them growing up and knew I wanted to do something related to them. Coding was boring; I was more interested in character and level design, texture creation, which would’ve required an art degree anyway. I was kind of always looking at things from an artist’s perspective; I remember realizing everything visual in a video game was probably hand-drawn or sketched first. That blew my mind.
That love has led to the 30-year-old working as a prepress technician and developer but also being involved with local creative niches and clubs such as ChaDev, ArtDev, Mise En Scenesters, Frequency Arts Guild and others.
Creating new avenues for art
Cowan has also been instrumental in creating pop-up spaces for new and emerging artists around the city. It started out of a conversation with local artist and Lit gallery co-owner Adam Kirby.
“There wasn’t really something just for Chattanooga artists that rotated opportunity regularly, and we thought, ‘Hey, isn’t Chattanooga supposed to be an artsy town?’” Cowan said. “We had been kicking around the idea of gathering a group of artists to collectively go in on studio and exhibition space when Swine happened.”
The name “Swine” came from artist Matthew Dutton painting an “s” on the front of a “wine” decal at the old Grocery Bar location, which at that time was the home for Cine-Rama. It fit the purpose of the project perfectly, where artists could showcase art that didn’t fit in the traditional gallery.
“The name kind of embodied the vibe of Cine-Rama; DIY, punk, fun, the feeling of not having any rules or anyone to answer to,” Cowan said. “There’s an allegory to ‘Animal Farm’ in there somewhere, too, but you’d have to ask Dutton about that.”
Swine hopped from Cine-Rama to The Palace Picture House before going on hiatus for a bit.
I have some ideas and opportunities for Swine to pop up now and again, but there aren’t immediate plans for reopening. There are since other galleries and venues that have cropped up to serve the local art community. Lit art gallery and Frequency Arts are both bastions of fierce creativity for contemporary and outsider artists in Chattanooga and the surrounding area, and I’m so thankful they’re here.
Cowan and Kirby also developed ARC, an artist residency program, which has brought two visiting artists and two mini-residency artists to the Scenic City.
“The idea was if artists from those art meccas came here and saw how awesome Chattanooga is, they would tell other artists, creatives and friends back home to come check it out,” Cowan said. “We decided a visiting artist residency was the best way to get artists here and show off the city, which in turn would expand the art being made and exhibited locally.”
Cowan thinks this is just the ground floor for what’s possible in town.
“Chattanooga is a big town, small city, so there are some pockets of really awesome stuff happening, but not quite a scene,” he said. “I’d love to see more crossover between these cultures of art and tech.”
Helping redefine the silver screen
Since Swine’s inception at Cine-Rama, Cowan has worked closely with Chris Dortch, executive director of the Chattanooga Film Festival:
That led to me becoming web admin and creative problem-solver for the theater project, everything from creating their website and e-commerce, designing admin forms, even mapping out fuse boxes and blacking out the skylights to control lighting for the screenings. In the beginning, there were really just a few of us volunteering; these things needed to get done, so I’d figure it out and juggle it into my time at the space. By the time it came to start gearing up for the festival again, they invited me to assist with Chattanooga as well, and they’ve really become a second family to me.
His work with the Chattanooga Film Festival mirrors the work he puts into his own projects, and he continues to watch how the film industry is moving closer to town.
“There is a little bit of grassroots arts resurgence happening locally; however, the South is a hot spot for film production right now, as companies look elsewhere than Hollywood,” he said. “I firmly believe the film festival could be instrumental in growing Chattanooga, as much if not more than the other large culture festivals we have.”
Although Cine-Rama came and went and The Palace Picture House just reopened as its next iteration, Cowan believes in what the Chattanooga Film Festival has to offer and is excited for what’s next.
“We’re focusing on making the fifth year of the film festival the best one 10 times over,” he said. “The next time we open a theater, we’ll be ready with the best, most supportive folk we’ve been fortunate enough to recruit into our ranks over the last few years.”
Rachel Stewart grew up in the ’80s on a healthy diet of pop culture. In 2005, she discovered “Doctor Who” and never looked back. Since then, she co-founded the Tennessee Who Authority—a “Doctor Who” fan group—and has served as a panelist at fan conventions across the Southeast, including Con Nooga, Wholanta, Hurricane Who and ConGT. She also reviews “Doctor Who” novels and “Big Finish” audios at “The Oncoming Storm” podcast. Want to show off your alter ego? Email Rachel at [email protected].