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Finding Joy As An Artist

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Artist
Jul 31st, 2023

article by Starla Gatson
photography by Kelly Moore Clark

If you asked JaCera François how she felt about moving back home to Ouachita parish after graduating college, she would probably tell you she wasn’t so sure about it. But now, four years later, the Monroe native believes she is exactly where she should be and is doing just what she was meant to.

“I know God has me here for a reason,” JaCera François declares. 

The “here” François is talking about doesn’t just mean North Louisiana. She’s being a bit more specific and referring to her position as an instructor for the parish’s talented art program, the same one she participated in during her high school years.

Like many, François’s interest in art began during her childhood years. But unlike others, she wasn’t driven to draw or color out of boredom or sheer curiosity. She began drawing as a means of processing and sharing her emotions.

“I would just draw facial expressions,” she remembers, “and that helped me express how I felt at that time.”

The then-child filled notepad after notepad with her sketches, and one day, her aunt decided it was time to upgrade her tools. She gifted her niece her first sketchbook — “I still have it,” she says — and François eagerly filled it with drawings of faces, both real and imagined. 

What began as a therapeutic practice had become a significant part of François’s life. And, as it turned out, she had a real knack for art. When she took her first-ever art class as an eighth grader at Lee Junior High, she breezed through every lesson. She says it was easy for her to follow along, and her excellence didn’t go unnoticed. 

“Toward the end of the year, my art teacher pulled me out of class and told me she wanted me to try out for talented art,” François says. “I took the talented art test and passed.”

François began talented art classes the following school year when she began attending Neville High, and the program introduced her to a new means of making art: painting.

“My first project was oil pastel,” she says before explaining, “Before then, I was drawing using colored pencils, crayons, or markers; I wasn’t exposed to painting yet.” 

François might have been a newbie painter, but she took to it quickly; her first project — the oil pastel piece — earned first place at the end-of-year talented art show. 

The young creator remained in the talented art program for the rest of high school, advancing more each year. She knew she had gotten good, but the thought of continuing her art education in college wasn’t even on her radar. However, it was on her dad’s.

“I always wanted to be a vet,” François explains. “Junior year, me and my dad were looking at schools to apply to. I was looking at LSU and somewhere in Tennessee, and he was shocked because I was so serious about art.” 

It hadn’t dawned on François to consider art schools. She didn’t even realize she could pursue art professionally like the artists she learned about in talented art class until her father brought it up. 

“My dad told me he felt I would do really well at an art school,” she says. “I told my talented art teacher, and she got me looking into schools. That’s how I came across Savannah College of Art and Design.” 

The Savannah College of Art and Design — SCAD, for short — was one of François’s top two choices. But knowing she had family close to SCAD was the deciding factor: she would attend the private art and design college’s Atlanta campus.

“I had a blast,” François says of her college years. “The school was in the middle of the city, and I had all types of different art classes, computer classes, and fashion [classes]. I even had a photography class as an elective.” 

François earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in fashion marketing and management and planned to stick around in Atlanta, work and paint in a studio until she could open her own, and maybe dip her toes into the fashion industry. 

“[God] detoured my entire plan,” François declares, explaining that she ended up coming back home to Louisiana after college instead of staying in the city. 

At first, François didn’t have much luck finding an art-related position in North Louisiana. So, she took a job as an administrative assistant at Glenwood Regional Medical Center to pay the bills, all the while taking every opportunity she could to make and be around art. Even at work, François found ways to let her creativity shine, she says, “Anything I could put my hands on, I brought color and life to.”

During this time, she also kept herself involved in Downtown Monroe’s rapidly growing art scene, volunteering at Art Crawl events, being an active member of the Black Creatives Circle, and taking on commissioned pieces. She even interned at the FKJ Studio and Art Gallery in West Monroe. But soon, François was ready for a change, so she began perusing Indeed for art-related openings. Lo and behold, there was a position for her to apply to: the Ouachita Parish School Board was looking for a talented art teacher. 

“At first, I never saw myself being a teacher,” François admits.     

“But [the job] was in my field, and since I never saw myself at a hospital, either, I decided to apply and see what happened.”

What happened was François got the job. Having begun teaching in August 2022, François has just completed her first year as a talented art teacher for seven schools in the parish. She hasn’t been at it very long, but even after such a short amount of time, François knows this — coming back home to work in the program that changed her life — is exactly what she is supposed to be doing.

“Because I went through talented art, I know what a big deal it is,” she says. “Being on this side as a teacher, I really know how much of a big deal it is. I know how I felt as a kid, so I can relate to them. And seeing it from this side, I’m the one who can potentially make or break their art careers. You can have a teacher that ruins it all for you, or you can have a teacher that opens your mind and makes you want to do more.”

François tells BayouLife she feared being the former, a teacher who extinguished any of her elementary through high school students’ love of art. And fortunately, based on her students’ reaction to the end-of-year talented art show, it seems that François’s dedication to doing right by those young artists is paying off. 

“I saw the looks on their faces and how happy and proud of themselves they were, and that’s when it clicked for me that I’m where I’m supposed to be,” she says. 

François’s newfound passion for teaching hasn’t extinguished her desire to make work of her own. She’s still painting, depicting mostly figures and the occasional abstract image. And, just as she did as a child, she uses her work as a means of sharing her feelings. 

“I always have a lot of emotion in my paintings,” François explains. “They’re really expressive.”

The figures she’s drawn — they’re mostly women, as womanhood resonates with her — tend to show deep sadness or extreme joy, nothing in-between, she observes. But she wants to see a shift in her work. She wants to leave pieces marked by sadness behind and exclusively make art that depicts and sparks positivity. 

“I want to show happiness and joy and have people who see my work feel those things,” she declares. “I want my work to continue telling stories. I want it to spread awareness. I want people to feel peace when they see my work.” 

François has big aspirations, including doing more commissions, showing at more galleries, having a solo show, and incorporating 3-D elements into her work. Only time will tell what’s next for her, but one thing is certain: joy will be written all over François’s next project, whatever it may be.