The Meaning of Human
A Portrait of Joli Livaudais
article by Michael DeVault | photo by Jenny Ellerbe
The first impression of Joli Livaudais is calm. She approaches people with the same measured ease with which she approaches a camera on a tripod. Even in a hurry–and as a professional photographer who’s done frequent work for periodicals like BayouLife, she’s often in a hurry–she does not show stress.
Instead, Livaudais presents an almost stoic appreciation for each situation and an empathy for her subject, whether that subject is the product of intensive, days-long labor in her studio building a swimming pool or a plate of food dished up by a local restaurant. And Livaudais has shot both. She is one of a handful of photographers in Louisiana who comfortably and regularly traverse the distance between commercial and fine art photography, a feat that’s topped only by the fact that, for the last several years, Livaudais has operated a successful gallery and studio, as well. Spend any time with Livaudais, and you come away with the realization if it has to do with a camera, Livaudais can do it.
“She’s a phenomenal artist,” says Jenny Ellerbe, a photographer whose own work has been featured at Livaudais Studio twice. “I first saw here work soon after she moved to Monroe. She had it up at Art With a View, and I immediately knew she was not from here, that she was incredibly talented, and I was just blown away.”
Ellerbe’s praise is not misplaced. Livaudais’s photos possess a visceral quality that at once captures a moment in time and the emotions she’s experiencing. A recent exhibit at Martine Chaisson Gallery in New Orleans featured selections from one of Livaudais’s recent efforts, which she affectionately calls her beetles. The beetles begin as photographs of those items Livaudais finds herself connected to. The works stem from Tibetan death meditations and the beetle’s symbolism as an agent of transformation.
“The beetles are about attachment,” Livaudais says. “They’re folded photographs of things I love–family, myself, artwork or things I find beautiful in the world.” She takes the photograph, prints it, and then begins the meticulous process of cutting and folding it into the shape of a beetle, a series of steps that can take hours. It’s at once an act of devotion and detachment. “Because the beetle is a symbol of transformation, and death, the act of folding a beetle is a bit of letting go of that attachment. It’s a gesture of love.”
Her beetles, like the rest of her artwork, begin and end with a goal of deepening her understanding of the world around her. She calls it attempting to “touch the sublime,” that elusive quality of greatness that is at once spiritual and artistic. “It’s me trying to wrap my brain around all those things that are out there, that are so much bigger than we are,” Livaudais says.
She doesn’t just seek this elusive quality in her own work. Livaudais also looks for hints of the sublime in the works she shows at Livaudais Studio, which serves double-time as her studio space and a working gallery in which she features other artists and their works. When Livaudais begins to speak of the gallery at Livaudais Studio, she flashes a hint of pride and joy. It’s clear that she has enjoyed her work as a gallery owner.
“I think it’s safe to say that the gallery has been my biggest contribution around here,” Livaudais says. She shown work from local artists–Ellerbe is one of those artists–and nationally known. Her most recent, and final, show at Livaudais Studio was the work of an artist from Oregon. Livaudais says she attempts to pick artists who work to address the two sides of any art–mirror and window. A window invites the viewer to step inside, make themselves at home, and to take in the experience contained within the frame. That second kind of art is a mirror, reflecting back at the person viewing it aspects of the individual viewer, filtered through the artistic perceptions of the photographer, the painter, or the sculptor. Livaudais cautions, though, against a strict division between the mirror and the window. Instead, she says, the path is somewhere in between both.
“I think that’s true of artwork, in general,” Livaudais says. That’s true in the art she’s chosen for her final show, a series of landscapes by an artist from Portland, OR. Opening up the Monroe art scene to the outside world has been just one of her goals from the beginning. Her second goal was to provide a platform to showcase local talent.
“What I’ve tried to do is show work that is genuinely good work, which we have a lot of in our area. We may be small and regional, but the level of talent we have here is really quite exceptional,” Livaudais says. She notes that art has the power to transform a community, and downtown Monroe is a good example of that. “They’re doing some really great things with the arts scene and we were able to be a part of that. That was exciting.”
As Livaudais prepares for the next chapter of her career, she’s looking forward to putting behind her what she sees as one of her challenges–that’s she’s been too fragmented. Between shooting fine art photography and running a successful gallery, she’s also worked as a commercial photographer. She stops short of calling this period of her life a failure. Instead, she says it’s been difficult to “keep all the plates spinning at once.”
Her background seems to have readied her well for this period. Livaudais traveled extensively as a child, but she wasn’t a military brat. “I was a nuclear power plant kid,” she says. Her father was an engineer who worked on the design and construction of nuclear power plants, and the family frequently moved from location to location as construction would come to an end. It was a pattern she’d later repeat herself, while serving in the U.S. Army.
College followed, and with it plans to pursue a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. In fact, Livaudais was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Dallas when she stumbled into photography. During her undergraduate degree, she had taken electives in photography. Though she was good at taking the pictures, it wasn’t behind the lens that she found her stride. She found herself feeling at home in the darkroom, developing photos. One night, during a particularly busy semester, she was in the darkroom, developing photos.
“I liked to go in late,” Livaudais says. The late night developing sessions offered her silence and solitude. Not only could she work in peace, but she had the facilities to herself. She was working and lost track of time. “When I looked at my watch again, I realized I was missing my 8 a.m. class. I had been in the darkroom and never noticed the passage of time.”
Anything that held that kind of power to interest her and provide her with such a sense of fulfillment and joy was something worth devoting her time to. So, while Livaudais finished her Master of Science in experimental psychology, she also took internships with commercial photographers around the Dallas area. For four years, she shot commercial photography in Dallas. It was on a shoot she met her husband, Jason Grisham, who was in Dallas for a client of his employer, the Monroe-based advertising agency Newcomer, Morris and Young.
Livaudais and Grisham married, and she relocated to Monroe, where she worked for a time for NMY. She branched out into script writing and assisting with lighting while at NMY. Three years in, though, she decided to pursue photography full time. She left NMY and began pursuing an M.F.A. in photography at Louisiana Tech. While working toward her photography credentials, Livaudais continued to shoot both fine art and commercial photography.
“Needless to say, I’m a big fan,” says BayouLife publisher Cassie Livingston. Livaudais has been shooting fashion and features photography for the entirety of BayouLife’s run. Livingston has also accumulated several of Livaudais’s works during the time she’s known her. “There’s a precision to Joli’s craft, she has a keen eye, and her images are impeccable.”
On many occasions, Livingston’s vision for her magazine at first seemed tremendous, near impossible to reach. Yet time and again, Livaudais saw that vision and made it a reality. “There have been times when I thought a shoot was going to be a huge fail. Then, she sends me beautiful images, further clarifying that she’s a master of her trade,” Livingston says.
Ellerbe agrees, noting with interest how Livaudais’s work has “just exploded” since she began working on the MFA degree at Tech. Ellerbe has also noticed how much she’s grown as a gallery owner, a teacher, and an honest critic of an artist’s work. “She’ll tell you what she thinks in an effort to make it better,” Ellerbe says. That’s the hallmark of a great teacher, and it’s a skill that will serve Livaudais well in the coming years, as she transitions into her next career–a tenure-track professor of photography at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
The move allows Livaudais to not only share what she’s learned over the years, but to also focus on her art, to continue her growth towards that elusive sublime. This prospect drives her forward into uncharted territory, both professionally and artistically. “I’m excited about being able to focus on art and teaching,” Livaudais says. She expects she’ll continue to grow, too, as she focuses more on her art and the art of her students.
“I think a lot about how to try to grow as an individual, to evolve and to be a good person, and about the spirituality of what it means to be a human being,” Livaudais says.