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NSU art faculty’s work on display shows their burning passion for more than just teaching

L. Collier Hyams and his piece, “Man Thinks He’s God, But I Don’t Know About That.”

Students are nothing without their teachers. They need someone to guide them. At Northwestern State University of Louisiana, this is true whether the students are nursing majors or art majors. The faculty within NSU’s Department of Fine and Graphic Art is essential for art students to reach their full potential as an artist.

However, these faculty members are not just professors: They create art of their own.

For the month of February, the 2024 Faculty Exhibition is in Orville J. Hanchey Gallery. The artwork of NSU’s Art Department faculty Sean Callender, Edgar Cano-Lopez, Jonathan Clayton, Corbin Covher, Matt DeFord, Mirla Gonzalez Enriquez, Leslie Gruesbeck and Collier Hyams is featured in this exhibit.

Matt DeFord, who is an NSU professor, mixed media artist and the organizer of the show, worked with the art faculty to put their artwork on display.

“It was a really neat experience; I’ve worked here 19 years with such a variety of creative people,” DeFord said. “They’re just great people to work with because they do their jobs, they do their artwork, and they’re just genuinely good people.”

DeFord described his experience with being both a teacher and an artist as wonderful. Like the rest of the art faculty, DeFord balances teaching with pursuing his true passion: art.

“My mother said she knew ever since I was little what I would do,” DeFord said. “As soon as I could hold things, I wanted to make things and draw on things, so she just knew that’s what I was going to do with my life.”

DeFord has been an artist for almost his entire life. He is enthusiastic about his creations, and people can see that in his artwork. He went on to describe his piece, “Present In My Thoughts,” which is a small wooden building with a ladder hanging from it and a chair inside of it.

“Ladders usually mean moving up or down from one place to another, so when you enter into the place, there’s a chair for you to sit on which is almost like a rest between growth; You feel good about where you are, and then you have to progress somewhere,” DeFord said. “So, this is kind of a personal assessment: Where am I as a person, as an artist, in my relationships, in my work and who I am as a developing human?”

DeFord explained how being present in his own thoughts is a good thing, especially as he has found his place in Natchitoches as both an artist and a professor within the art department.

“Matt DeFord is like my best friend; He actually officiated my wife and I’s wedding,” Corbin Covher said. Covher is the facilities manager and professor for art classes such as 3D design with his specialty being comic book character development class. “Oh man, I love all the art professors; We’re a big family.”

The tight knit community of NSU’s Department of Fine and Graphic Art was brought up by many of the faculty members. Covher has even been sharing–or playing–his most recent creation with fellow faculty.

“I live and breathe art; I love it all, do it all: sculpting, painting, photography… and recently I invented a game,” Covher said. “The goal of the game is to make abstract art that is not objective. In fact, one of the rules is that we’re immediately going to wipe it out if you paint letters, numbers or try to paint an object.”

He explained that his game has even become popular for team building activities in groups ranging from presidential leadership to girl scouts.

“It’s great to teach people how to do things that I know how to do,” Covher said. “It’s super cool to watch them grab a hold of it then really take off and go out into their own avenues.”

Being a professor, especially within the art department, is fulfilling. Collier Hyams, a professor teaching a range of classes from digital art to instrument making, went further into this idea.

“They say there are people who are teachers and people who are artists as they’re two different things; I don’t necessarily believe that,” Hyams said. “When you’re working with students and you see them develop and grow, that’s like art.”

Hyams sees teaching as an art form, especially as students begin to flourish.

“Teaching is the sharing of emotions and ideas,” Hyams said. “When you have somebody that is working on something and they don’t know their path or where they’re going, so you start kind of helping them find their journey and their path, then suddenly you see it come out of them… That’s great.”

Hyams spoke about teaching in a way that shows the passion he has for what he does.

“To me, being an artist is a journey; In the West, we are–as artists–meant to be self-expressive, so most of my stuff is kind of autobiographical,” Hyams said. “Different people make art for different reasons; Art is definitely therapy for me, so I make things because I need to make them.”

Hyams’ experience with art is personal. For example, one of his pieces on display made of acrylic and resin represented life and death, reflecting his recent loss of a loved one. Another piece represented his four-member family. This personal relationship Hyams developed with art determined his motive for attending school.

“I went to school because I wanted to explore and I wanted to learn and I wanted to grow,” Hyams said. “If you just go to school and say, I’m going to be an artist to get a degree and suddenly I’m a famous artist … I don’t know who that works for.”

Being an artist involves constantly learning.

One of the prints featured in the 2024 Faculty Exhibition was “A Study in Wet Plate” by Jonathan Clayton, a lens-based artist and professor for a range of art classes at NSU including photography classes.

“The main print is just a subject for, literally as it’s called, a study in wet plate,” Clayton said. “It is a process that I’m learning because I picked it up last semester and at a workshop I went to.”

Clayton explained that it is always good to pick up a new skill, whether it means learning an older or newer technique.

“For me, photography is about going out and exploring, about seeing what I can find,” Clayton said. “A lot of times you can find things in the mundane, the everyday; I love abstract photography.”

Clayton sees art everywhere he goes. Whether walking around campus or in another country, there is something that is worth photographing.

“Photography is an important skill to have; People think they know how to take a picture but most actually don’t,” Clayton said. “I want to encourage people to take photography classes because it’s something a lot of them take for granted.”

The art faculty has plenty of skills and knowledge to teach and share. Whether one considers themself an artist or not, it is important to learn, grow and develop through new experiences. Leslie Gruesbeck, a fiber artist, a professor and head of the Department of Fine and Graphic Arts, gave advice to those just starting to create and those who have been creators for a long time.

“We were talking in one of my classes about how artists write manifestos, so we discussed what would be some points in our manifestos,” Gruesbeck said. “Mine would be to get yourself in the mindset of playing while you’re creating because when you were little, you never felt like, ‘oh I did this bad’ or ‘oh, I don’t want to try this because I might mess up’; It’s terrible to shut yourself down before you even try, so if you just play like you did then, the pressure is off and you’re just doing it.”

It can be difficult to create if one holds themselves up to a standard. If one creates for fun or as a form of play, it is more enjoyable.

“When I was a little kid, my grandmother and my mother both embroidered, and that was something that I enjoyed doing; I enjoyed sewing and I was exposed to a lot of basketry and things like that,” Gruesbeck said.

Gruesbeck’s close relationship with her family led to her picking up their skills and becoming a fiber artist. Her piece, “BeLoved”, is made of felt and cotton embroidery floss, inspired by her experience with Valentine’s Day.

“Valentine’s Day was a huge thing when I was a little kid; My parents went out of the way so when I got up in the morning, there was always a little box of chocolates, my mom always gave me a card and my dad always made a valentine or a stuffed animal,” Gruesbeck said. “I was just thinking about how those little acts meant a lot and how the people who love you the most expressed it from the very moment you left your bed each morning; I’m always thinking about people who don’t get that, so I kind of made a little Valentine heart.”

There is always a story behind an artist, whether presented within their artwork or not. The faculty of NSU’s Department of Fine and Graphic Art captured this when they put both their art and their hearts on display.

Through Feb. 29, the 2024 Faculty Exhibition will be in the Hanchey Gallery, located in the Dear School of Creative and Performing Arts building on NSU’s campus. Witness the dedication that each of these artists pour into their creations.

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About the Contributor
Madelyn Murphy, Current Sauce - Arts & Living Editor
Maddy Murphy is a freshman communication major at NSU. Spending her first semester as a reporter for The Current Sauce, she cannot wait to write news articles and stories inspired by both on-campus and off-campus events in Natchitoches. Her goal is to entertain students by including them in her writing, so be on the lookout—she may ask to interview you for a story!

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