Louise LeBourgeois has lived near Lake Michigan—in Hyde Park and Rogers Park—for 30 years. It’s fitting, then, that the lake has become an important focal point in her work as a visual artist. She works on big canvases, oil on panel, often featuring just the water and the sky. Each piece uniquely captures what she refers to as the lake’s “different moods.” LeBourgeois makes her living as an artist, and you can find her work at galleries in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Big Sky, Mont.
I asked LeBourgeois about her work, her connection to the lake, and what it’s like being married to a fellow artist.
B: Do you feel differently about the lake now than when you started painting it?
LL: I started painting the lake in 1993, when I was in graduate school at Northwestern. When I started painting images of water and sky, I was interested in the potential visual complexity contained within a pretty simple framework: sky, water, horizon. I am still interested in these things, but I also see that it is even more complex than I ever thought. I also understand better how this image relates to my own history and my family history much better than I did when I started. I wasn’t really conscious of that at all in the beginning. I was mostly interested in giving myself a great painting challenge. It was my way to learn to paint, to paint my own language, no one else’s.
JB: Many of your customers live outside of the Midwest and might not have an emotional connection to the lake. What do you think draws them to your work?
LL: Most people who do not have a connection to Chicago think of my paintings as images of the ocean. I don’t mind that. More people in the world have a connection to an ocean than they do to a Great Lake. Images of water and sky are pretty universal. I think everyone can relate to them, even if they don’t live near a large body of water. We’re all composed mostly of water, so it makes sense to me that people respond to images of water.
JB: What would you advise Lake Michigan visitors to notice that they might not otherwise pick up on?
LL: I love how the light changes over time—throughout the day, and throughout the seasons. The lake has an infinite number of moods. I think that’s the most interesting thing to pay attention to. But if I were someone else, say someone who knew a lot about fishing, I’d probably advise people how to notice the fish.
JB: What other subjects do you tend to be drawn to?
LL: I used to paint a lot of imagined landscapes. I love how the world looks, vast stretches of land, forests, fields, deserts, etc. But I don’t feel like I have to be the person making images of all of this. There are plenty of other artists whose work I admire, that have visions different from mine, who think about landscape in nuanced and surprising ways.
JB: Do you find Chicago to be supportive of professional artists?
LL: I think it’s a challenge to be a visual artist no matter where one lives. It requires hard work, intention, and focus, as well as an ability to connect with and develop relationships with other artists. As for friendships with other artists in Chicago, and how we encourage each other, I think Chicago is an absolutely incredible place to live and work as an artist. I’ve found other artists to be incredibly generous with extending their support, advice, and opportunities to each other.
I think, though, that museums in town tend to look outside of Chicago for artists to exhibit. There are several great galleries in town, though many have closed because of the economy. It’s a difficult business to be in. There are devoted collectors here, too, but it’s not nearly as large a base of collectors as in NYC or LA.
JB: Your husband, Steven Carrelli, is also a professional artist. What do you love about his work?
LL: His work is very different from mine, and I think we learn a lot from each other’s sensibilities. I’m drawn to large sweeping scale waterscapes (even if it might be in a small painting). Steve’s work is conceptual and quirky. He is obsessed with looking at and depicting details that most of us overlook.
I love seeing the physical manifestation of his thought processes take place in his work. It’s so very much who he is, and it’s a delight to see that show up in his work.