Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
When Fort Worth artist Devon Nowlin needs inspiration for her practice, she heads to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in the city’s Cultural District. It’s a place she’s visited since she was a teenager.
“I think the Modern is not only the place where I come to see art, but a place I return to again and again for my education really. It’s like a continuing education practice to come to the Modern regularly,” says Nowlin.
Nowlin, who’s 37 years old, was born and raised in Fort Worth. She remembers taking art classes at the Modern during high school.
“The Modern had special programs,” says Nowlin. “And because I was taking art classes in school, I was able to attend those classes and learn from other artists.”
The Modern helped hone her skills and gave her something to aspire to. Today, she still considers it invaluable to her practice.
“I find a lot of opportunities here to teach, to engage with the collection in new ways and to see new exhibitions by artists,” says Nowlin.
Today, she’s checking out one of the museum’s newest exhibition by the artist KAWS. The collection includes brightly painted canvases that feature takes on notable cartoon characters, like Felix the Cat, and towering 20-foot-tall sculptures that resemble Mickey Mouse. While walking through the exhibition, Nowlin leans in and examines the pieces.
“I always look first at how it’s made,” she says. “I look at really technical things about it, like was the piece masked off? And the paint was applied by a spray? Is the paint oil paint or something I don’t know about?”
Nowlin really likes to think about technique. But she also appreciates art as eye candy. She rarely tries to find the “meaning” behind the work.
If that’s surprising, Nowlin says it’s because there’s a common misconception that art is just for intellectuals.
“Sometimes, I think we’re taught that we can’t understand or approach the visual arts unless we have an art background or an education in it,” says Nowlin. But she hopes to change that idea.
Nowlin has literally taken her work to the streets with public art projects, like a 32-foot-long mural under the Clearfork Main Street Bridge. It traces the history of the Trinity River.
For several years, Nowlin was part of a group of artists called HOMECOMING! Committee. They found creative ways to take art outside traditional gallery spaces and make it accessible and interesting to new audiences.
“What was very unique about that collaboration was that everything we produced was very very event based,” says Nowlin.
Artist Bradly Brown was also part of HOMECOMING! Committee and he says Nowlin is that rare person blessed with extreme talent and creativity as well as organizational skills.
“She’s extremely proactive,” says Brown. “We worked together very closely on HOMECOMING! and she was dedicated to involving the community and getting the audience to participate.”
An example of the sort of work Nowlin dedicated herself to with HOMECOMING is “Hands on an Art Body.” The idea is similar “Hands on a Hard Body,” the endurance competition in Longview, Texas where the contestant who keeps a hand on the prize the longest wins.
Fellow HOMECOMING! Committee member and Fort Worth artist Tiffany Wolf also believes Nowlin is invaluable to Fort Worth art and artists.
“She is a champion. I’ve worked with her in several capacities; as a collaborator, as an artist studio instructor and as a studio mate. She organizes our community and supports her fellow artists through her leadership and recommendations. Nobody gets stuff done like Devon Nowlin,” says Wolf.
These days, Nowlin works with the city’s newest art collective – Art Tooth. She’s let them show her work at their pop up art shows (Arts Goggle 2016) and she’s advised the group on administrative issues.
“She’s sort of the group’s cheerleader,” says one of Art Tooth’s founding members, Dee Lara. “If I need help planning something or feel like I am in a situation that she’s dealt with before, then I never hesitate to reach out.”
Nowlin believes projects like HOMECOMING Committee and Art Tooth help Fort Worth. They create conversation, cause a change in culture and create community.
“I think it’s absolutely necessary to have an artistic culture within a city,” says Nowlin. “It’s a quality of life issue. I don’t want to experience a city without a culture or that doesn’t have an artist community, so I am very thankful for what we have in Fort Worth.”
But Nowlin doesn’t just do group projects. She breaks down other barriers in her solo practice.
She works with many different materials, but is best known for her figurative paintings and photo collages. The collages take familiar sexy images from magazines and catalogues – like men with washboard abs – and surround them with advertising for luxury goods, like oriental rugs. She hopes the combination will lead viewers to see both sets of images in new ways.
“I am now pursuing ideas of decoration and beauty in terms of advertising and marketing,” says Nowlin.
Nowlin is interested in consumerism. She also thinks about how the media defines beauty and conveys those definitions to all of us. And she’s not just talking about physical beauty.
“I think that fine art can play into that consumerist type of ideal,” says Nowlin.
Nowlin creates beautiful art out of somewhat low-brow images from catalogs like Abercrombie & Fitch and men’s magazines like “Details”. And she’s noticed a new trend.
“The idea of the male gaze being applied to a female body in media is now being applied equally to the male image,” says Nowlin
What is truly beautiful and why do we think so? It’s a question scholars and philosophers have wrestled with for centuries. But at the end of the day, anyone can answer it. Just like Nowlin believes anyone can appreciate art.
How do you think that North Texas affects the production of your art?
I think it’s both small enough to foster a community, while being large enough for a variety of experiences. So while some people may feel that it’s too small or that there aren’t enough opportunities here, I find what I need out of living here in Fort Worth and in North Texas. I have never felt the need to go somewhere else to get what I need as an artist.
Oh! Also, it’s affordable. It’s still an affordable place to live and it’s an affordable place to be.
Devon, you’ve lived in Fort Worth your whole life and you’ve mentioned that some of your family members have worked in the arts or pursued artistic endeavors. Does being home and near people who’ve made it happen here help you?
I think that had a really big impact growing up. I had a lot of aunts who regularly got together to entertain each other by singing, playing music, doing theater skits in the living room and also painting. I had an uncle who is in a jazz band and another uncle who is an architect. So I grew up kind of seeing these adults doing really creative and zany things and I admired that, but also saw it as an example of a normal creative life. A FUN creative life – that always seemed attractive to me.
When did you know art was something you’d pursue?
As early as middle school, I recognized that painting and drawing was something that I really loved to do – both in school and out of school. I didn’t know what that meant and I didn’t know what being an artist as a profession would mean, but I had teachers that helped to encourage me and to show me that that was something that I could do and that I was good at. So from a pretty early age I identified myself as an artist. I didn’t ever really question it.
Have you quit your day job?
No. (laughs) No. I think in a way that quitting is always the dream, but that it’s not a reality for most people. What is a reality for me and most of my artist friends is that we have really fulfilling jobs within an art context – whether it’s in a gallery or museum or teaching or being artist assistants or picture framers or a wide variety of jobs that one can do within the art world that affords your practice – you know? I couldn’t – I work a job so that I can buy materials and rent a studio. I don’t have to worry about art sales, even though it’s always fabulous when someone purchases my work.
So how do you maintain a “work-life balance?” Is that even possible when art is your passion, your work and the way you keep the lights on?
I spend a lot of my “home time” or my weekends in my studio working and that comes at the expense of some family time and it definitely comes at the expense of social time with friends. I don’t go to shows sometimes or I don’t do birthday parties, because I have work to do. I don’t think that I lack so much in terms of my own personal life because of that, but my work comes at the expense of “social time.”
What’s important to me is that I am working in my studio and that I have that time to paint and pursue ideas, because that’s where I feel free, in control and that I can say what I need to say. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
When did you begin thinking of yourself as an artist and calling yourself one?
I think that I started calling myself an artist as a teenager as a way to identify myself as an alternative person. I was kind of a Goth kid, you know? Like a punk, or as punk as you can be in Fort Worth, Texas. So I was a punk kid that didn’t identify with the popular kids at school and I took on an identity as an artist in order to make a distinction between my outlook and my interests versus a lot of the people around me.
So you were an artist all the way back in high school?
Yeah. I won a congressional art award in my senior year of school and that meant that my work was selected as the winner within our congressional district for an exhibition in Washington DC. My mother and I went to DC and when I look at pictures now from that time, I was the most sour looking teenager (laughs). While I knew that being there was a big deal, I’m in a black dress with black eyeliner and I look like I’m pissed off, ya know? So I guess that tells you a bit about the kind of teenager I was too.
Are you creatively satisfied?
No. That’s why I keep working. I think that’s why any artist keeps working. I guess satisfaction comes in any number of ways. It’s in the work and the act of making. And then it’s in communicating with fellow artists and finding community there. And then it’s recognition from the outside through exhibitions, speaking opportunities and press opportunities. So I guess there are differently levels of what sort of satisfaction can be gained, but it’s always a pursuit through the work of more connection and more studio time.
What sets you apart from other artists? What makes you different?
My optimistic approach to that question is that I make a work that is of a high quality? No matter what you think about the technique or the motivations about the work I make, I think I make work that is well-finished and of a high quality. I’m a perfectionist in that way. As a person, I think that I am also really generous with other artists. I want to see my friends and peers doing well. I want to be an advocate for more opportunities and recognition for my friends. So I like to consider myself a cheerleader for the artists here in Fort Worth.