Other People’s Words:
Interviews in Excellence with Artist Huguette Despault May
1. How do you get in the right mindset to make your work? Do you have a particular strategy?
I need to not be preoccupied with the outside world. When I sit down to work, I want inner and outer calm, which then helps me ﬁnd my center and focus. I have strategies for accomplishing this that I outline further in the question on setting up workspace. Other than calm, I need to come to the work with a sense that it’s the right thing to be working on at the time. This is almost purely an intuitive decision as to “which subject” (broadly, as in “rope” or “paper nests”) and then, within that, “which part” (speciﬁc bit of rope, particular part of nest.) It’s really all based, as I said, on intuition, supported by the practical consideration of knowing (for the most part) that I have the patience, skill, and external resources (reference materials, appropriate media, etc.) ready for executing my selected vision. I stretch myself by switching to an entirely different subject from time to time, and by sometimes choosing especially challenging views. If I move on to a different subject entirely to launch a new series, it’s because I’ve covered what I most wished to communicate with the previous and have discovered something else that “calls” to be addressed.
2. How did you arrive at your current art practice? Was there a pivotal moment that got you there?
Incremental experiences over time helped evolve and ﬁne-tune the speciﬁc details of my practice. Many artist’s thrive on uncertainty, novelty, experimentation. Not me; I need routine! I’ve worked in series for a long time, exploring various permutations or aspects of the same subject matter. Working through a sequence of related pieces lets me dive in deeper and also has the advantage of not demanding a novel idea for every new work. You could say I like to “sit inside” and live within the same “world” of that subject for a period of time. It’s a “slow art” approach that happens to suit my temperament and energy level perfectly.
I grasped the value of working in series through an in-class exercise in a college drawing course taken many years ago. We were to ﬁnd an object and draw it over and over again - a hundred times or something, a classic exercise. I don’t think I made it to a hundred! In my neighborhood I found some maple leaf seeds (called samaras, or sometimes “helicopters”) that had dropped in clusters onto the sidewalk. I loved their papery “wings” and elegant curves. The more I drew them, especially turning one this way and that between my ﬁngers while drawing and re-drawing it freely with the other hand, the more they intrigued me. That was a seemingly ordinary day at the time, but as I continued contouring their gestural forms in line drawings, in and out of class, I became aware of how one drawing could inform the next and then the next. It was a pivotal experience that I only recognized as such much later, but that became the foundational approach for all of my later work. Finding difference and variation within similarity continues to captivate and is never boring. One value of formal art education is exposure to just such experiences.
3. How have you set up your work space? What in particular about your setup facilitates the way you work?
I am strictly a studio artist (but have tried it all.) I have things set up so I can arrive at the studio, sit down, and begin working with little fuss. It’s why I draw instead of paint, and use pastels for color - no mixing, no cleaning. I also realized some time back that I much prefer working “dry” rather than “wet.” I work on sturdy archival paper on a heavy 4’x8’ vertical easel mounted on wheels and covered with a thin sheet of steel. Except for the steel, the easel is identical to the ones used in the drawing classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, my alma mater. I took measurements and had a carpenter build it. Strong magnets adhere the paper onto the board so there will be no holes and I can easily adjust its position as needed. I work seated on a small 1940’s vinyl-covered ofﬁce chair on wheels, which I can push back from the work in progress and easily take in a longer view. I also keep a medium-sized mirror propped up at a distance behind me so I can turn around and get an instant “read” on the entire piece.
I’m currently in the process of moving to a much smaller work space where I will have an unobstructed view outdoors to one side and a lot of peace and quiet. I will miss the very large space I’ve had for ten years in a former 100 year old textile mill, but other things will make up for that. I will be situated in a natural environment, a primary inspiration for current and all future work. Access to a view is important because the work requires a lot of concentrated focus and resting my eyes periodically on a vista is quite helpful, along with preventing a feeling of claustrophobia. The other absolute essential is wordless music, which I keep on continuously. I listen to a lot of classical, favorites being the French, Russian, and British romantic and pastoral composers.
4. How do you unplug? Is it necessary for you to do so? If so, why?
Taking a few hour’s sojourn into nature nourishes my soul and I consider that an extension of the art-making. A favorite is walking woodlands and interim spaces where, ever observant, I often encounter fascinating minutia or unexpected scenes in any season of the year. I bring “ﬁnds” back via capture by camera. I also love kayaking on a quiet inland lake. Bicycling is great for enjoying landscapes and getting some workout while ofﬂoading physical tension. A couple years ago I left the suburbs of Boston and moved to rural Nova Scotia speciﬁcally to make such activities more accessible and to experience a high overall quality of natural environment. Films and movies are another favorite escape. In the winter I try to workout once or twice a week with a group.
5. What process do you go through in preparing for a work that you are about to make? (drawing, sketching, writing, experimenting, etc...)
I have a good bit of experience drawing from life, which I consider crucial background, but for most large and complex pieces, I’ve worked mainly from my own reference photographs, often with the item referenced also in the studio with me. The camera is my sketchbook and I use it for subject capture and establishing composition. My early training was in illustration and photography, so obtaining the right kind of pictorial “data” from which to work is something I understand in depth. It’s important that my work looks like a drawing and not a photograph. It’s almost always obvious to me when an artist has trouble translating work from a photograph; a lot of things can happen from capture to ﬁnal work.
With nature subjects, which are never static for long, it’s essential to capture every aspect I could possibly need for a potential work from the outset. This means analysis by photograph, and I am meticulous about this ﬁrst step. Usually I work from one or two 8.5”x11” digital color prints, images winnowed from dozens or hundreds, which I grid with an acetate overlay and keep magneted to my easel. I might one day begin using an iPad for looking bigger at some details, but I haven’t felt much need to try that yet. IPads don’t magnet very well and I want my reference very close and on the same plane.
While I’m working on a piece, I am often thinking about what to title it. I write down whatever comes to mind, stick that on my board, add to it, and usually, before the piece is completed, I’ve teased out a perfect title. This too is part of the process because I consider titles integral to the work and I’m very selective about them. I believe in offering my audience a clue toward meaning, and thoughtful, one or two word titles accomplish this without explaining.
Hawser Drawings from Museum Collection
Thou Shalt Knot
New Bedford Whaling Museum
New Bedford, MA
Paper Nests: Drawings and Photographs
Highfield Hall and Gardens
Obsessive Compulsive Order: Drawings
University Art Gallery
New Bedford, MA
Huguette May + Zaria Forman + Sandra Allen
Dedee Shattuck Gallery
Hawser Series Tour
A 12 city tour of the Hawser Series drawings and related photographs.
Burger Gallery, Kean University, Union, NJ
Foreman Gallery, Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY
Foosaner Art Museum, Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, FL
Mattie Kelly Arts Center, Northwest Florida State College, Niceville, FL
Montgomery Gallery, Armory Art Center, West Palm Beach, FL
Selby Gallery, Ringling College Art & Design, Sarasota, FL
Art Book Cravings:
The Hawser Series
by Huguette Despalt May
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