When Bill Iles answered the phone in his Lake Charles studio, he apologized that the news was on before excusing himself to go and turn it off. “My studio is my escape from the reality of the real world,” he explained. “So normally I’m listening to music. One of the reasons that I paint what I do is that I’m creating my own harmonious reality. I find nature very calming.”
Not surprising since Iles grew up in the most natural of environments—in an old log homestead built by his great-grandfather. “My dad was a small farmer; he ploughed with a horse, and he drew pictures and sang. When I was young we didn’t have electricity, so we’d gather around the piano and sing. I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but when I got to grade school I found that drawing was something I could do.”
Relying on the woodlands around his childhood home for subject matter, Iles aims to produce something other than the usual picturesque landscape scenes. “I sort of like the clutter of nature,” he observed. “That sense that nature is not idealized. The hardscrabble of the woods, and even the way that they can be foreboding, at times.”
Although he doesn’t live in that log cabin anymore, Iles still returns to his ancestral land often. He carries a sketchbook and camera, then retires to his Lake Charles studio, puts on some Leonard Cohen or Willie Nelson, and renders scenes as the patchwork quilt of memory presents them in his mind’s eye. “When I start a painting I never know exactly where I’m going,, but pretty soon the scene develops some kind of coherence.”
A giant in Lake Charles art circles, Iles has played a formative role in the careers of a generation of Southwest Louisiana’s artists—a result of having taught in the Department of Visual Arts at McNeese State University for thirty years. Asked to consider the difference between being a good artist and a good teacher, Iles observed, “To be a good artist you have to be selfish. You have to go inside yourself, and that requires a lot of solitude. But to be a good teacher requires a certain openness and the ability to give yourself. Deep down inside, every student in a creative class, no matter how confident they seem on the outside, feels inferior. So to find where each student’s gift is, and to encourage that, is the challenge of teaching.”
See more works by Bill Iles at New Orleans’ Cole Pratt Gallery, 3800 Magazine Street. coleprattgallery.com.
This month the art of Bill Iles will be profiled on LPB’s Art Rocks, the weekly showcase of Louisiana’s visual and performing arts hosted by Country Roads’ publisher James Fox-Smith. Tune in Friday, May 13 at 8:30 pm, repeating Saturday, May 14 at 5:30 pm, across the LPB network. lpb.org/artrocks.