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Painting the Town

By Katie Sloan
In Bayou Artist
Nov 30th, 2017
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Article by April Clark Honaker & Photography by Kelly Moore Clark

Emery Thibodeaux has spent the last few years placing art in the public eye, from her joint project with One Mile of Love to Postcard Murals in West Monroe and Monroe, Emery is helping cultivate an appreciation of art in our community.

Crayons are an expected part of every kindergartener’s supply list, and most kindergarteners are happy to trace their hand for a Thanksgiving turkey or color a picture of Santa at Christmas time. But Emery Thibodeaux was bored by these activities. As soon as she was old enough to manipulate paint and other creative media, her mom let her use them.

When Emery was little, her mom did a lot of artistic things, and to keep Emery’s tiny hands out of her own projects, she made sure Emery had separate projects to keep her busy. “Bless my mom for letting me do those things and make messes,” she said. Because of Emery’s early exposure to a variety of artistic media and the freedom to explore them, she said that when she got to kindergarten, the standard box of eight Crayola crayons simply wasn’t enough.

Although Emery wasn’t thrilled by the art projects given at school, they failed to diminish the love of art that had been sparked at home. Even during a phase when she dreamed of being a marine biologist, Emery said art was always part of her back-up plan. She just liked the idea of living near the beach, and if all else failed, she would have air-brushed t-shirts for beach goers. Emery never realized her dream of living near a beach, but art has remained a constant in her life, and it’s led her to invest heavily in the arts and culture of Monroe-West Monroe.

Before Emery made the choice to stay and invest in the area, she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in communication design from Louisiana Tech University. “I wanted to get a degree that was more useful,” she said, “but in retrospect, I wish I had done a studio focus.” After earning her degree, Emery spent six years applying her graphic design skills at a local sign company. Then, after doing some freelance work for Melanie Massey, she was recruited as the full-time marketing and branding coordinator for Melanie Massey Physical Therapy and MoJoy Studio, where she worked for two years before striking out on her own. Emery has now been self-employed as an artist and designer for three years and has been happy to find it a sustainable choice.

One of the most exciting and impactful things Emery has done with her time is join forces with ARROW Public Art’s founder Brooke Foy. Together the two have taken on a mission “to provide community revitalization, encourage collaboration among citizens and organizations, and become an extension of local events, all while promoting a sense of pride for our area.” In achieving this mission, ARROW uses art as the lightning rod through which much of its energy is channeled. Since its inception, ARROW has been responsible for several murals in downtown West Monroe, as well as the One Mile of Love Trenton Levee Revitalization Project that has translated local children’s art into large-scale images of hope, love, community, faith, friendships and leadership along the levee.

Because of her roots in graphic design and her practical nature, Emery likes assignments and prefers to work with direction. She said, “That’s why I work so well with Brooke. We’re a great team! She has these big ideas, and I’m the on-the-ground, details person. Sometimes I’m also the behind-the-scenes person.” But Emery is okay with being behind the scenes. “I don’t necessarily want to be on stage,” she said, “but I want to make the people on stage look really good.”

Despite their best efforts, Emery and Brooke have faced some resistance to their mission, but Emery has done her best to take it in stride. “I’ve learned that no matter what, somebody’s not gonna like it,” she said. “You can’t please everybody, and for me, sometimes it’s hard to get past that. I did well in school because I liked the approval.”

When they were starting the One Mile of Love project, she and Brooke were super excited, but there was criticism. She said some people were resistant to the idea of publicly displaying children’s art. They made nasty comments and expressed concern about their property values and about what the mural would look like years from now. Most of this negativity was spewed on social media. In the beginning, it hurt. “Less than one out of 10 people felt this way, but it was tough,” Emery said. She felt compelled to respond to many of the comments because she wanted people to understand the purpose of love behind the project. She wanted to let them know that the artists behind it were committed to maintaining it, even if that meant painting over graffiti. More importantly, she wanted them to know that she, Brooke, and all the volunteers were invested in this community. She said, “I want people to know that I live here, and I care about my community.”

But when it comes to criticism, “You’ve got to let it go, she said. “You’ve got to look past it.” To cope with the criticism, Emery has chosen to focus on the mission, and said, “I love feeling like I’m making a difference in our community, even in a small way. I know I’m not curing cancer, but if a mural makes one person smile, that makes me happy.” Given the fact that more than 250 Ouachita parish children’s artworks were selected for inclusion in One Mile of Love, those smiles are virtually guaranteed, and Emery’s heart overflows with joy, knowing their lives and many others have been touched by the project.

One of the most important goals for any ARROW project is inclusion. “We really try hard to include people that may not normally be able to experience art,” she said. Maybe it’s because they can’t afford it, maybe they’re not allowed to make messes, or maybe it’s simply not part of their lifestyle. Placing art in the public eye makes it accessible to these people, and placing children’s art in particular in the public eye is empowering, not only for them but also for the community as a whole. “I want people to get excited,” she said, “especially kids.” She wants them to know that they can be creative, that their creativity has value, that they can have a creative career, and that they can do it here.

Another set of ARROW projects that have garnered a lot of local attention are the two postcard murals that celebrate West Monroe and Monroe. Each of the murals extends a warm welcome, inviting viewers to be part of the community. Each also celebrates icons of local culture. For example, the West Monroe mural references Kiroli Park and West Monroe High School football, and the Monroe mural references Coca Cola and the University of Louisiana-Monroe. “I think this type of art gives people a sense of pride and hope about what they can contribute to the community,” Emery said. “We try to focus on unity. On the surface, our community seems to suffer from a lack of artistic expression, so you have to ease people into it sometimes.” Fortunately, many of the murals have been designed to show people what they have in common, which brings them together and makes it easier for them to relate.

Although Emery loves working with Brooke and ARROW, she also loves creating art independently and working with clients. One of her favorite independent projects is a group of paintings on canvas commissioned by Affinity Health Group for a clinic on Oliver Road in Monroe. The kids love the large, brightly colored images of insects and animals. “That makes me feel good,” Emery said. “I was very proud to do them.” One of the images, an alligator, is representative of Louisiana and its culture. For Emery, images like these not only make her proud; they also inspire others to be proud of Louisiana, and she said, “I like to create things that make people feel good about where they’re from.”

In terms of subject matter, Emery likes to paint things that are beautiful, and much of her work, like the work she did for Affinity, is inspired by nature. She also prefers bright, vibrant colors like turquoise, red, lime green, pure green and yellow. She calls these colors “the Emery color palette.” According to Emery, her work is very easy to understand and relate to. “I’m a straightforward person,” she said. “I like to think my work is colorful, friendly, and accessible. I try to do things that are fun and that many people can interact with, but sometimes I’m honest to a fault, so my art is blunt. It’s not very subtle. What you see is what you get, and I’m not trying to work in secret meanings or passive hints. Some people might say it’s not true art, that it’s production art, but I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

In addition to painting, Emery enjoys working with jewelry as well. She finds gratification in bringing small bits of material—metal, leather, stones and beads—together in a way that highlights their natural beauty. As part of the process, she often hammers the metal by hand, uses a blow torch to fire colorful enamel, or chemically etches her own designs. Her pieces range in style and size from large, statement pieces to daintier, subtle pieces, but the result is always something unique, beautiful and durable that can be worn and appreciated for years. Like her paintings, Emery said, “A lot of my jewelry is fun because I think we have enough to worry about. I just hope it makes people smile—that it can bring joy to dreary day.”

Whether painting or creating jewelry, Emery is most comfortable making straightforward, literal pieces, but she also enjoys challenging herself. As a result, one of the next things on her agenda is to try new subject matter. Although she is comfortable exploring new materials and techniques and finds the process inspiring, she is less comfortable exploring her feelings in her art. “Emotional stuff is not for me,” she said. “I’m not a feelings person. I’m a thinking person. I can paint a 15-foot corrugated wall, but if you give me a tiny canvas and ask me to paint my feelings, I’m going to have trouble.” At the same time, the fact that she would have trouble tells Emery she should lean into that struggle and broaden her horizons. “The next step,” she said, “is to venture into more self-reflection and higher concept pieces.”

Regardless of the subject matter or medium of her art, Emery is determined to use it and her other skills to give back to the community. “My goal is to be involved and grow the arts and culture here,” she said. Her involvement in ARROW and her role as treasurer for the Downtown Arts Alliance have given her platforms to meet this goal, but it was an experience at The Downtown Gallery Crawl that first inspired her.

About eight years ago at the first art crawl she attended, Emery stood in ARENDER studio + gallery amidst the work of Kathleen Tumey when it hit her. “The show just touched me,” she said. “I actually teared up. My husband was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ But I said, ‘This feels important to me, and I want to get involved.’” According to Emery, the Crawl made art approachable. She said, “I was like, ‘I can do this. I could just step in and be part of this community.” Emery bought a piece of art that night to commemorate the moment, and she’s been actively involved in the arts and culture of our community ever since. Her plan now is to keep showing up and keep doing her part with the hope that she can inspire someone else.