Laura Berendsen Hughes moved to Durham in seventh grade. Her interest in art was sparked several years earlier, but she credits Durham with being a great place to grow up as an artist. She attended UNC for her BFA in sculpture, and after initially working in printing and advertising, she became a professional graphic designer. She has run her own business, Laura Hughes Design, for over 25 years. Lately, she has returned to her roots in the fine arts through the medium of acrylic paint, most notably through her large-scale work featuring horses. She will be showing some of these paintings at a solo exhibit at the The ArtsCenter in October. We chatted with Laura Hughes about her artistic process, the difference between her ‘day job’ and painting, and why horses have become so integral to her work.
You have a background in sculpture through the BFA program at UNC. How did that translate into graphic design and your work with acrylics?
My BFA enabled me to get into an art department at a printing company after college. There are universal aspects to design that relate to fine art – things like composition, balance and visual interest. I still enjoy the creativity of design, but it hasn’t been since I started painting again that I really feel I am working in what I actually studied. I loved sculpture and I feel the large-scale tactile nature of my work has a sculptural quality. And of course the horses are really about scale, size and substance. So even though the work is two-dimensional, what I’m reacting to is the way horses are in reality. They are amazing, large, beautiful creatures.
You’ve said that your graphic design work often influences your paintings. Do you feel a difference between your ‘day job’ and your other creative pursuits?
There is a huge difference between design and fine art, but I always enjoyed the creative aspect of design and the ability to function as part of a professional business community. Fine art is much more frightening; it’s just you and your thoughts. There’s less structure and less direction, so it’s all self-generated and self-directed. That’s much more responsibility. The question people often ask me about painting is, “Is it fun?” And I think, “No, it’s tough and scary.” But I do love it, even though I may not find it relaxing or simple.
What led you to horses as the subject matter for this series of paintings?
It’s the first thing I remember drawing. I was obsessed with horses from a young age and begged my parents for years to get a horse. I finally did have a few in high school and recently thought about owning one again, but I got a nice, big dog instead. When I started painting three years ago I was struggling with subject matter and had a vivid dream a couple weeks before I was to attend an artist retreat. I saw this large horse with incredible texture and wild coloring, and I knew that was what I would paint. There was great response from others, and I knew I had found a subject I could develop into a body of work.
What is your process of capturing the subject matter – are these local horses that you’ve observed or photographed?
I work from photographs and often purchase the rights to use an image from stock photography which I work with all the time in my design practice. Since the image is just a starting point for shape, form and color I don’t need to know the horse personally. Each figure is iconic and is about monumentality and the figure in general. I just love horses, so to me they are interchangeable with the human figure as far as an art reference. They transcend their equine identity, and I also understand their anatomy enough that I can get them right enough for my purposes without too much of a struggle. I want their form, but only so much. Then I want to get paint on the canvas; that’s the main thing.
What is your favorite aspect of the creative community in the area?
There are so many other artists in the area and so many opportunities to exhibit. We live in a very cool place and I feel lucky that my parents stopped accepting job transferring after we moved here. The Triangle was a wonderful place for me as an artist to grow up.