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  • Thea Foundation

Meet Derek Slagle, UA Little Rock Professor & Delta Artist

Our partnership with the Arkansas Arts Center for its virtual 62nd Annual Delta Exhibition continues as we highlight more artists who also work as educators. This week, we're proud to feature artist Derek Slagle, who also works as a professor. Derek Slagle, Ph.D. is in a dual appointment position at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Public Affairs as a tenure-track Assistant Professor and Director of the Survey Research Center. He is also an Arkansas Governor appointed Commissioner (2019-2022) for the Governor’s Advisory Commission for National Service and Volunteerism.

Details for Derek's above selected work for the Delta: Derek Slagle, Pawn, 2018, giclée print from film negative on Hahnemuhle photo rag 308 paper, 16 x 20 inches

Below is a recent Q&A we had with Derek.

Tell us about the first time you discovered your love for art. Was arts education a part of your childhood/adolescence?

I grew up with an interest in the arts and my parents always emphasized and encouraged participation in creative endeavors. I have distinct memories of riding around the Appalachian mountain region with my parents, camera in tow, and learning about composition and how to read light for a photograph.  As for arts education, I was always enrolled in arts throughout school.  My love for art came in elementary school, largely from a school sponsored arts program.  Our librarian offered before- and after-school group art lessons where we would paint with watercolors and learn about artwork featured in the books in the library. The art instruction from K-12 definitely cemented a love for the arts and without those extracurricular arts programs I definitely wouldn’t be the artist I am today.

What drew you to photography and have you explored working with other mediums?

Beyond high school art classes, I’ve never had formal art instruction but in my undergraduate college years I was really into exploring painting and creative writing.  I spent a lot of time at that point working in those mediums and actually ended up publishing paintings, graphic design, and poetry in several art & literary magazines and being exhibited. My love for photography actually emerged during the time of my doctoral dissertation. Painting took too much time and I was already spending my days writing so I looked for a medium that got me outside and one that I could fit into my academic work schedule. I liked the immediacy of creating a photograph and the unscripted nature of documentary and street photography really hooked me in. Photography was an art medium that allowed for serendipity and there was something about it that really drew me in. Initially, I started uploading my photographs online and was later licensed with Getty Images.  Opportunities arose to take my photography to new levels, and I was paid for tourism / travel photos and as a professional events photographer. I eventually took a year off post-doctoral degree to spend as a professional photographer. 

When it comes to subject matter, what do you mostly gravitate toward? 

I really like photographs that are candid and that tell a story of some sort. Early on I stumbled upon the works of great street and documentary photographers (e.g., Henri Cartier- Bresson, Vivian Maier, Sebastio Salgado, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, etc.) and I was struck at the ability of these photographers to capture so much of humanity in those decisive moments of taking a photograph.  The perspectival nature of documentary and street photography and the immediacy and creativity required from these sub-genres of photography are what make me compelled to go shoot it. However, I think that this type of photography and subject matter is pretty wide open since some days I end up taking portraits, some days I shoot landscapes, and sometimes it is a still-life.

As a professor, how does your work as an artist affect your work in education? 

Even though art and science are often viewed as opposite ends of a spectrum I think there is a lot of overlap between the two areas.  Both my photography and my work as a researcher require me to be creative, challenge my assumptions, to construct a narrative to tell a story, and to examine social phenomena through unique lenses or frames. Examining social interactions/ behaviors and how individuals/ communities are portrayed are important elements in approaching a photograph and in my work teaching about public policy analysis, community development, program evaluation, etc. Also, I think moving back and forth between from one role to the other really elevates and informs the work I create in both arenas. 

I came to the conclusion a while ago that the process by which things are created have important implications for the outcomes.  This notion is apparent in my photographic work whereby the creative process of using analog film processes impacts the final products of the photographs. This idea has also been important in my role as an educator as I train the next generation of Arkansas public servants and in my work on public policy. I think it is clear that the processes by which government is administered has an impact on the outcomes of government.

What's a particular milestone in your photography that you're proud of/see as a turning point in your path as an artist? 

There are two in particular recent milestones that immediately came to mind. I have an upcoming book that is to be published by local Little Rock press, Et Alia, on a long-term personal photo project about renaming the American landscape and the removal of derogatory names from public land. The other is inclusion in events like the Delta exhibition.  Having my work as part of an exhibition in a museum and in the community in which I shot the photograph are accomplishments in which I take great pride.

You can learn more about Derek at his personal website and stay tuned for his forthcoming book from Et Alia Press. To view all of the works selected for the Delta by artists who also work as educators, visit Thea's partner page.

#theafoundation #deltaexhibition #arkansasartscenter

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