We had the good fortune of connecting with Nicole Belle and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nicole, any advice for those thinking about whether to keep going or to give up?
If you’ve decided to live your life as a creative person, as a person who makes things, who gets excited about making things, who marks their happiness by how well that making is going then that is going to be your life or at least be in your life. I don’t think we ever give up. My path and how I feel about my own process and perseverance is unique to not only my situation but also my personality. I am a very forgiving tortoise. I slowly plug away at things and I don’t judge myself too harshly about my failings and off-track wanderings. I give myself lots of leeway because it is the process of creating itself that I enjoy.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My art is a studio-based photography process. More specifically, I sew garments to wear in front of the camera, often enacting small physical performances to activate the clothing visually. It took me a long time to land on this mode of art making. I came to photography after getting an undergraduate degree in French Literature. Once I became enamored with photography it took me a while to decide that I wanted to use it as an art form. It then took me probably even longer to land on an art practice that combines craft and photography, in a studio setting, giving me room to explore feminist ideas around gender roles, labor, and domesticity. Constructing photographs, sewing, and feminist ideas were itches I felt but couldn’t figure out how to satiate those creative urges. There were many false starts. I would develop projects that would satisfy one interest but always felt like they were missing something. I would then modify the project and try something else. It was a lot of trial and error. I tried to turn my brain off and shoot through problems, embracing small moments that felt exciting and not ruminating too long on things that weren’t working. I realized relatively early on that I work well with tight constraints. I need a very specific space, very specific equipment, and very specific materials. I then can let my mind wander, and I shoot those things over and over again until I think I’ve figured out some way to make something that interests me.
The other side of my photography practice is my teaching. The teaching is how I pay my bills but it’s also how I stay connected with people and a visual language outside of my own bubble. Teaching keeps me on my toes. I am constantly finding images and photographers that are relevant to my students, and relevant in general to what’s happening out in the world. I also look at and talk about a lot of student work which means I get to see the world through my students’ eyes–and that can also be very moving. Teaching forces me to interrogate my own biases in general and more specifically my visual biases. Every semester I have students make work that feels incredibly exciting and is often far outside of anything I would ever produce. I feel lucky to play some role in my students’ artistic progression.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
This is hard to answer because of Covid. I live and work in Los Angeles. I long for a time when I could go out and experience the city as it was. I desperately miss seeing art and artist out in the world. I miss lectures, performances, screenings, etc. I can’t wait for live music to resume, going to places like Zebulon or the Hollywood Bowl. I miss eating in restaurants, whether it’s sundubu-jjigae in K-town or toothpick lamb in Alhambra. I miss dark bars, drinks with friends, conversations with strangers. I miss LA.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Because I am white, I have hugely benefited from the privileges afforded white people in this country. A lot of my success is the result of living and working in systems that were set up and maintained to benefit white people. That’s not a shout out, that’s just a fact. I also grew up in an upper middle-class family, so I have also benefited from that socioeconomic status. My family’s relative wealth gave me a safety net that allowed me to take risks knowing they would never truly ruin my life. Using another animal metaphor, I am also a magpie when it comes to influences; I pick up inspiration anywhere I come across it. In general, I am inspired and motivated by people who feel deeply, and who are deeply committed to their own very personal path through life. Earlier this week I was listening to an interview with the author Eddie S. Glaude Jr. and his book: Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. It was a double whammy of engagement and inspiration. Baldwin on his own in pure genius, and that wasn’t new to me, but I was so grateful to be reminded of him. Having Baldwin filtered through Glaude’s own personal experience and writing was also incredibly moving and motivating: serving as a good kick in the butt. My work doesn’t come close to matching either of theirs, but I took them as beacons in the stormy seas of this moment.