Bayou Artist: Brooke Cassady
Serendipitous: that’s the word artist BROOKE CASSADY uses to describe the many moments that brought her to Louisiana Tech University this past year. Rather than a clear-cut path, Brooke has followed many offshoots that ultimately led her to settling in Monroe and becoming Visiting Assistant Professor in 3D/Ceramics at Tech.
Photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK | Article Written by ALANA WAGNER
Brooke appreciates that this is the way things have fallen. Over the years she’s learned and adopted the practice of releasing control of the final product and simply following the process. She feels it has added a diversity and maturity to herself and her work that she wouldn’t have gained from a more “traditional” path. In fact, Brooke focuses significantly on watching and following the process of materials interacting as part of her creative process. “It’s been a long time since I felt like I can make art and let it evolve naturally,” Brooke said of her current process.
Brooke grew up in Athens, Georgia, and can recall creating from the time she was a child. Her grandmother owned an art gallery in Indiana, so she knew art was in the family. Yet Brooke had a love of not just art but math and science, as well. By the time she began applying to colleges, Brooke had chosen to pursue biomedical engineering. “I love the science behind it,” Brooke said of creating. She wanted to better understand the components of her materials. She was accepted into Boston University but told her parents that she felt like she wouldn’t be ready to go until she got art out of her system. Thus began a series of “serendipitous” moments for Brooke. She deferred at BU for one year and traveled to Mexico to study Spanish and metalworking. She then learned by happenstance of a two-month work-study residency at the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina. Penland had no metalworking courses, so Brooke enrolled in their pottery and clay course instead. After completing the course, she continued to work until it was time to begin her studies at BU.
The attempt to get art out of her system proved unsuccessful. This was Brooke’s first time not making anything or being in her usual peer groups. Though she was doing well in her classes, she was unhappy in engineering. Thinking she simply needed to be among friends, Brooke switched majors to join them in business school but found that no better. So, she began looking into art programs. “They had a great studio art program, but it would add an extra year,” Brooke said. “So, I switched to art history instead so I could use my credits and still graduate on time.”
With a great environment for art history around her in Boston, Brooke said this major worked out well. “I love art, math, and science, so I get to do all three, but it’s less technical.” She finished her Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History in 2003, returned to Penland for another work-study residency, and began attending more workshops. “I caught the ‘pottery bug.’ When they say that, it’s a real thing,” Brooke laughed.
A constant throughout her life and especially these years in college was her parents’ and grandmother’s support of her art. Brooke said her parents later told her that they didn’t understand why she didn’t go to art school in the first place. “I felt like I needed to pay them back for everything, so I needed to have a job that could pay for them to live with me later,” Brooke explained. She felt that same support when she moved back to Athens after graduation, not only from her family but from the large potter community there, as well. This community took her under their wing, she said, and shared a great wealth of information and skills with her.
Taking frequent breaks from creating is something Brooke has tried to do. This practice, Brooke said of herself, “encourages you to build up the desire to want it as opposed to mindlessly moving forward.” Yet the years following her time at BU were full of nonstop movement. Brooke moved to New Orleans, got a studio, and began creating, teaching in New Orleans and two nearby cities, and waiting tables. Trying to make a living with her art was difficult, especially while working so many other jobs. Brooke quickly experienced burnout. “I didn’t want to be on display anymore,” she said. “I felt raw and vulnerable and wanted to keep my art to myself.” She saw graduate school as an opportunity to step away from creating while continuing to learn. In 2008, she enrolled in Louisiana State University’s Master of Fine Arts program, studying ceramics.
Though the atmosphere at LSU was a shift for her, Brooke found deep sources of guidance and inspiration in her professors. She began to ask herself the question, “What is it about ceramics that I really like?” Her specialization, art in social practice, also led her to have a focus less on the maker and more on the act of making and creating a space for dialogue around art. Her art history professor, Susan Ryan, taught much on contemporary art and especially aided Brooke in developing this new focus.
Brooke began to see artists creating conversations and the spaces for them rather than making. She discovered that what she liked about ceramics was not just the responsiveness of the clay in the creative process, but she also enjoyed the generosity and sharing element of the community surrounding that process. What she had experienced in Athens, she wanted to incorporate into her own practice. Brooke realized, “If I can’t find this space, I’ll have to go out and create it myself.”
Something else Brooke began to see was an underlying contradiction in her work. She was concerned about the tension between creating and making waste. “I want to promote sustainability,” she said, “but I’m a maker at heart. I have to be creating.” This tension remained a challenge for her.
Another source of challenge, yet also inspiration, came from Andy Shaw, another one of Brooke’s professors at LSU. He taught an open-minded approach to creating and challenged her to ask the question, “Am I making a choice because I’m scared of something or drawn and compelled toward it?” He encouraged her both to follow those things to which she was drawn and not to avoid the things that seemed to push her away.
Friends also served a significant role in Brooke’s personal and creative development. She described her best friend during graduate school, Adrienne Lynch Jones, as a grounding rod who modeled self-care and honesty, was compassionate and giving, and would “create without judgment.” Brooke brought this atmosphere to her own process during her MFA. A bike lover, she built a portable bike studio that she would ride around town and set up in front of coffee shops. She would invite people to make with her. “It wasn’t about teaching or guiding,” Brooke explained. “It was more about you coming along with me. It would inevitably invite conversation.” Her bike studio was one of the ways Brooke deepened her emphasis on personal reflection, mindfulness, and how we become closer to people in shared creative moments.
Brooke met not only inspiring professors and friends at LSU, but during her MFA, she also met her now husband, Quintin Good. It was this relationship that ultimately brought Brooke to North Louisiana three years ago as Quintin began pharmacy school in Monroe. However, this was not before another significant shift altered Brooke’s creative path yet again.
After Brooke graduated from LSU in 2011, she had her own studio in Baton Rouge. Several years later, she was unexpectedly pregnant with her and Quintin’s first child, Lyla Jane. To add stress to the situation, as she was preparing to give birth, Brooke was told that she had just days to move out of her studio. Sudden though this all was, Brooke accepted it. She got rid of her supplies, packed up, and cleared out. She also decided to put creating on hiatus. “It’s good not to try to do multiple things,” she said of this decision. “I got into adjuncting and teaching. I let the desire and need to make art build back up slowly and steadily.” This steady buildup began with teaching ceramics, then art appreciation, as well.
When her family, with the new addition of a son, Rigsby William, prepared to move to Monroe in 2017, Brooke didn’t have a clear sense of what she would do while Quintin was in pharmacy school. Yet she was still committed to letting things emerge on their own. Sure enough, she was soon curator and director of LEVEE GALLERY in Monroe. Here, Brooke found another major inspiration, as well as a mentor and close friend, in Kathy Biedenharn, the gallery’s owner. Brooke described coming to work at LEVEE GALLERY and with Kathy as “the beginning of many serendipitous encounters and experiences since moving up to North Louisiana.”
Brooke’s desire to create continued to build. She said being around so many artists was like having a fire lit and kindling added to it. “A handful of my current ideas started then and have been idling,” Brooke said. That is, until the end of her first year at Tech when she began making again. “Doors have just opened,” Brooke said. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and it’s incredible and gratifying to feel like you’re trusting a path, and if you stay on that path, it does happen.”
While gratifying, this year has also been vulnerable for Brooke. She said she feels like she is in a fledgling state getting back into creating versus having things ready or building on current work. Yet she is trying to embody this as she talks to her students about the vulnerability of artmaking. Brooke is also teaching her students to let their own art evolve naturally rather than solely be driven by needing to make a certain amount of money or create for a specific show or studio. She has done commission work and has ideas for larger forms she could create for a specific space. However, just as she teaches her students, Brooke also wants to nourish and create space for making without taking on extra work, a luxury she hasn’t often had. “I’m now walking the walk,” she said of modeling this mindset.
Brooke’s current focus is breathwork and phenomenological experience. She is interested in intense physical sensations expressed in forms, whether through creating many different forms or creating a space for the body and the form to interact. She has been creating lace forms that are skeletal and bodily. She sees adornment, whether her smaller lace forms or the jewelry she has also started making, as a good method of personal expression. Brooke feels her pieces are successful when the experiences that inspire them are reflected upon the viewer or participant. “It’s an experience I’ve had that I want someone to experience themselves or feel in their own way,” she said, “or it presents questions to make the viewer pause, reflect, and ask why.”
Testing formulas, glazes, and colors are part of Brooke’s current process in working toward this goal of communicating experience. She has also added a metalworking component for her jewelry. While Brooke comes to campus to fire kilns, restrictions and closures due to the coronavirus mean most of this work takes place in her converted home studio. As is true for many, the coronavirus has come at an especially odd time for Brooke. She has felt the conflict of making art that only a certain group can afford or that lets only a few inhabit that space instead of making public art for a larger audience. Yet the quarantine and distancing measures have complicated inviting people into a larger, interactive space.
Though she hasn’t fully resolved this conflict, Brooke said it draws her to more interactive work. The current climate of the coronavirus and injustices makes her want to use art to create conversation. “What we all need from art right now,” she said, “is that it can open a conversation, make us more self-aware, make us slow down, be more empathic, and enable us to have conversations that we normally couldn’t in our environments. Artists unpack and unfold that for us.” For Brooke, artists give people a voice.
Nonetheless, Brooke wonders if art may sometimes be more important for the maker. She believes it is important for artists to take care of themselves so they can take care of people. One way that Brooke takes care of others is through the annual Empty Bowls fundraiser and hunger awareness event hosted by the Food Bank of Northeast Louisiana. She has donated bowls for the past two years and would love to see more local artists participate.
Brooke’s work is available for viewing on her Facebook and Instagram pages, @brookecassadyart. She also has jewelry for sale through her Instagram page, which is the best way to shop and communicate with her. However, Brooke’s home studio in the Garden District of Monroe is the place to see her work and how she is letting her ideas interact and unfold. For the time being, Brooke is trying to be attentive to her ideas, but she will continue to follow “serendipity” wherever it leads in this season of making.