BROOKE FOY, ART PROFESSOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUISIANA MONROE, HAS CERTAINLY CONTRIBUTED TO A LOT OF GROWTH IN THE ARTS COMMUNITY IN OUR AREA. FROM SPEARHEADING THE ONE MILE OF LOVE PROJECT TO THE RESTORATION OF THE OLD COCA-COLA MURALS THROUGHOUT THE TWIN CITIES, FOY HAS A PASSION FOR PUBLIC ART.
article by APRIL CLARK HONAKER and photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
When she was in high school, Brooke Foy never imagined she would become an artist. In fact, at the time, her limited experience with art led her to believe that all art involved drawing and painting, neither of which initially captured her interest. As a teenager, Brooke was interested in sports instead. She ran track and cross country and excelled in soccer. When she graduated from West Monroe High School, a soccer scholarship lured her to the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, where her first major was architecture.
As a young adult, Brooke had been inspired, watching her dad build things. Raymond Foy, who is now retired, was a successful contractor and was always making things with his hands. With a desire to make things too, Brooke dove into the architecture curriculum only to find herself taking art classes in areas such as drawing and design fundamentals. Unexpectedly, she found herself enjoying these classes and also developed an interest in photography while documenting her projects and other aspects of college life.
When a knee injury caused Brooke to change course and move back home, she enrolled at the University of Louisiana in Monroe as an art major. The first time she played with a band saw in one of her classes she knew she’d found her passion. “My mind was completely blown that that was even an option,” she said. Brooke describes herself as a “doer” and said the physicality of making things immediately appealed to her.
At the same time, being an art major wasn’t easy because Brooke didn’t have the same foundation that many of the other students had. She hadn’t taken art in high school and had never had art lessons, but she loved it and was determined to stick with it. What she lacked in foundations, she made up for with enthusiasm and hard work. Brooke also feels that the physicality, multi-tasking, and competitiveness that she learned playing soccer carried over into making art and helped her become successful.
Although she started out as a photography major, she quickly discovered that sculpture was her true calling and finished her Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture. Soon after, she started the Master of Fine Arts Program in sculpture at the University of Memphis, which she finished in 2009. “Those were the best years of my life,” she said. In graduate school, Brooke and 15-18 other students bonded over their work and dedicated themselves to it wholeheartedly for up to 18 hours a day.
During that time, Brooke said she learned to not look to anyone else for answers. She attributes that lesson largely to her mentor, the sculptor Greely Myatt. According to Brooke, Myatt is a prolific sculptor who never makes the same thing twice. He taught her to just make things and not worry about what others would think. One of things Brooke loves most about sculpture is that “it’s never the same thing over and over.”
While in graduate school, Brooke’s goal was not necessarily to make better work than her peers but instead to make twice as much as everyone else. Still, the work she created was good. In fact, she said there was really only one phase where she felt she got off track a bit and created work she wasn’t entirely proud of. In three years, that’s an accomplishment.
Throughout her time in school, Brooke’s work evolved a lot. Her earliest sculptures tended to be inspired by the human body, dance, and movement. She was also fascinated by pregnancy and the idea of having children. Over time, she became less interested in portraying the human body literally and started using objects to represent people. For example, she created a forest of giant crutches to represent people as part of her thesis project, and as her work grew more symbolic, it also grew to include a stronger story-telling quality.
“I make for people,” she said. Relationships and communication are important to Brooke, and she tends to create art about the people closest to her. Recently, she’s created work that engages with the expectations people have for her as well as the expectations she has for them. One example is a set of three large concrete spheres she created to represent her family. She then wrapped them in quilted, zippered cocoons to represent herself. Because her work is often about the people and relationships closest to her, it tends to be very personal. “I don’t expect anyone to buy it,” she said.
At the same time, Brooke’s personal work is only one facet of who she is as an artist. Around the time that she was completing her master’s thesis project in graduate school, Brooke won her first public art contract through the UrbanArt Commission of Memphis and their Percent-for-Art program. The proposed project, which cost $75,000, resulted in a giant, concrete book maze built on Vitriturf in Cordova’s Bert Ferguson Park, which is near a library, school, and community center. The books in the maze were painted bright colors and given real titles, which Brooke gathered through public opinion surveys. Brooke was responsible for every phase of the project but could not have done it without a team.
Being able to manage a team and put such a big, community-changing project together right out of graduate school was an amazing opportunity, and sparked Brooke’s passion for public art. “I love being able to create big things and make them happen,” she said. Another passion Brooke discovered while in graduate school was her love of teaching. She started teaching a foundations course in her second semester at University of Memphis and said, “From the first day in that class, I knew it’s what I was gonna do.” But finding a position teaching at a university after graduation proved harder than she imagined.
Soon after finishing the book maze project, Brooke and her husband Casey decided to move to Austin, Texas. While in Austin, Brooke tried everything she could think of to get involved in the public art scene and to secure a job teaching at a local university, but it was discouraging. After more than two years of trying to break in, Brooke was considering giving up on her dream of teaching college students. She and Casey had decided that the next step might be earning a teaching certification and teaching in a public school instead, but Brooke wasn’t quite ready to give up. She feared if she gave up on university teaching it would never happen.
Since she’d exhausted all her options in Austin, Brooke decided to call her alma mater, the University of Louisiana Monroe, to see if they had any openings available. As it turned out, she happened to call at just the right time. They needed an instructor, so after some deliberation, Brooke accepted the position, and she and Casey moved back to Monroe.
At the time, they had been away for several years and were a little unsure about the decision. Brooke said she wasn’t sure what the art scene would be like, but they were pleasantly surprised. Things were different from when they had left—in a good way. They found there were young, eager people making things happen and that the arts community was welcoming to new artists and ideas. “I love that I came back,” she said. “It’s been easier to create a community for myself here.”
One of the first things Brooke noticed immediately about the Monroe-West Monroe area was the scarcity of public art. She noticed some pieces by Edmund Williamson, such as the Trenton Flowers on Antique Alley, which Brooke and her dad have since restored, and the Great Blue Heron at Restoration Park in West Monroe. These examples showed the community was willing to support public art, but Brooke perceived an opportunity to add a different perspective and more beauty to her community. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is something I could do,’” she said.
The first project she sought support for was the One Mile of Love project, which showcased the artwork of 283 local children in a mile-long mural along the Trenton Street Levee Wall in West Monroe. Brooke wanted to create something that involved a lot of people and something people would love. She first pitched the One Mile of Love project to the Downtown West Monroe Revitalization Group, and they said they wanted to help make it happen. Soon after, Brooke garnered additional support from the City of West Monroe, West Monroe-West Ouachita Chamber of Commerce, the Northeast Louisiana Arts Council, and numerous other businesses, organizations, and individuals. With a core crew of less than ten people and around 500 volunteers, Brooke’s first major public art project in our area was completed in the summer of 2015.
Since then, Brooke has spearheaded several other public art projects, including restoration of the old Coca-Cola murals throughout the Twin Cities, two street medallions on Antique Alley, and more recently, the Herons on the Bayou Project, which has begun preparation for a second round. Along with her collaborator Emery Thibodeaux, Brooke loves creating art that people can see and engage with on a daily basis. Emery has been involved in Brooke’s projects from the beginning, and Brooke said she always says ‘yes’ to every idea. Plus, she’s really skilled at planning and logistics, which is necessary to execute such large-scale projects. Together, the pair thrive on creating art that doesn’t require a special trip to a museum or gallery to be enjoyed.
“I love every aspect of creating things that live in your face,” Brooke said. Whether it’s brainstorming or hanging out on the scaffolding with Emery or pitching ideas and motivating potential funders, Brooke loves what she does. For her, the goal of public art is very different from the more personal work she creates. “I put a lot into the public art,” she said, “so it can live on.” Brooke wants to leave a visible imprint and use her “doer” spirit to be a good example for her two children as well. “I have a strong desire to do all the things and be all the things,” she said, “for my girls.” She added, “I don’t ever want to seem complacent. I have very high expectations for myself—and it’s fun. It’s fun being able to work with all the people and being able to look back at what we did.”
Brooke admitted that taking on such big projects is a lot of work, but she likes work. Brooke strives to be an artist that doesn’t fit into a normal mold, but at the same time, she wants to make a positive, lasting impression on her community. “I like the idea that I can help change things—that maybe I can help create that beautiful impact,” she said. The Heron project especially has shown her just how much her community is willing to support a project they believe in. More than twice the number of artists and sponsors she expected wanted to be a part of the project, which was truly eye-opening to Brooke.
In addition to making an impact we can see literally, Brooke has made impacts in more subtle ways as well. Most of the grants and projects she undertakes are about connecting people and communities. Because of her tireless efforts, Brooke has been honored with multiple awards, including most recently the B.D. Robinson Unity Award given by the City of Monroe, as well as the 2016 Rising Professional Award given by the ULM Women’s Symposium, the 2016 Edmund Williamson Artist of the Year Award, and the Northeast Louisiana Arts Council’s Emerging Artist of the Year Award in 2018. She is also currently serving as President of the Downtown Arts Alliance. In addition to being an active contributor to the arts community and her community as a whole, Brooke also continues to teach art at the University of Louisiana Monroe as an Assistant Professor, shaping the next generation of artists. “I couldn’t live anywhere else and do this,” she said. “It had to be my place and my people, which is probably why I’ll never leave. I’m thankful that I’m here and that people love the things and that they’re happy to help me make the things and that I’m able to make a change—a visual change.”
When Brooke first moved back to Louisiana and pitched her first public art project, she had a five-year plan in mind. Today, though the original plan is largely realized, she continues to reap the fruits of that plan. “I’m the person people call when they have an idea,” she said. One of the things Brooke was hoping to develop as the next step after her five-year plan was an arts center. She was already creating a vision for it when a representative of local architect Tim Brandon approached her to discuss plans for a building he had bought. That building has since become the Rialto Arts Center on Trenton St. in West Monroe, for which Brooke now serves as Executive Director and Emery Thibodeaux serves as Creative Director and Facilities Manager. “It’s really crazy how things just fall into place sometimes,” Brooke said.
The new Arts Center will feature artist studio spaces, classroom and workshop areas, collaboration space, a stage for performances, a retail space for local artists and artisans, a coffee shop, and more. One might wonder how one woman can accomplish so many things. According to Brooke, it has much to do with her mindset—a mindset she aims to instill in her students as well. She lives and creates by the motto 80/20, which means you have to know you can do 80 percent of whatever it takes to accomplish your goal, but you have to trust that you can figure out the other 20 percent along the way, whether it’s finding help, learning something new, or just talking your way through it.
In the last six years, Brooke has certainly contributed to a lot of growth in the arts community in our area, but she’s also witnessed a lot of growth in it. She said, “I’ve already seen the change in that community with more people coming forward and saying, ‘I’m an artist.’ I hope to continue that. I hope our community becomes more arts focused and more arts centric. I hope that for our artist community, I hope that for our university, and I hope I get to keep doing it.”