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Artists in their own words: Nicole Charbonnet


Nicole Charbonnet in her studio (Photo: Kelley Crawford)

Who: Nicole Charbonnet

What: Painter

Where: Irish Channel

Artist’s chosen location for interview: Her second floor sunlit studio where we interacted with three dogs, two cats, a pig, two goats, and some chickens

Q: How do you like to look at things?

A: I guess I like to look at things with the hope of seeing something that inspires me. It’s not necessarily that I like to look at things a certain way, it’s just that I do look at them a certain way. Just like a writer will go to a party and have his or her ear tuned to a conversation and be drawn to the one conversation that he or she can use, I find that I’m like that.

I tend to look at the world and focus on things that resonate with my work. I’m sure it’s some kind of innate aesthetic that I have, and growing up in New Orleans helped to cement that.

The idea that time is a revealer and the weight of time shows what came before is really interesting to me. There’s that Faulkner quote, ‘The past is not dead. It’s not even past,’ which is so accurate in life. All of those layers are part of my aesthetic, so I’m always drawn to things that resonate with that. It could be a wall where you can see the different layers coming through or a house with different additions on it. That appeals to me.

It’s less of a choice to see things that way than it is an actuality.


Q: What book did you read over and over again as a kid?

A: My favorite book is Anna Karenina, but I didn’t read that as a kid. I’m not sure I read anything over and over again. I kept moving on to the next book.

I can remember some favorites. In second to fourth grade it was How to Eat Fried Worms and there was the whole history series on Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Pocahontas. Those were and are great books.

Photographs of Nicole Charbonnet’s artist studio (photos and collage by: Folwell Dunbar)

Q: What was your favorite adventure on a train?

A: I wouldn’t call it an adventure. And I’m not even sure if I would call it my favorite, but trains are contemplative. You are kind of stuck when you’re on a train. It’s not a bad experience. I’m not sure if I have one specific experience that stands out, but upon reflection I remember this one.

I was in Italy. I spent my junior year in France for spring break trying to see as much art as possible in a very short time on a student budget. Of course, I did some very stupid things like hitchhike in order to see the Giottos in Padua, but even with minimal travel expenses, at some point I ran out of money and did not have quite enough to pay for a ticket back to Paris.

I can almost remember the face of the man behind me in line at the train station who, I’m sure, rolled his eyes as he kindly added a couple hundred lire to my inadequate pile on the counter. I hope he’s continuing to benefit right now from the amazing karma he accumulated that day. The point of the story, of course, is the good samaritan/ kindness of strangers/benevolent side of human nature aspect of the encounter that everyone experiences, but that I’ve been so fortunate to experience over and over in life and memorably allowed me to get on a train.

I like trains, and I always think I’d like to take more of them, but I never do because of the time. If I lived in the northeast I’m sure I’d take more trains, but we don’t really have them here. Not unless I want to get on one for twelve hours. Although, they’re talking about reviving the line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. At least, I read that they were going to reopen that line.

When I think of trains I think of a state of mind rather than the physical experience. It’s almost like a longer version of taking a walk.


Q: What’s a secret job you’ve always wanted to have?

A: Speaking about books, I remember thinking in college, ‘What can I do so that I get to read all the time?’ I thought about publishing, but then you have to read anything they give you to read.

I found that with art I, of course, paint a lot, and I also read a lot. Since I make my own hours I can do both. So, my secret job is being a professional reader, and I’ve managed to actually do it.

I pretend to be an artist, but it’s a cover for my real job, which is being a professional reader. It’s a super job. It can be fiction or non-fiction; I’ll take all of it.


Q: What role does environment play on your art?

A: I have been so lucky. In New Orleans I have always had these amazing studios. I’m sure there are many situations where environment is detrimental to peoples’ works—if you have no peace and quiet, if you have a really tiny space, or something like that.

I have had these great studios, usually one after another. I’d get kicked out because they wanted to renovate, but I’d still get these amazing spaces for very little money, if not free. I’ve had people say, ‘You can use our third floor until we renovate,’ which is just amazing.

My spaces have always been inspirational rather than detracting from my work. In my old studio I was in a masonry building, and I renovated and I repointed three out of the four walls. I left that one wall in that Napoleon House state of decay.

Leonardo said whenever he didn’t know what to paint he would go out and look at an old wall. It’s similar to looking up at the clouds because you let your imagination go. You start seeing the pattern on the plaster, and it turns into an elephant. It gives you ideas.

In his honor I kept one wall untouched, and the first thing I would do when I walked into my studio each day was to look at that one wall.


Nicole Charbonnet’s opening of “Key to All Mythologies” will take place at the Arthur Roger Gallery (432 Julia Street) on January 5 from 6:00 until 8:00 PM. You can view her work at or


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