Conversational Wavelengths: Nick Peña and Joey Slaughter


Joey Slaughter, Mean Meme, 2019, 30″x40″, poured paint and collage. Photo courtesy of the artist.


Nick Peña: Joey, we have many crossovers, we have mutual friends, we have been in shows together, but most recently we both were residents at Crosstown Arts Summer Residency. We even spent some time working in the same studio and Crosstown’s maker space. I had a great time working at Crosstown and the studio spaces are amazing. What was your experience at Crosstown?


Joey Slaughter: It’s astonishing how people came together to accomplish such a huge undertaking of bringing Crosstown Concourse to fruition. The building is like no other place I have been. The studio spaces were large, and the living quarters were cozy. It was an honor to be there and meet such amazing, productive people from all over the world. Mary Jo and her crew were accommodating as well.


Our process is similar, and we both use digital tools and handcrafted techniques to produce our work. Why is analog to digital practices relevant in the making of your artwork?


I have been using digital applications since 1996. What about you? I like the options that working digital to analog provide. I get to make decisions on the fly, especially with color and composition. When I start my work, I start drawing in Adobe Illustrator or Rhino. Some of my current work then goes to a CNC router or laser to be cut, and, finally, I use acrylic paint and sometimes poured paint collages. I like to see things morph, and the additive and subtractive processes of drawing on a computer. The initial process is not as precious when working on a drawing on the computer, and I like to save in iterations.


Nick Peña, Over the Rainbow, Ablaze, 2018, 24″ diameter, watercolor, acrylic, Sintra mat. Photo courtesy of the artist.


I began using digital tools like Photoshop to prep and pre-compose paintings in the early 2000s. It was a way to work quickly and, as you stated, to test color. It was during that time I also learned to use Photoshop layers as a way to mentally organize my physically painted layers. The process of using varying layer styles and opacity shifts, from one layer to the next, helped me anticipate color combinations and glazing options before beginning a painting. It’s funny, and maybe even backward, but it took a computer program to help me start to think more about the layered structure of a painting.


For me, the process of painting is akin to telling a good joke; having a solid structure is just as crucial as the punchline. I’m a horrible comedian, but I know a well-written joke when I hear it. Over the past 19 years, the integration of applications like Photoshop and Illustrator have made my creative process more efficient. It wasn’t until 2015, however, that I began to think about making “digital mark-making” the content. In my recent body of work, I use Illustrator as the starting point to digitally draw a design that is output to a CNC router. This process is used to create a “custom mat” that is mechanically produced by the CNC router. After the production of the mat, I begin the process of painting. I like the idea that the viewer can physically see the relationship between digital, mechanical, and human touch.


During the residency, we talked a lot about the impetus for our work, and we both cited family and friends as influences. We also discussed the quest to find equilibrium as a forever quest. How do you balance family life, studio practice, and academia?


I think one of the hardest things for me is balancing family, studio, and academia. Teaching requires a lot of time with students in and outside of school. I love teaching, but we are constantly connected to students through our devices. This often interferes with studio time and family time, just as well as the studio practice can interfere with everything else the same way. When I teach, I try to work around my students during office hours so they can see my professional work being made – in front of them – and hopefully, that helps inspire them. I often get studio time during office hours; it’s usually a short burst of work, but I try to make it deep work. One is always suffering, one of those three parts. I have made a schedule for myself: first, a morning workout which is important for my sanity. Then I teach and have office hours. I usually have a little time in the afternoon to work on art, and then I have family time from 5-ish until they go to bed. It’s important to have quality time with my amazing wife as well.


I agree! I think it’s even more of a challenge because we understand the weight of each of these areas. Each is a juggernaut that can easily consume either of us at any given time during the year. The only way I can attempt balancing this workload is by having a great partner. We both recognize that art matters, and when it is time for one of us to work in the studio, the other supplements their time and energy to keep a balanced life. Academia is a support system, as well. Higher education values research and professional development. This is one of the many reasons I considered teaching as a profession — the other reasons being: community, discourse, progressivism, and camaraderie. University professors have a unique opportunity to continue to build and expand their community of peers. I’ve realized over the years that opportunities to collaborate with other academics are always possible. I also know it’s my job to make that happen, either through introducing exciting visiting artists to colleagues and local gallery directors or creating programming for the community. It’s work, but it’s worth it.


Speaking of opportunities, what kind of opportunities do visual artists in your area have? Moreover, are they equal opportunities?


Here in Ruston, and along the I-20 corridor between Shreveport and Monroe, there are little pockets of people working together. We have events through the local arts councils where artists are noticed and supported. There are Facebook groups where artists share information and opportunities. My friend, Vitus Shell, is active in his community in Monroe where he’s taking risks and bringing people together, but in general, in the region, I see the conversations, but not much connectedness. I would like to see more risks taken to include minorities and to make things more welcoming of diversity.


I feel like the same artists show around here consistently, and it’s challenging to get into a show at one of the better places if you’re not one of a particular group of people. Thankfully I have been counted in that number, but I can see how it’s very frustrating if you’re not. Especially for younger artists, it’s tough to be taken seriously unless you’ve put in much time and people have seen your work for a long time. I find opportunities for my students to show in alternative spaces, but in general, I would like to see this as a given. I like what you have done with Wonder, where you’ve created a shared space for artists and their professional development. It would be nice to see something like that in our area. We need places for collaboration and fresh work, new ideas, different faces. Not everything is going to fit everyone’s tastes, but I wish enough were going on that everyone had their tastes met.


Nick Peña, From Sea to Shining Sea, 2018, 30″ diameter, watercolor, acrylic, Sintra mat. Photo courtesy of the artist.


Memphis has changed a lot in the past 12 years. When I relocated to Memphis in 2007, there were a handful of galleries choosing to show contemporary art. There were limited opportunities for artists who existed outside of the establishment and the University systems. If memory serves me, there were only two or three outsiders or pop up art happenings at that time, and it was very exclusive and most often loosely or directly connected to University students or faculty from MCA or UofM. Fast forward to today: there is a lot more diversity and opportunity for young and established contemporary artists in various sectors (i.e., public art, design, social practices, and fine art). Memphis has always had talent in the visual and performing arts; however, twelve years ago, there wasn’t excitement and buzz surrounding visual and performing arts. Whereas today, there is. Instead of losing our cultural producers to other similar-sized cities, we are attracting new talent and retaining our own. We can thank organizations like Arts Memphis (Arts Accelerator Grant), Urban Arts Commission, Downtown Memphis Commission, Crosstown Arts, Memphis Medical District Collaborative, Creative Works, The Collective, and Young Collectors Contemporary. Cultural shifts don’t happen from one organization producing excellent content and opportunity; it’s a collective effort from many that implements long-lasting cultural equity.


To learn more about Joey Slaughter and Nick Peña’s work, visit their websites: and


Nick Peña is an Associate Professor of Art at Christian Brothers University and the Co-Founder of Wonder/Cowork/Create in Memphis, TN.


Joey Slaughter lives in Ruston, LA, and is an Associate Professor of Art at Louisiana Tech University.