Douglas comes to her studio every day to work and experiment with her medium of choice: watercolor. She gets a few raised eyebrows from people who learn she is a watercolorist, as most call it the hardest medium to master.
Article by Starla Gatson | Photography by Kelly Moore Clark
Dianne Douglas sits in her studio, a cozy little space nestled behind her partner’s home in a Ruston neighborhood, surrounded by the tools of her trade — paper, paints, and an array of brushes — books, and prints of her finished pieces ready to be sold. A stack of her sketchbooks sits on a nearby table, many of which have pages filled with her pieces — some she deems successful, others not.
Douglas comes to this place nearly every day to work and experiment with her medium of choice: watercolor. She gets a few raised eyebrows from people who learn she is a watercolorist, as most call it the hardest medium to master.
“I say they’re right,” Douglas says, “but if you work with it and stick to it enough, you know it has a mind of its own, and you let it flow. You go with the flow.”
Watercolor painting is a lot like life, she declares. The medium is unpredictable, requires a sense of immediacy, forces the painter to make deliberate and spur-of-the-moment decisions, stresses the importance of timing, and makes one decide between bouncing back or giving up after the inevitable setbacks that will occur.
“You’re going to make mistakes,” she says. “I throw away probably two out of three watercolors. You’ve got to be prepared for failure, but when you fail, you come back, and you try to make yourself better.”
The Ruston-based artist admits some of those failures have been so frustrating that they made her consider walking away from watercolor painting altogether, but because her passion for it is so strong, she persists.
“They say a lot of watercolorists, once they practice it, they just get addicted,” Douglas explains. “It’s a precarious medium, but I sure love it. That’s why I can’t stop doing it.”
Her first set of watercolor paints came from her father, gifted to her when she was 11. She was perplexed at first because her father, a postal worker by profession and painter in his spare time, used oils, not watercolor pigments. Why he’d given her a tin of watercolor paints was a mystery until she learned that was his medium of choice while he served in World War II.
“When he was drafted, he got a cheap tin of watercolors, and he’d paint envelopes,” Douglas explains. “He would write to my mother two or three times a week, and he’d paint on the envelopes.”
This collection of painted envelopes now has a home in the Smithsonian Museum, courtesy of Douglas’s partner’s art history connections. They depict her father’s experiences and perhaps even explain why her father thought watercolor was the medium she should try.
The arts were celebrated in the Douglas household, and nearly every member of the Wewoka, Oklahoma native’s family possessed some artistic ability; her family tree consisted of writers, musicians, painters, weavers, and more. So, it wasn’t surprising that Douglas eventually ended up with a paintbrush in her hand. As a child, Douglas tried ballet, tap, and Flamenco dancing as well as playing piano, but none of these stuck with her like watercolor painting. She spent her teenage years painting — she even sold her first painting at 17 at a plein air festival in New Mexico — but while it was something she enjoyed doing, she had no plans to pursue a career as a full-time artist at the time.
Instead, she headed to Monmouth College to study Spanish, satisfying a long-held desire she had to learn about foreign languages. She remembers exactly when this interest sparked, “I might have been about eight. There were Native American elders sitting casually on benches outside of the grocery store we went to. I heard them talking, and I couldn’t understand. It bothered me, even at eight.”
That experience got the wheels turning in her mind, and Douglas began thinking about how much she would enjoy being able to understand the elders’ language and learn about their culture. It was a magical moment, she says, because it sparked the interest in languages that would propel her into a teaching career.
During her senior year at Monmouth, Douglas was invited to complete her student teaching at Harper High School in Chicago through the Urban Semester Teaching Program. The opportunity was especially appealing for the then-20-year-old because her father studied art in Chicago when he was the same age.
“We were expected to spend 14 weeks testing our wings in an inner-city school,” she remembers. “It was emotionally charged, the whole thing, but I really bonded with the students. They probably taught me more than I taught them, and they made me a better teacher. [My time there] informs some of my paintings today.”
Harper High School was stop number one on the journey foreign language would take Douglas on. Mexico City and Guadalajara were stops number two and three, respectively, as they were where she spent the two summers following college graduation completing graduate-level coursework.
Stop four was Argentina through Rotary International’s teaching exchange program. The twenty-something spent three months teaching English in Argentina, then a year traveling throughout the Rotary district in the U.S. showing slides of the work they’d done. After the year was up, Douglas’s next steps were uncertain — that is, until her former Spanish teacher offered her a job teaching high school-level English in Peru.
“I didn’t think about it too long,” she says of the offer to work in Callao, Peru, a port city not too far from Lima.
This, stop five on her teaching tour, introduced her to the work of Peruvian author Julio Ramón Ribeyro, and to her next project: translating Latin American literature.
“His stories are so wonderful, and they’re about marginal characters, and that’s what I’ve always been interested in,” Douglas explains. “So, I thought with my skills in Spanish, I could do literary translation. So, I set about it. It was a long, arduous process, [but] these characters, they’re just endearing. They’re on the fringes of society. They’re very vulnerable.”
Thanks to her time in Peru, Douglas translated a collection of Ribeyro’s work titled Marginal Voices: Selected Stories, marking the first time the author’s words were translated into English and receiving positive reviews from The New York Times.
After her work in Peru ended, the language enthusiast returned home to Oklahoma, enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, and began working toward her master’s and doctoral degrees. While in the Sooner State, Douglas discovered that Louisiana Tech University was searching for a new hire. She needed a job and had never been to the south, so why not apply, she reasoned?
“I said, ‘Well, Louisiana is a beautiful state!’ so I applied and [visited the campus],” she says. “They huddled after my visit and offered me the job. I came back in August of 1979 and taught all levels of Spanish.”
Douglas stayed at Louisiana Tech for 27 years, working her way up the ranks and earning tenure before retiring from teaching and shifting her full attention back to the watercolor painting she discovered in her childhood years.
Now, with nothing but time to devote to it, the artist spends her days growing in her craft, taking advantage of resources she finds online, and studying the work of the greats like John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Georgia O’Keeffe. She paints to reminisce, to reshape her experiences and memories, and tell stories. As she thinks back on her story, she realizes how deeply each chapter influenced the next.
“Maybe I wouldn’t have accepted that chance to go teach in an inner-city school if I didn’t know my dad had [gone to Chicago] and studied art. And then, if I hadn’t accepted that chance to go to Peru, I wouldn’t have had that project of literary translation,” she muses.
Each of those connecting steps has led her to her current season as a working artist. Since committing to painting full-time, Douglas’s pieces have been exhibited at Ruston Artisans, NCLAC’s Holiday Arts Tour, the Louisiana Peach Festival’s Peach Art Exhibition (she was awarded Best in Show in 2014), and at the Masur Museum’s Annual Juried Exhibition in 2012 and 2013.
Prints of her work are also currently available for purchase at the Creative Exchange, Fine Line, and Ruston Artisans.
This time in her life, a point of being able to paint every day, has been a joy, Douglas declares, and she firmly believes she’ll never stop doing it.
She paints from photographs taken on her travels, scenes she sees in real-time, and characters she read about while studying and traveling Latin American literature. While she paints an occasional landscape or street view, most of Douglas’s work features people. After all, it’s their stories she is most eager to tell.
“I know I want to paint something if it has interesting people in it, or gestures, or the way they carry their bodies or are sitting,” she explains before pointing to an image of one of her former students, “Or, like that little fellow here, the look in their eyes.”
She most enjoys when a painting works and calls it a success when it’s thought-provoking to the viewer. Those are the kinds of pieces she hopes to continue creating while simultaneously perfecting her craft. What stories her future work will tell are still yet to be determined, but one thing is certain: there will be more work.
“I want to take more risks, get bolder with my brush marks and the work in general, go at it more boldly, and put more depth and emotion into it,” she says. “Maybe even paint a little bigger; who knows? I really love it. I’m addicted.”