Bayou Artist | Creating Character
article by STARLA GATSON
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
For most, the idea of creating a world of their own is just a dream. But for Inique Harris, it’s reality and has been since she was young.
She doesn’t use a hammer and nails to build her worlds, though, and she doesn’t say things like, “Let there be light.” Instead, she grabs a sketchbook and pencil, paintbrush and canvas, needle and thread, or crochet hook and yarn.
“My process starts with a character,” Harris explains. “I don’t know how I get the inspiration for it; it’s either from something I watched or read or something I see out in day-to-day life.”
From there, Harris goes on, she works on discovering who that character is and in what environment they exist. She says, “I build who their family is, where they live, what kind of government this place has, what kind of landscape there is, and what the weather pattern is even. I go from one person to a world and then a universe.”
Harris has done this since she was young, only 11 or 12 years old. She filled sketchbooks with depictions of original characters going on big adventures, and even though she was young, she took it seriously. She worked hard to develop detailed stories and strong protagonists, much like and closely inspired by the ones in the Japanese cartoons and anime she watched religiously.
“I was super enticed by Japanese animation because their storylines were much more mature than what we have in America,” Harris explains, “The stories also continued. It wasn’t like a one-off Spongebob episode; the storyline kept going and building on itself.”
The idea then, Harris remembers, was to create a TV show, saying, “I had all these characters and storylines written up, and I worked on it for about four years. I worked on a lot of other stuff then, as well: working on characters, backgrounds, and just teaching myself all the things that go into creating a show.”
The then-teenaged Monroe native loved what she was doing so much that she decided she wanted to learn how to illustrate books, too. So, after graduating from Ouachita High School, she entered the art program at the University of Louisiana Monroe. There, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a painting concentration and picked up even more skills necessary for becoming a professional illustrator.
Upon graduating in 2019, Harris didn’t immediately jump into a career as a professional artist. Instead, she took a job at a public library — a “bucket list thing” — and stayed there until she no longer felt inspired to continue.
“An opportunity for an art teacher position came up at a private school, and I was like, ‘I can do that! That will take me out of my little creative funk,’” she recalls. “I could also have fun creating projects and instilling that love of art that my teachers put into me when I was younger.”
Now, in her second year of teaching, Harris admits she resented the part-time teaching position at first, “My mom is a teacher, and she was always like, ‘You can be a teacher like me!’ and I was always like, ‘No, I’m a little different.’” She laughs before adding, “But I love connecting with students, finding the things they’re passionate about, and working with them on projects I know they’ll love.”
When she’s not in the classroom with her elementary and middle school students, Harris creates art with multiple mediums, including oil, acrylic, or watercolor painting; crochet; and weaving to continue creating characters and worlds of her own. It may seem unusual to some for an artist to work with so many materials, but Harris says it makes sense for her.
“I want to make sure my creativity is not limited to one medium or one subject,” she says when asked why she works with so many materials. “I want to make sure that it flows and is constantly evolving and growing, as I am. I fear stagnation. Once I stagnate, I lose the chance to grow, and I don’t want to lose that opportunity.”
With whatever materials she chooses to use at any given time, she continues doing what she did as a child: creating her own worlds, one character at a time. Only now, rather than imitating the likes of Sailor Moon, Naruto, or whoever starred in the show her childhood self was watching at the time, the characters reflect the lessons she has learned.
Her characters are “little puzzle pieces” that show who she is, she explains, citing one of her most recent works to elaborate, “I have a mural in downtown Monroe, and [in it], I explore how I’ve grown to learn what love at first sight and actual passion for a person are. I show it as a girl with her eye on fire but also her heart being broken. When you see someone for the first time, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, they’re the most beautiful thing ever.’ But when you build them up in your mind and get to know them, it’s kind of a disappointment. The second part of that mural is holding onto that flaming eye and being like, ‘OK, I’ve learned from this, and I know how love is in real life instead of in my head.’”
That kind of art — the kind people can find themselves in — is what Harris is passionate about creating. The body of work she is currently creating stems from the personal growth the artist has experienced. She hopes to have these pieces ready to show at the next Downtown Gallery Crawl. Harris wants viewers to have a relationship with the work and to be able to say, “Oh, I remember when something like that happened [to me]!” upon seeing it.
“I’ve learned so much about myself, how to deal with negative emotions, and how to handle certain situations that would usually stress me out,” she says. “This body of work is my way of showing that I’ve learned from previous experiences.”
Whether Harris meets her goal of completing her current project before the next Gallery Crawl or not, she will be in attendance. She serves as secretary of the Downtown Art Alliance (DAA), the nonprofit organization responsible for organizing the bimonthly event. Holding the secretary position means doing a lot of paperwork, Harris admits, but she doesn’t mind. Being a part of the DAA allows her to connect with other artists, and that’s something she’s passionate about.
“I’m a sucker for getting to meet new people and artists,” she says before explaining that making connections and building relationships is a game changer in her industry, “[Having a creative community] is beneficial because so many times, at least in my experience, other creatives are so willing to help each other out and give advice on things like writing grants or getting into shows.”
Having a creative community is so crucial, Harris says, that she likely wouldn’t be where she is now without it. She suspects that without the connections she made during and after her time at ULM, there’s a chance she would still be where she was before college — making art by herself — and probably wouldn’t have become an art educator. Because community and relationships have played such a huge role in her journey, Harris encourages her students to seek it, too.
“I’m always trying to instill in them that they should meet professional artists and artists around their age,” she says. “That will help them see art isn’t just a hobby, and it’s something they can do outside of school.”
Eventually, Harris hopes to see the community she and so many other artists have cultivated in Downtown Monroe and West Monroe expand. She wants non-artists to be just as involved.
“I hope the rest of the community will see what we have to offer and come support us and buy locally,” she says. “I know a lot of people do that already in Antique Alley, but I don’t want it to be limited to Antique Alley. I want it to spread a little further.”
Harris’s passion for the local art scene is genuine and sincere, and so are the messages she conveys through her art — that’s the message she most wants to convey to BayouLife readers and others who see her work, whether downtown or at an exhibition.