Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week: Nicole Duet, the new professor of painting at Louisiana Tech University. You can view Professor Duet’s art at nicoleduet.com

This interview has been edited for length.

 So where did you get your BA?

 I got it from Cal State North Ridge. I’m from New Orleans originally. And I went to a few different universities in Louisiana. I went to LSU for a little while. I went to University of New Orleans. And then I did some theatre work in Tulane. And then that summer I made a decision to move out to California to get my Bachelors degree there. And I went to a theatre training program there for a little while, and finished up at Cal State North Ridge.

 When did you decide to do art?

 In my last year at North Ridge. I had electives, liberal arts electives that we could take. And one of them was life drawing. And I had always been interested in drawing as a kid, but never really pursued it. And when I took that class, I just fell in love with life drawing. And I was fortunate enough to have a really good teacher. So it all came down to this one elective that changed my idea about what I wanted to do. So I finished up my theatre degree. But by the time I finished, I had a few more art classes under my built, and I knew what I wanted to do was be a painter, and particularly a figurative painter.

 And then you entered an MFA program?

 Yeah. I took a period of time off in between getting my bachelors degree. I lived in New Mexico for a while. And I studied painting, mostly just by painting everyday on my own. And that allowed me to get experience and practice, and build a body of work. And after that I moved back to California. And at that time I started to apply for graduate programs. That was when I got into the MFA program at Cal State Long Beach, and got my MFA degree there.

 Is that where Bustamante went?

 Yes, exactly. And we met actually, but once. He had already graduated when I started, and I remember crossing paths with him in the hall once as I was moving into my MFA studio. And I think he said something to me like ‘well you’re coming into the program at a really good time, because there’s lots of young people coming in and it’s really competitive.’ And he was teaching a beginning level class there, and I never saw him again, but I do remember hearing that he got hired at tech. So that was kind of an interesting coincidence.

 Tell me about your experience in between getting your bachelors and getting your masters, so far as trying to be successful in the arts or trying to do something related to the arts as a career or to support yourself.

 The one thing I knew in between finishing my bachelors degree was that I had a whole lot more to learn. So most of that time that I spent not in school was spent painting everyday on my own in my studio. Literally just painting still lifes, getting into the habit of working everyday. And taking that opportunity to practice the things that I felt like I needed to learn in order to be able to make the kind of art that I wanted to make. So that was really my work. I was fortunate enough to be in a situation where I could just do a little bit of part time work on the side, and spend the rest of the time painting in the studio. So when I moved out to California, I started working as an art model in various art classes. And I got to meet a lot of great teachers that way, and I got to see a lot of great art programs that way, some of the big art schools on the west coast, like art center and Pen Otis College. I worked there quite a bit and saw what people were teaching and what students were doing, so most of my work at that time was jobs that would allow me to continue to paint. I did do some gallery work for a while. And it was connected to those early still lifes. I showed my work in Santa Fe for quite a few years, in a gallery off the plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And that was a great experience, gave me a taste of the professional side of making paintings. But somewhere in that time, my ideas about the kind of work that I wanted to make were changing. And so that’s what let me gradually transition out of that gallery work into the MFA program, which I took as an opportunity to set aside time to paint and develop a new body of work, which was totally different from the still life paintings I was making. So to support myself while I was a grad student, I started teaching, almost right away. Two careers, one love was teaching, and one love was making paintings.

 You were teaching at what level?

 Well I started teaching a painting class at a school where I studied. It wasn’t a school; it was kind of like an adult extension program connected to the animation guild in Los Angeles. This was a place where animators could go and take classes outside of work so that they could build their skills, especially in life drawing and in representational painting. And because that had been my focus for a long time, I went there to study life painting, with some really great teachers who were also really great animators. Once I started going to grad school, I proposed a class to the animation union. I wanted to teach a basic intro painting class. Something that would allow people to learn to use paint without worrying about painting the model, which is very difficult. So I proposed a still life painting class, and that was my first painting class. I had been doing that for about two years when I got into the grad program at Long Beach, and within my second semester of being in the MFA program at long beach, they offered me a life drawing class. So I really did start teaching right away. Sometimes teaching adults, like in that program at the animation union, sometimes teaching foundation level classes to freshmen, which is mostly what they give grad students, which I enjoy too.

 What influence do you think your background in theatre has had on your art?

 I think a couple things pretty directly. My painting is narrative painting, so I’m interested in stories. I’m interested in circumstances, moments that happen between people that are undefinable in words. In theatre, some of the most profound things happen when actors aren’t speaking to each other, when there’s just an exchange that creates a certain tension or a certain poignance to a moment. And that’s the same thing I’m interested in in my own painting. Literally though, like I was telling you I loved building sets, and I love the things that happens when the lights come on in the first dress rehearsal. That crosses literally over into my paintings. A lot of the composition, a lot of the color is based on staging characters within a space. And a lot of the colors are determined by the color of the light that is connected to a mood or a story. And so some of those early things like the transformative quality that light can have on a composition come directly from theatre. Also, theatre oftentimes is about the circumstances and problems that we have in life, big and small, and my painting revolves around those questions too.

 Switching gears entirely, How does it feel to move from a big city, and sort of like the nexus of the Western world like Los Angeles, to Ruston, Louisiana?

 Haha. That is switching gears a lot I think, for me too. Actually it’s like switching gears. I’m from New Orleans originally, but I’ve been in Los Angeles for over half my life. So, in some sense, my primary feeling about it so far is that it’s giving me a chance to come home, which I’ve been actually looking for for a long time. And I think I go through different phases as a painter, different needs, different sides of myself. In Los Angeles, there’s obviously all kinds of input, all kinds of art forms and all kinds of influence that a person has that affect the way I make art, and my ideas about art. That can be a good thing, depending on whatever phase I’m in with my work, and it can be an overwhelming and distracting thing. So I think that this move came right at a time when two things were happening. Personally, I was looking for a way to do something from my home state, and professionally, I’m in a phase now where I need less distraction, and more of, I think one of my colleagues here described it as laid back or relaxed in a way, I think I need more of that, haha, to get to the next stage of my work. So it’s a change that feels big, but it also feels right at the same time. And my work is becoming much more about growing up here, too, so that’s an interesting coincidence as well.

 What are your impressions so far of Ruston and the art scene here?

 I’ve only had a couple days. I don’t know if I can really answer that fully. I’m excited by some new things, Nick was just telling me about the Black Box, and I love the fact that there’s the old theatre right across the way. And I saw that there’s live music and all that available here. All of those things are things that I would look for back in Los Angeles. And however big or small they are, they’re present here too. And that’s all really exciting. It seems like, just talking with the people that I’m making friends with here now, it’s a pretty vibrant artistic community. And I’m really excited to get to know it more, to see more of what’s going on around here and in the outlying areas too.

 In a traditional medium such as painting, and also considering the post-modern climate of theory in which there’s no trajectory or continuum of progress, what does innovation in painting look like?

 That’s a great question. I think I’m constantly asking that of myself. And I’m constantly asking that of the painting that I see. I might be able to answer that in part by saying what it doesn’t look like. There’s a lot of work out there that seems to be focused exclusively on a genre or a style, and when you look at it, you get a feeling that it’s basically a representation of that look. So that to me easily becomes fixed in a way. So it’s not really letting one painting or one idea bump into the next idea and influence the next painting. Innovation is a really difficult thing to define. It can’t ever seem like innovation for it’s on sake. If you’re just taking risks and slapping paint around without a connection to an intention, then that’s not innovation. What I like to see, in my own work and in an artist’s history, is transformation. Being able to see a through-line is part of it, but finding problems and asking questions that take the style in one direction and then that influences the next style and that influences the next. So I’m not giving you a concrete look or anything. I’m just giving you my ideas about innovation and what I look for, what I hope to see.

 Could you tell me a little bit about your teaching philosophy, or what you’ve found that works?

 My teaching philosophy is really influenced by those early experiences I was telling you about at the animation union. In different art forms, I’ve had many teachers in my life, some of whom were the kind of teacher who were all about ‘let yourself do whatever you want to do and let’s see where it goes from there.’ And then I’ve had other teachers who were very much ‘this is step one, step two, step three, step four,’ and then you do all those things and you’ll get to this point. And those are radically different philosophies. The ones that work for me were the ones that made me feel like I was getting concrete, tangible information that helped me to get to the next level, helped me to have the skills and abilities to do what it was that I wanted to do. When I found that, I realized I had found teachers who were not only teaching me how to be an artist, but they were teaching me how to teach. So my philosophy is influenced by that. It’s really hands on. I believe in showing a ton of different kinds of work related to an idea from all different kinds of eras of drawing, painting, and photography. I believe strongly in being able to demonstrate as well as being able to talk your way through an idea with students. And so I work one on one with everyone in my class everyday. That’s really important to me. It’s a visual world, and so it needs to be dealt with visually in the classroom, whether that’s through showing a lot of examples or showing by example, by doing. It’s both of those things. And then I also feel that most of what I have been teaching, it’s classes at the foundation level. So it’s really about skill building and increasing awareness and understanding of what’s possible. Another dimension of that level of foundation class that I think is important is creating an awareness in the student of their own ideas. What is your answer to this age old problem? So, fostering, doing whatever I can to engage in a dialogue with students about their ideas, and helping to form those ideas in relationship to the projects. All that’s interconnected, all that makes for a well-rounded classroom experience.

 Could you describe for me your ideal student, or what qualities someone needs to be successful as an art student?

 That also goes back to my own early experiences as an art student. I know what worked for me, and I know where I fell short of trying hard enough to achieve what I wanted to achieve. So my ideal student is a person who asks questions a lot. The worst thing, the most uncomfortable thing anyway, is to look out across a sea of empty faces. So if there’s a student or two or three or four who ask questions whenever they come to mind, and freely without being self-conscious, that’s an ideal situation for me. You have students who come to class already with a little skill, but that isn’t even necessarily the ideal circumstance. You can come to class as a student with a willingness to learn and not much else. And I think that’s a part of my ideal student. In addition to those personal qualities, the ideal student is someone who’s willing to work, someone who’s willing to keep their goals in sight, and to suit their choices to their goals. So I really do want to see someone giving everything they have to a class and to a project, personally and in terms of how they handle projects. So if I can see that development from the beginning to the end of a quarter, where something has changed in terms of the way you’ve handled the materials because you’ve applied yourself, then that’s really exciting to me, no matter what the starting point is. That’s someone who’s a pleasure to work with. Because they’re engaged. They’re engaged at the level of ideas and asking questions. And they’re engaged with the wonder side of making art, which is the question like what happens when I do this? And how does the amount of time and effort a energy that I put into it physically affect that? It’s all this kind of personality that’s open on one level to new information, and also willing to try and apply themselves on another level.

 Do you have any thoughts about the role of art in society?

 Yeah. I do. And those thoughts are, just like everything else I’ve said, are constantly formulating and reformulating in my mind. But I believe that one of the primary roles of art is to keep us connected with what’s invisible. It’s to make visible what’s invisible. It’s the deeper questions of life that have been ongoing for as long as there’s been records about the questions that we ask as people. Art takes us out of our normal selves and gives us an extraordinary experience, the best art does. Even the art that is not the best does that, because it keeps us thinking in extra-normal ways, beyond ‘what do I need to get at the grocery store,’ into questions about what it means to be a human in the world. So whether or not you’re a person whose art is political or a person whose art is fanciful, or a person whose art is ironic, those art just avenues into the same basic world, which is to teach us about what it means to be human, in this world.

 I think that all the questions I have.

 Thanks so much.

 Sure. You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

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