There Are Many Roles That Describe Joey Slaughter: Teacher, Creator, Counselor, Father. He is an Active Member in the Community and and a Presence in the Arts.
article by Ann Bloxom Smith | photography by Brad Arender
Connections, communication, consistency.
Connections, communication, consistency.
And creativity. Most of all, creativity.
Those are the themes, the qualities, that seem to summarize this artist, this amazing human being, Joey Slaughter. Slaughter is one of those rare people who exhibit an enviable consistency throughout their various roles. For Slaughter, the roles include being a professor of art at Louisiana Tech University; a teacher, counselor and advisor of art students; a sculptor/painter/designer/wood worker; a father, husband and son; a house remodeler and interior designer; and an active community volunteer. In conversation, he refers to his life as a “balancing act”—so many decisions, so many opportunities for creative choices.
Appropriately, Slaughter’s next exhibition will be called “Making/Decisions.” He’ll display this collection of work at Arender Studio and Gallery during the December 4th Downtown Gallery Crawl. Pieces will include free-standing sculpture, wall-mounted wooden assemblages, computer-aided designs and paintings. Words, however, are completely inadequate to describe these works, which are impossible to categorize but must be viewed in person.
The road to this point has been winding. Slaughter began his life in El Dorado but grew up in Junction City and Ruston. He spent a year studying and working in New York City, completing his AICAD Studio Art program in 1996. In 1997, he finished his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Memphis College of Art in Memphis, Tennessee, followed in 2000 by a Master of Fine Arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
After receiving the MFA, Slaughter was awarded the prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant and then in 2006 was nominated for the Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant. Recently, he received a Career Enhancement Grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts. He’s had art shows in Memphis, New Orleans, Winston-Salem (NC), New York City and Richmond (VA). The periodical New American Paintings has twice published his work. Locally, Slaughter has recently presented a site-specific exhibition called “Sympathetic Distraction Reaction” at the Masur Museum of Art in Monroe.
So this is a young artist with a distinguished past and a promising future. But the present is our main interest here.
For in the present this artist is in the midst of life—in the midst of art.
As an artist Slaughter is constantly watching the world around him, connected to it, looking at colors and patterns, textures and surfaces. For instance, on a drive through Ruston he notes an orange plastic fence surrounding a work-site. The fencing is flexible and drapes at haphazard angles. A red-dirt levee is piled around the perimeter. The fencing itself is full of diamond-shaped holes. Lots of shapes, colors and textures for an artist to see and possibly use at some point in a future work—the connections between outward and inward realities are apparent.
The connections can also be both personal and professional. As a faculty member, Slaughter has collegial responsibilities, including those committee assignments and administrative tasks that all faculty share. He explains that students, usually art students, often ask for advice or simply need a willing and patient ear. Students’ counseling needs run the gamut from career advice to family problems to creative blocks—and more. As a professional artist and also a teacher of art, guiding (and often grading) students as they learn to tap into their own creativity, Slaughter must divide his time and energy while maintaining the connections among these related parts of his life.
And then, of course, there are the family connections—a family of artists, indeed, which both eases and complicates the choices that this artist must make. Slaughter’s first and most obvious connection is to his wife, Jessica, who, besides being a sculptor herself, is also the executive director of the North Central Louisiana Arts Council. Her position in the artistic community has increased Slaughter’s connections to fellow artists as well as to the community at large, he muses, increasing his feelings of responsibility to share the love of art. In fact, he says, “artists can be selfish sometimes, but they shouldn’t be. They, of all people, should be generous with the people around them, sharing their art with the world.”
Slaughter’s connections to his community extend to such commitments as his leadership role in the Twin City Art Foundation, the non-profit that partners with the City of Monroe to maintain and develop the Masur Museum of Art. His committee assignments on that board include an active involvement in decision-making concerning the museum’s permanent collections.
The family connections continue. A visit with the Slaughter children is telling. Clearly they “do” art as naturally as most children drink water—it’s an integral part of daily life. Son Sylas, seven years old, takes found objects—pieces of disassembled computers, roadside trash, empty drink bottles and more—and combines them with Lego blocks to make robots, rockets and strangely beautiful objects of all sorts. Shelves in his room display some of the favorites, and the room itself reveals his parents’ as well as his own commitment to his creative pursuits. Four-year-old Eero, at this point, is more interested in connections with people and her surroundings, and although she clearly has a style of her own (PINK is everywhere!), her artistic inclinations seem less about the objects and more about the relationships.
These connections—the ones with family—are expressed in Slaughter’s art too, including the family home. A walk through the Ruston house, which he’s completely gutted and rebuilt, suggests these connections and commitments as he takes care to nurture each family member’s individuality. The home itself has an open, almost spare style, ready to receive the works of art that this family creates, separately and together. Slaughter explains, “The house was a sculptural project.”
One wall, for instance, is made up of old pieces of wood, variously colored, that came from the original house—reminding the couple of the original owner, whom they helped care for in his later years. A large, curtainless picture window overlooks the street out front, with a street sign on the corner—a kind of mural in glass and light. And, of course, each inside wall highlights one or more works of art. One favorite is labeled “DAD LOVES YOU EERO”—the overlapping pieces of wood within the frame suggesting the scalloped edges of a little girl’s dress, with dashed lines suggesting stitching. Stitching: sewing two pieces of fabric together: connections.
The artist communicates through his art—through materials like wood, paper, metal, scraps, found objects, acrylic paint and composite fiberboard. He uses such tools, such as CNCs—computer-numeric-control devices. These can be CNC routers, plasma cutters and vinyl cutters. He also uses computer programs like Illustrator to sketch out his ideas before actually creating them with the intended materials. He can experiment with colors and perspective, instantly changing angles, sizes and shapes on the screen. Computer-aided design has become a tremendous time-saver, according to Slaughter. A tool that he once thought of as “cheating,” in a sense, has helped him to be even more creative. His process usually entails first the digital media and then the hands-on acts of painting and sculpture, aided by available computer programs.
Slaughter’s methods include traditional shop tools, too—such as table and miter saws, drills and welding tools. A visit to the shop reveals a place that looks less like an artist’s studio and more like an industrial workplace. But all the tools and materials aid in the creative process—the process that results in communication, artist to viewer.
Some of the creative choices result in a refusal to label his work as purely “sculpture” or “painting” or even “multi-media.” Slaughter believes, and tries to communicate to his students, that there don’t have to be lines firmly drawn between genres. His sculptures and paintings are not necessarily either one but are both together. “Each work begins with a commitment, a decision, and then the magic starts,” he says. That magic is often hard to name, to quantify or box in.
Slaughter describes his recent work as “simple,” as abstractions related to the internal self, referencing moods, thoughts, feelings and impressions. Because his work is referential, it isn’t considered purely abstract. He explains that he has always been attracted to abstract expressionism. As a “maker of objects,” he is interested in “information, how it’s transmitted and received, how it’s communicated.” He is especially fascinated with how and why we communicate. This fascination becomes clear in his work, which includes many references to methods and modes of data transmission—wires, tubes, webs, pipes, capsules, antennae and so on. The fact that we are bombarded with information is a repeated theme.
Although Slaughter has recently been moving toward multi-media pieces, combining light and sound with visual media, he enjoys the process of painting. Even the painting of slats of wood in various, carefully chosen colors is an enjoyable process for him, knowing that he’ll be combining those with almost mathematical precision to communicate a mood or idea later on. His process, he agrees, suggests a comparison to musical composition, with its mathematical structures of harmonies, rhythms and melodies combining to elicit deeper emotional responses from the hearer. The “balance of structure with randomness” is satisfying to Slaughter. And watching him selecting just the right combination of slats with their various colors and widths, taping them together so that he can use a miter saw to create just the desired angle, is a satisfying experience, too.
Communication: artist to viewer and back again.
Isn’t that the goal, after all? But most of us fail at our attempts, dividing our lives into not-so-neat segments of time, resources, talents, relationships and activities.
For the artist, though, the world and his time in it are the canvas, with the task being to “create” a life that is a work of art. Every decision is a brushstroke, every decision a commitment. “And that’s where the magic starts.” Life is art; art is life.
For Joey Slaughter, even a drive across town includes artistic observations. Playtime with children includes artistic encouragement. Classroom instruction is an avenue for artistic expression. Architectural and interior design decisions are artistic choices that also affect the quality of life for all living within the home. Even the choice of objects (“I am an admirer of objects, especially toys and furniture”) to place in the artist’s office becomes a significant artistic expression.
Joey Slaughter’s art is consistent with his life, and in fact is just one facet of his life—that balancing act that comes full circle to a work–a circular assemblage–called “Take a Breather.” It hangs in his family’s dining room. In it, a hand reaches up among, or over, various shapes, colors and lines, suggesting to the viewer an overabundance of stimuli. The hand could indicate “Stop.” Just take a breather from all the confusing data being thrown at us. Maybe take a breather at home, at the dining table, with loved ones. Circular art.
The most obvious of personal artistic expression—the most obvious union of life and art—is the tattoo of his own artwork on Joey Slaughter’s arm. This most generous of artists didn’t explain the significance, and this writer didn’t ask. After touring the artist’s office, studio, shop and home—after meeting the artist’s family – this one question seemed too personal, too private to ask. One thing is certain: no one, after spending time with Joey Slaughter and his art, would question the pure creativity of his expression, no matter the medium.