Nick Bustamante: Home is Where the Art Is
article by Kay Stothart Rector | photography by Martin G Meyers
Nick Bustamante is at home in North Louisiana, in the truest sense of the word. Through his connection to Ruston, his adopted hometown, he has found a sense of place that defines, in part, who he is and what he is trying to convey in his work as an artist. As Bustamante can attest, home is not always where we are born and raised. Sometimes it is where we arrive by chance, through some fortuitous circumstance.
Before becoming an art professor at Louisiana Tech University, Bustamante had lived his entire life in California. He had never heard of Ruston, Louisiana and never even visited the Bayou State. “The very first time I stepped foot in Louisiana was for the interview at Tech,” laughs Bustamante, “and the second time I stepped foot in Louisiana was with my U-Haul, moving here.”
Following high school, Bustamante attended Humboldt State University, graduated with a Bachelor of Art degree, and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from California State University, Long Beach. He was living in Long Beach, near Los Angeles, serving as an adjunct instructor at a community college there when an opportunity presented itself which would not only impact his career but shape his entire future. He accepted a position as Associate Professor in 2004 and now serves as Chair of the Studio Art Program at Louisiana Tech.
One of the things he found impressive about the Louisiana Tech art program was the smaller class size, which enables an instructor to really get to know the students. “My passion, besides art, is teaching,” says Bustamante. He recognized that having a more one-on-one encounter with students would allow him to make a bigger difference in their education. While he did experience a bit of culture shock moving from a more metropolitan area and lifestyle, Bustamante says that he really fell in love with the university and the charm and slower pace of its small town setting. Unlike where he came from, he no longer spends hours stuck in traffic during his commute to and from work. “I actually have more time to paint here,” he says.
Moving to a small Louisiana town, sight unseen, was a risk that many of Bustamante’s peers criticized and warned him against. Originally, the California native thought that he would gain teaching experience at Louisiana Tech and then eventually move on. But what he found surprised him. As it turned out, Bustamante has realized artistic opportunities in Ruston that he says he probably would not have had in Los Angeles.
Several years ago, Bustamante was beginning to experiment with digital painting when he was contacted by Tech biology professor Dr. Jamie Newman and Dr. Mary Caldorera-Moore, a bio-medical engineering professor, about doing illustrations for a book chapter they were writing entitled “Engineered Stem Cell-Based Scaffolds and Patches for Heart Disorders.” Although medical illustration was something he had never done, Bustamante agreed to the project and submitted a digital painting for them to consider. They begin to collaborate and found that although the three of them came from completely different disciplines—a biologist, an engineer and an artist—they were able to work well together. “We speak totally different languages professionally,” Bustamante says, “but it was a huge success and an amazing experience. I think I ended up learning more about art than the scientists did.”
Before long, they were looking for other projects and ways to get students involved. “New Frontiers in Biomedical Research,” a seminar series conducted annually by Newman and Caldorera-Moore, provided that inroad. Thanks to the generous donation of a Louisiana Tech alumni, the art department was able to purchase Wacom tablets, which are highly pressure-sensitive electronic tablets used to create digital artistic images. Art students used the tablets to design biomedical illustrations for the seminar brochure, and worked with their “client” to visualize a scientific concept. Scientists, medical professionals and attorneys introduced students to the use of medical illustrations in their various fields of work.
Bustamante says that the interdisciplinary project has been a unique learning experience for him and for his students, exposing them to new technology and potential career paths. Tech’s curriculum has expanded to include a digital painting class as well as a class in medical illustration. The administration is working toward an accredited program offering certification in the field of medical illustration. “Blending art with science,” Bustamante says, “is one of those things that I never in my wildest dreams expected I would be doing.”
Bustamante’s career took another unexpected turn when Cynthia Steele, a community leader in Homer, Louisiana, contacted him about painting a mural on one of the town’s vacant buildings. Although much of his work is in large scale paintings, Bustamante had never done a mural. He took on the project individually, but soon realized the need for student involvement. That turned out to be a great learning opportunity for both him and the art students.
The Homer mural was designed by local artist Judy Buckner and painted by Bustamante and students. It took the entire academic quarter, plus a portion of summer vacation, to complete. The students were dedicated and became invested in the project, continuing to drive to Homer to work on it even after they had completed the class requirement and received their grade. They all realized what their work meant to the community. Townspeople were constantly stopping by, bringing food, watching them paint and sharing in the town’s beautification effort as it progressed.
That initial mural project in Homer led to murals in other communities. Two of those—one in Chatham, Louisiana and, most recently, for the Ruston Farmer’s Market—were done as class projects. Students submitted competing designs for the mural, and once a design was selected, the students worked together to bring it to life in paint. They had to do things that they had never done, like building scaffolding, projecting an image onto a huge outdoor surface, and communicating and working together in ways that are not required in a solo endeavor. Bustamante says what they all gained from working together and with the community on these projects was invaluable.
In addition to the class murals, Bustamante has continued to do mural work on his own. In partnership with Whitney Causey, a Louisiana Tech graduate who worked on the first project in Homer, Bustamante founded Heirloom Murals. Through this business, he has painted large-scale murals in Jonesboro, Farmerville, Ruston and downtown Monroe. He says mural painting is something that he might never have done had he not answered that call from Steele.
“I always tell my students: ‘Be ready for opportunities when you see them, and take risks. Get out of your comfort zone.’” He knows from experience that his life would be completely different if he had not followed that advice.
Bustamante is the first person in his family to graduate from college. Looking back, he is a little surprised that his parents allowed and encouraged him, as a first generation college student, to study art instead of a more traditional profession. Bustamante knew early on that he wanted to be an artist, but it was not until after one of his first exhibitions during graduate school that it really became clear to him the amount of sacrifice and the level of commitment it would take to become successful.
“It is one thing to say that you are interested in art or want to major in art, but to make it your profession, you have to be dedicated to it,” Bustamante advises. It is imperative for him to spend time in the studio every day, painting. “Even if you love something, it isn’t always easy to do. There are always those days that I don’t want to go in to the studio and don’t want to work. But I make myself show up. I make myself keep scheduled hours to be in the studio. Otherwise, the work won’t happen.”
“My work is all about creating order in chaos,” Bustamante explains. “We all do that, whether we are artists or not, trying to make sense of it all.” In his work, texture and pattern and imagery are often stacked and intermingled in what sometimes appears to be a chaotic way. He is particularly interested in what he calls “nonlinear narratives,” which allow multiple time frames to overlap and coexist. He also has a strong interest in place, and in external and internal spaces.
“When you experience a place, you have a memory of that, but that memory includes certain things that are hard to document, such as smells, or reflections. Those are the things that I want the viewer to experience when they look at my painting. So, the color is exaggerated, and there are things that are somewhat out of place or mysterious so that the viewer has to sort of fill in the blanks. My hope is that the viewer will experience not just what I see, but their own memories as well,” says Bustamante. He believes that the more personal you make a painting, the more universal it becomes. “If someone looks at my work, and leaves the gallery and thinks about it that night or a week later, then that is success,” Bustamante feels. “If that happens, I have connected with the viewer in some way.”
Bustamante has now been in Louisiana almost 12 years. Since coming here, he has had a sort of fascination with his surroundings. Last year, he began working in earnest with the Louisiana landscape, with a particular interest in abandoned structures. “In this part of Louisiana,” Bustamante noticed, “nature takes over, reclaiming the land. Trees grow through houses, because that’s where water collects. Bees create a hive and kudzu grows over it. That’s not something you see in urban areas like Los Angeles.” The idea of reclaiming, rebirth, and a new beginning led him to what he calls “spinning a narrative” around these structures. “Thematically, my work has always been in relationship with my location and environment, and also reflects whatever I am going through at the time,” says Bustamante. “That is true of any artist’s work, but mine tends to manifest itself more in terms of the landscape and place.”
s he explores the surrounding landscape, he says he finds a world much different from the urban environment of his childhood. Bustamante finds experiences such as being in a boat on the bayou without a man-made structure anywhere in sight not only awe-producing but strangely comforting. It was that feeling that led to an epiphany a few years ago, when he realized that this area is truly home to him now. Important to this transition was meeting his wife, Louisiana native and fellow artist, Hannah Bustamante. She is, he says, the most important part of why North Louisiana feels like home. “I’m no longer the guy from California,” he says, “and my work reflects that.”As an example of this, he points to the mural in downtown Monroe. Bustamante says the Monroe project is the only mural that he has done to date that reflects his own voice and his own personal narrative. He was afforded much more artistic freedom with this project than with any of the others. Property owner Michael Echols and the funding agency, Downtown Monroe Renaissance Board, commissioned the mural and gave Bustamante artistic license to create from his own inspiration. Entitled “Finding Home,” it is based on one of the artist’s favorite works and explores the beauty and serenity of Louisiana’s bayou country.
“Finding Home” is clearly recognizable as a Bustamante painting, very much in keeping with his more recent body of work. The bayou scene,” he says, “is a sort of magical landscape and has a fantastical element, with chandeliers coming down from the sky, reflective diamond patterns floating in and out of the space, and a gradient from daylight to night.” It depicts egrets as characters with distinct personalities, gathering bottles for a bottle tree, in a boat motoring toward home, and standing on the porch of a house that glows with light and warmth from the inside. The house is actually a replica of the home that he shares with his wife and the egret characters are stand-ins for the two of them.
For Bustamante, the mural painting evokes the feeling of longing that wells up within all of us when we think of a particular place we consider home. He becomes emotional when talking about his own sense of home as a welcoming place where someone who loves you is waiting for you. “It’s a need,” he says, “that all humans have for security and a sense of belonging, and I am lucky to have found that.”
Home is also a central theme and inspiration for Bustamante’s next artistic project. When he and his wife, Hannah, decided to take the next step in their lives as a family and adopt a child, they had no idea the expense it would entail. To defray the cost of the adoption, the pair has committed to creating a body of work through a collaborative effort. They have never collaborated in this particular way, artistically, by painting together. “It’s exciting to do this together, and to involve and connect other people in what we are doing,” Bustamante says. The project, which is still in the planning phase, will consist of a series of smaller oil paintings reflecting their collective style. All proceeds from the sale of their paintings will go toward adoption expenses. Because of the motivation behind it, Bustamante expects this body of work to be deeply personal in its narrative. “We want it to reflect our desire to give our child the sense of love and home that we have found.”