A slight tilt of the head to the right, then to the left, three steps forward.
It’s not a dance, it’s a way of gaining perspective and finding the objects hidden in the figurative and pure abstracts of Dusty Reed. The self-taught artist has a career and journey of self-discovery that seems to have as many twists and angles as one of his cubism paintings: a style of art representing real life through largely geometric angles, shapes and curves.
While always skilled in drawing and inspired by a sister who painted, for Reed there was no grand inspirational moment or profound calling to be an artist. In fact his first life-changing moment as an artist was a hard lesson that many learn much later on in life: that there is no right or wrong way to approach art. It was in 1999, when a freshman art teacher told the Lafayette native that he shouldn’t use so many black lines. With a vein of artistic deviance, he used more black lines, but the comment seemed to discourage him enough to give up art altogether. It wasn’t so much the criticism, he says, as, “I wanted nothing to do with art at all, because I knew I was supposed to do something with it, but didn’t know what.”
He took a seven-year hiatus from art to figure “it” out, earning a degree in Education from UL at Lafayette (ULL) in 2000 and then teaching high school English for a year. It wasn’t until 2006 that he became inspired to pick up his paintbrush again.
Whether this new work was a reflection of maturity in years or in experiences, or both, it got the attention of the Gallery of Cajun History in Breaux Bridge, where his paintings began to sell. When the gallery owner requested more Cajun-themed paintings, Reed recounts with a chuckle his first attempt. “I started painting a Cajun house in one corner of the canvas and, before I knew it, there were lines and bright colors...a snake...an apple; I called it The Transformation of Eve.” When the manager of the gallery saw the painting, she dubbed Reed the “Cajun Picasso” – and it stuck.
While continuing to develop his style and technique, Reed embarked on his next chapter, attending graduate school at ULL in 2008 and teaching debate at the university. He went on to earn a master’s degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communications.
It was a moment of serendipity in 2012 that led to a critical turning point in Reed’s work – and career. He was outdoors painting an image onto an old cabinet door (he often used repurposed objects as his canvas) when it fell off the easel. As everything went tumbling to the ground, the paint brush swished a curved design onto the wood. In that moment he was reminded of what he admired so much about Picasso: the movement in his work. “That’s when I broke free of strictly straight lines and did more curvatures and layers of multiple mediums on top – spray paints, acrylics, enamel, and oils,” says Reed enthusiastically.
The work he produced in the year after his artistic discovery launched his career and led to the opening of his first gallery off of Johnston Street in Lafayette. Today, sitting on a paint-splattered stool at his gallery on St. Mary Boulevard (on the same site as the Lafayette Art Association, where he is vice president), he offers a glimpse of his artistic process. “When I paint, I have little secrets in my work; I’ll always know more information about the painting than anyone else. That makes it fun for me and the viewer,” he explains. “My goal is for others to get a feeling out of my work. That’s the job of an artist.”
As an example, he points out hidden things in his paintings – like the name of an ex-girlfriend, a bowtie, crowns– which would all require a closer search to find on your own. Where the viewer sees lines, he sees movement, as a line drawn takes unexpected turns: an alligator evolves into an accordion, which turns into a street lamp. They are thought-provoking images and ideas that come to him, like hiccups, as he’s painting. The viewer can almost visualize his thought process; and it’s fun to untangle the images that he sees so clearly. “I want people to admire my paintings from a distance and then come in and look deeper into them and notice the tiny, tiny details that you wouldn’t get from afar,” Reed says.
From George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog, the Cajun Picasso picked up the technique of placing a common element in his paintings. “Most of my paintings have bowties somewhere in them,” he says. “In fact, there’s a series called Bowtie Guy. The bowtie guy represents the everyday man, like me, putting on his best and looking presentable to be accepted in whatever he does.” He pauses, thinks and continues, “People shouldn’t be judged on their culture or the way they speak.” (Two days before Reed was to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, at 20, he decided he wouldn’t fit in and opted out.)
The other part of Reed’s work is folk art. He calls the combination of cubism and folk art “colk” art. “The folk, self-taught aspect was why I became an artist,” says the 40-year-old. “It translates well to our culture. I’m refining folk art, using pieces from found objects and repurposing long-forgotten items you might recognize. I like to work on things that were already there, because every surface tells a story, and I let the objects speak.”
Always cautious that his work does not stagnate, Reed switches to a different style or medium every three to five years. “It’s impossible for me to get burnt out, because I’m using different materials, translating my work from painting to mix media to wood work,” he explains. “Lately I’ve been sculpting with pottery.” His most recent works have him collage painting, which involves cutting a canvas-painted work and then collaging it to another canvas.
Home in Acadiana
Reed says he could probably make more money as an artist in New York, but Lafayette is his home; although he hopes to do some traveling soon to promote his work. He has worked hard to gain support for his less-conventional art in Acadiana, where realistic images of oak trees, magnolias and landscapes are in every home. Still his art is a nod to his heritage in series like Acadiana Tapestry, Louisiana Sunrise, King of Creole and Zydeco. Support for his artwork comes from local customers, yes, but also ones in just about every state – and 15 countries – and his paintings are currently on exhibit in five Louisiana galleries and two in Mississippi.
Reed is also still teaching and conducts art classes for all ages – one-on-one or in group settings – at his gallery. He’s held workshops at schools and, most recently, at River Oaks Art Center in Alexandria. In every class he makes a point to tell his students, “Don’t be afraid to make that first mark on the canvas or medium; just do. If you have confidence in whatever you do, that’s what makes it.” That mantra was proven last year, when Reed received the Creative Arts Award (for an overall exhibit) at the Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival in Ocean Springs, MS, the largest arts festival in Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.
Today, surrounded by African masks, soapstone sculptures, bones, vintage advertisements, and other objects and antiques collected over many years, Reed says art and inspiration are all around him. Holding up a couple of cardboard cutouts of white shrimper boots retrieved from the floor, he adds, “Of course I’m inspired by the way we’re holding on to our roots, but also by the melting pot of cultures in Acadiana.”
That said, Reed insists he’s not waiting for inspiration. “I want to be able to grab something and just do. There is no plan. I don’t think about how it’s going to sell; I’m making it because it needs to be made.”
Check out Reed’s gallery of work at cajunpicasso.com.