Artist Painting the Seascape. Creative Commons CC0

Jumping Off

In this interview, Laurel Dugan describes her sense of unity in life, "order in the chaos," which unveils a fecundity without measure.
Dino D'agata and Kathleen Black

What I have instead is a variety of impersonations I can do, and not only of myself–a troupe of players that I have internalized, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon…. But I certainly have no self independent of my imposturing, artistic efforts to have one (Philip Roth, The Counterlife). If anything, the experience communicated by Laurel Dugan, a 31-year-old painter and mother of three, would refute that of Roth's narrator in The Counterlife. Dugan is certain of her life and her life's work, certain of her identity, on the evening of June 10th in Washington, DC, at the Washington Studio School's exhibition of her work, opened to a full house. WSS is "a community of artists and students dedicated to the practice of visual arts with conscious awareness of both historical traditions and contemporary experience."

It is this sense of tradition and experience, coupled with belonging to family, friends, teachers, and, finally, to Another who calls her to do this work, that Dugan explains enable her to keep creating art. Her works range in size, medium, and subject matter, although she primarily concentrated on toys in the works displayed on June 10th. There were series of intimate pen and ink drawings as well as larger oil and acrylic paintings, clustering dolls, rocking horses, and stuffed animals into colorful assemblages. One of her largest works, pictured on the left, abstracted dolls and human figures into a meditation on The Process of Becoming, and another showed a nude reclining model juxtaposed with a doll in a similar position. Some of her works posed dolls and toys in human scenes, adding humor to the exhibition, while others were purely abstract.

How did you get started as an artist?
I think I was always an artist. From my earliest memories, I loved to draw and paint and just make things. I also was always very moved by the works of well-known artists. My mother was attuned to this; she exposed me to all kinds of art (visual, music, dance, theater, etc.) and enrolled me in extra art classes. This early exposure stayed with me and showed me my path later–it was not a mistake or mere coincidence. I've been thinking a lot lately about how my friend Annie Devlin described Flannery O'Connor's gift for writing: "It was the way God gave her to receive His Grace." I think that's true for me in visual art.

Who or what was your greatest inspiration?
A major motivation to take on art school and an intense studio practice in my 20s, with children, was F. Scott Fitzgerald's statement about how the burning desire to create dissipated as he grew older; he just didn't feel the same urgency anymore. Hearing this at the age of 22 changed the course of my life. I decided not to let time slip through my fingers. I have also been inspired by the letters of Flannery O'Connor (The Habit of Being), as well as the paintings of many of the greats–especially Matisse. What he does with color, with form, is what I want to follow.

Your work is sometimes charcoal sketches and sometimes painting and multi-media. What are your favorite media and how do you choose them?
Drawing is the most direct, immediate expression of my imagination. Wherever I am, whatever else is going on, I can draw. It's an extension of my being. I draw with soft graphite mostly, but also ballpoint pens, charcoal, crayons–anything available, really. I don't notice how much I love it until I go a few days without it, and then I begin to miss it (and crave it!). With painting, I was taught to "paint when drawing." As an extension of drawing and of the imagination, I love painting. Whenever I venture into other media, I come back to drawing and painting. But I use other media when it is appropriate and necessary for my expression; it adds dimension.

Do you strive to imitate reality "verbatim" or do you have another creative approach?
No, I don't try to imitate reality–at least not in the way that a photorealistic painter does. My approach is always to expose the formal abstraction and in doing so emote the deeper, conceptual reality in the scene. Sometimes this results in a figurative work, and sometimes it is a less-recognizable object. Often my work blurs the line between realism and abstraction.

How do you decide on your subjects?
Of late, I've been working with toys and other children's objects as a vehicle for the formal and conceptual marriage I just mentioned. Also, the assemblages of toys are totally authentic to my life right now. As I say in my website statement, "I have always found my life as an artist and my life as a wife and mother to be two sides of the same coin. In this same way, the artworks in this series should be totally integrated–formally and conceptually. This intersection of form and concept is a truth I try to expose in all of my work. Through color, value, rhythm, mark, and direction these works express a sense of humor about life." And speaking of color, toys have great colors.

You say that your life as wife, mother, and artist are two sides of the same coin. A lot of women might feel hindered by this.
From the very beginning of taking my art seriously, I was already a mother, and in order to make art and to be a mother, they had to be completely compatible or else I was letting one vocation down. I had to take care of my husband and daughter (who was there at the beginning), and so it all had to be at the service of what was possible in His grace and His mercy. I've prayed about this all along: "God, is this something You really want me to do? Because I want to do it. I give this to You." I think we've seen in our family the fruits of such prayer and of being faithful. A friend of mine told me, "Remember, Laurel, God didn't just give your kids to you; He gave you to your kids." I've seen how my children benefit from my being an artist. It opens up their minds to other possibilities. Both of them have said to me at different times, "Mommy, I like it when you make art. Are you going to draw today?" Something is turning on in them.

Can you say more about your verification process?
I feel God speaks through my desire and intuition. I used to think that was kind of wishy-washy, but once I asked a priest, and he said, "No, that's entirely valid." Beyond the intuition, the thing has to be confirmed in prayer, be in line with morality, and be confirmed by outside circumstances. Like when I decided to marry my husband–all those intuitions were yeses, and they we confirmed by the rest of reality. I paid attention to those things. In 2004, when I found myself at home with my first child and I still had this sort of undeveloped, frantic sense of urgency to make fine art, I found the time to do it. I had all the motivation, and it snowballed. I would put Gianna down for her nap for two hours and paint for two hours.There were all sorts of surprising benefits–it gave structure to her days and things like that. And it helped me to feel much more sane because I was using my creativity and developing in some small way.

What do you think the meaning is of all this–especially now with your newborn son Seamus on the scene?
Along the line of learning the creative process, if you start out with an end in mind, you're short-circuiting the whole process. You have to start at the beginning, with the problem, and let it transform until you find the end, and it will be unrecognizable from what it was at the beginning. Sometime in college, my understandings of the creative process and how to live as a Christian fused. We don't know what God has in store for us. If we start thinking we have the end in mind, it short-circuits His whole plan for our life. For me, that's how being an artist and being a Christian has come together. They're one–how I live my life. He has the greatest plan in mind and so I let Him have it and transform it.

This sounds so opposed to the common belief that an artist has to be detached, an iconoclast, in order to create…
My art isn't a closed program of personal indulgence. I don't really know when I'm doing it what it is. It is at such times as my recent show, when I touch people, that I know the work is more. An artist can't start out with an agenda. It has to come from an internalization of the formal elements of art and design, then the concept percolates up through the work in those things that are good. One thing works; the next thing might and might not, and you just keep going in your exploration. My goal is to stand on the shoulders of art history and look forward, or, as my husband Conor says, "jump off."