I attended an art showing recently where one of the artists presenting worked in stained glass. I was lucky enough to engage in an interesting conversation with Randall Soileau about his pieces at the show. Afterward, I asked if he’d be open to an interview. And, today, I’m sharing a conversation with Austin, TX, stained glass artist, Randall Soileau about his work, his history, and his plans for the future.
Q: Your mother was also an artist, who worked in pottery. Your father was a mechanical engineer. I got the impression from our conversation your father was supportive of your mother’s work. With so much art going in within the family, what was his influence / support in these endeavors? Did he have any creative outlets as well?
Randall: Yes. My father could build anything or fix anything. Our family built each other’s houses and my dad was an excellent carpenter. I helped in his carpentry work building two houses for my brother and one for a cousin. Dad had designed (on graph paper) and built the house I grew up in in Baton Rouge. In addition to his work as a mechanical engineer, he loved to work on tractors he would either resell or use for the garden.
Q: How influential/involved was your mother in your art?
R: My mother always encouraged my artistic abilities. She taught me how to glaze pottery and paint ceramics. I remember she once had my dad stop on a road trip so I could draw a dead (ironic) live oak tree. Both mom and dad drove my sister and me to dance classes until we could drive ourselves
Q: You mentioned growing up on four acres, where your family actually used the land for food production. That’s a lot of maintenance. Did your whole family work the garden area, or was it a passion of one/both of your parents?
R: Farming was definitely a family affair. We learned to plant, tend, and harvest corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, okra, peanuts, sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions, and more. I spent many hours as a kid shucking corn or shelling peas. We always had extra and shared with our extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as neighbors. We would also benefit from our relatives sharing their crops of pecans, yams, fruit. Dad did most of the gardening with mom cooking, canning, and preparing surplus for the freezer–of which we had two–one for meat and fish and the other for vegetables.
Q: How would you describe your environment growing up–what was family life like on four acres in Baton Rouge? Was your family close, and was that expressed through family traditions?
R: I have two older brothers and a sister, and though we were separated by 14 years (well spread out) we are, and have always been, close. We lived just outside the Baton Rouge city limits, which would have been considered “country” at the time. I really had an idyllic childhood. Lots of family reunions (my mom was from a family of 12), where we would barbecue, fry fish, or jambalaya (a Louisiana classic often cooked in a giant sugar kettle to feed the multitudes) visiting my cousins on my dad’s side (Opelousas, LA) was always fun and I’d come home with my cousin’s Cajun accent.
Q: Were/are there other people in your life, besides family, who encouraged your creativity–such as friends, social groups, teachers?
R: Yes. I had many people who mentored me in my youth. Teachers from school who encouraged my writing (edited the school newspaper). My sister really encouraged my involvement in ballet. They always need boys. But I think my most important mentors were a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sibley, who sponsored an organization called the Junior Archaeological Society (JAS). Mrs. Sibley was the librarian at my elementary school and would lecture the classes on Native American culture. When a friend and I brought her some arrowheads we found in a local creek, we were invited to join the JAS, although most members were older. The Sibleys immersed us in the study of anthropology, archaeology, and the arts. We were required, as members, to write a scientific paper each year to be presented at the local and state science and social studies fairs. We went to plays, operas, and ballets with the Sibleys. The JAS would assist Louisiana State University (LSU) and graduate students on archaeological digs in the area. Whereas my parents were heart and soul, the Sibleys were art and culture.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to seriously pursue dancing? Clearly that part of your life was significant enough that it still comes through in your glass work–what is it about dance that speaks to you/through you?
R: I planned to become an archaeologist when I graduated high school, even though I had seriously studied ballet since 12. The summer following high school I had a scholarship to study at American Ballet Theater in NY. It was an eye-opening summer into the world of ballet. As a scholarship student I could watch company rehearsal including great dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov. After that incredible summer I returned to Baton Rouge, to attend LSU as an anthropology major. I continued my dancing–performing with Louisiana Ballet and Delta Ballet of New Orleans. I decided to pursue ballet and auditioned for Texas Christian University dance department. It was one of the strongest schools for ballet in the country, and I wanted a college degree. I was offered a full scholarship and a position with Fort Worth Ballet. So I finished my degree at TCU and stayed on another year as a principal dancer with Fort Worth Ballet (now Texas Ballet Theater). I was a “Ballet Gypsy” for many years dancing for ballet and musical theatre companies all over the US. It was a great experience because I could visit all the great art museums in the cities we toured. I still continued cutting glass when home. I would set up my glass work area when space allowed and create dancers in glass as well as regional themes.
Q: In what ways is your glass work similar/different to your experience with creative expression through dance?
R: Knowledge of ballet has heightened my work. Ballet is about line, movement, and technical purity. I’ve seen too many bad depictions of ballet dancers. I think the creative experience of choreographing a ballet is much like composing a window. My windows are sometimes the “scenery” I might imagine for one of my ballets.
Q: Besides your dance, where do you find inspiration for your pieces? What is your personal creative process like?
R: I imagine stained glass windows everywhere I look. A beautiful landscape, a certain flower, a pattern in a tile floor, a dynamic dance position. I will draw the scene or subject and then discard all but the essential lines that will translate to the lead lines in a stained glass window. Sometimes I have a piece of glass that becomes an inspiration for a piece.
Q: You shared a little bit about your battle with cancer. I have been a caregiver to a cancer survivor, and we talked a bit about “new normal”–how prolonged dangerous illness alters life in a way that it’s not really possible to fall back into what we were before. Do you experience any qualitative differences between your artistic expression before your illness and after it?
R: Yes, it changes the perspective concerning life and living–each time it happens. My first experience would be a career changing injury as a dancer. A fracture in my ankle while dancing with Ballet Austin pushed me into my next career as a teacher, choreographer, artistic director. I still had ambition then! After spending a year in Anchorage as producing artistic director for Ballet Alaska, I returned to Austin to teach and founded Austin Contemporary Ballet/Texas Youth Ballet. I directed the company for seven years until I burned out, trying to do the job of four people.
I continued to teach and choreograph for companies in Texas and Louisiana. At this time, I started a small antique business with a booth at Antique Marketplace. Since I was still traveling to choreograph I would shop for antiques and art wherever I was. Then I started feeling poorly in 2009 and doctors weren’t sure why. I had West Nile Virus in 2005 and they attributed it to the virus because I had a severe case. I was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, after an emergency room visit for kidney stones revealed a mass in my hip. I did chemo for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and lost 30 pounds with the treatment.
These ailments definitely changed my perspective concerning the urgency of life and the desire to get things done while I was able. It has inspired me to create beautiful things that make people happy. I love to share in the joy and inquisitive nature of people who enjoy my art. I’m more interested now in bringing beauty to life rather than dwelling on the ugly. This probably doesn’t make my art very progressive, but I really don’t care.
Q: What have been some of your best and worst experiences working with stained glass?
R: Worst experience recently occurred at the East Studio Tour when my Texas State Capitol stained glass piece broke the hanging hooks and came crashing down. It represented a couple months work and is irreparable. But it has inspired me to recreate it even better.
The best experience is in showing my work and explaining the process. It was great fun watching people mesmerized by my Austin Bat Mobile at the East Tour.
Q: What is it that brought you to Austin, and do you feel at home here, or do you think there are more “homes” in your future?
R: I moved to Austin in 1984 to dance with Ballet Austin. I wanted to move back to Texas to be closer to my family in Louisiana, and I enjoyed my experience in Fort Worth. Austin is definitely my home now.
Q: Are there other creative outlets, or even simply hobbies you enjoy–such as gardening, cooking, writing, hiking, or anything else?
R: I love to garden. I crochet at night–mom taught me.
I’ve owned my home since 1994–a 1918 Arts and Crafts bungalow which we’ve restored and expanded. I had it declared an Austin Historic Landmark as it was home of Benjamin Carrol Tharp “the father of Texas ecology”. He was dean of biology at University of Texas for many years. We bought the house from his sons. I’ve also written the landmark applications for, and had, three other homes in the neighborhood declared landmarks. My history of archaeological and historic preservation continues.
Q: What’s next for you? What will Randall Soileau be doing in 10 years?
R: I hope to be doing exactly what I’m doing now. Creating works of art in glass and enjoying life.
All images used with permission of the artist.