Douglas Bourgeois is a Louisiana-born artist who lives about sixty miles upriver from New Orleans. He has been painting and exhibiting his work for thirty-nine years. In 2003, a survey exhibit of his work was organized by the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans with an accompanying book, Baby Boom Daydreams. This exhibit traveled to Richmond, Dallas, and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia. He is a recent recipient of a Joan Mitchell artist’s grant and shows at Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans.
While Bourgeois’ preferred medium is oil, he makes collage, wood collage, watercolor paintings, and mixed media constructions. Sources for inspiration include biographical fantasies, tributes to pop icons, discarded paper media, religious iconography, and the mysterious life of objects.
The overpowering character of Southern landscape and culture is a haunting element in his work.
How did you become interested in art?
There were a couple of times where there was a conscious realization that I wanted to be an artist. I decided to make art as opposed to being an English major after I briefly dropped out of college due to a meltdown. I’d always liked writing but it didn’t fulfill me like art did. I began painting on my own, and re-entered college to focus on fine arts. This was the early 1970’s. Years later, having gotten a BFA and drifting through many ordinary jobs, I made the decision at thirty years old to try to paint full time, to really commit to it.
When people asked you what your back-up plan was, what did you say?
I would say that I would just teach, which I really didn’t intend on doing. It was the only way to justify studying art. At the time, there was no template for being an artist unless it was to teach or go commercial, at least in my perception. I wanted to find my own way that wasn’t either.
Was there ever a time when you wanted to give up?
Early on, there were many times when I was discouraged because there weren’t many venues for exhibiting work. I would work day jobs, then come home and paint on a regular basis. Just when I would be resigned to making art as a personal hobby, some friend would give a show of my work in their home or include me in a group show at a non-profit space.
Is that what made you keep going?
There were many instances of one door closing and another opening. Friends and fellow artists encouraged me through the years I painted after work [my day job]. Later on, certain curators, collectors and art dealers were the ones who nurtured my goals and helped me think in longer terms as far as being an artist. My own stubborn vision as well as the belief of more experienced supporters kept me going.
Before you were able to support yourself wholly on painting, what kinds of jobs did you have?
File clerk in a government building basement, janitor for a college bar, Burger King, display worker at a department store, busboy, kitchen worker, waiter…
What did you spend your money on then, and what do you spend it on now?
When I was working minimum wage jobs, I spent money on vinyl records, pointy-toed vintage shoes, thrift store clothes, books, magazines, art supplies. Now, my biggest indulgences are art by fellow artists, music downloads, dvds, art books, old toys. For art purposes, I buy old paper media for source material and collage– books, magazines, matchbooks, wallpaper. Also old frames, printed wood, and tin for assemblages.
Do you remember what would be on a grocery list from back then?
Red beans, rice, milk, orange juice, onions, garlic, green onions, ham hocks, avocados, lettuce, tomatoes, peanut butter, cheap apple jelly, white bread, baloney, that orange bottled French salad dressing, coffee, powdered creamer, canned tuna, carrots, spaghetti, parsley, Crystal hot sauce.
What were your work habits like?
I was pretty disciplined about working at night, say 6-10 p.m. after my day job, and then on weekends. But once I moved to New Orleans in the late seventies, I lost my focus. I’d work if I had an exhibit but not consistently enough, not with enough structure. I doubted my purpose and even though ideas were churning, I’d usually be so exhausted from restaurant work and partying, painting was at its lowest priority.
How did you get your focus back?
I decided when I was thirty to move back in with my family, just to have a quiet place to get work done. My parents were supportive, and let me use their workshop for a few years until I could turn a recycled building nearby into a studio. Things started to fall into place. My first big show was in the early 80’s, at the Academy Gallery in New Orleans. My art dealer and fellow artist George Febres, arranged for us to have two solo exhibits at the same time. During that period, I was nominated for and received an AVA (Awards in the Visual Arts) Grant, which offered a traveling exhibit with nine other artists. It was big deal and my work got some recognition. An amazing opportunity. I set up the studio with that grant money, and have worked full-time ever since.
In those early years, who helped you follow your path?
Well, I was clueless myself about how to start, and I faced limited opportunities. But because of such great early supporters like George Febres, Ted Potter of Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Bill Fagaly at New Orleans Museum of Art, and my current art representation, Arthur Roger, gradually some recognition was built. George Febres taught me basics about sustaining quality in one’s work: the work is foremost. Then comes putting in the time, documenting the work, taking yourself seriously. Ultimately, I only was able to get to this point because many people helped me.
Did you or do you worry about how your work will be received?
Generally, no. When there are misinterpretations of my intentions in a particular work, I have to accept that it’s beyond my control. There is a certain mystery in the imagery in my work, and once it leaves the studio, I try not to assume how it’s being received. It’s great to get some feedback, but I’m on to the next one by then. And I believe in it just as strongly as I ever did. I work slowly and do only a few paintings each year and can’t force the process. To know that people will see the most recent body of work is satisfying, but the tricky part is not getting too comfortable with that approval. I keep my work interesting and engaging for myself. The occasional appreciation for it is gravy.
Interview by Veracity Butcher
Images courtesy of the artist 1.) Unnameable Music 2.) Star Puzzle 3.) Dreaming of Home