I went to Mimi’s in the Marigny this past January because Rachel Speck is someone I respect: she is a fellow artist who is also a professional, full-time, certified, bona- fide teacher. I love the work she does as an art teacher at a prominent New Orleans charter school as well as for the Community Print Shop. I love how she mentors kids on her own time—she takes them out to, say, a Community Kitchen breakfast and calmly, casually reasons with them like fellow adults.
Of course, upstairs at Mimi’s was dark, but the art was strategically placed to catch the amber glow of the dim light bulbs. There was a nice-sized crowd mulling around, thoughtfully looking at prints and photos, sipping spirits in blissful contemplation. In the middle of the room, in the dark, wearing one of her signature black dresses, sat Rachel at a table with extra prints for sale.
You grew up around creative people in your family, namely your grandfather. Growing up, were you encouraged to be creative? When did you first start having art shows or displaying your work in public?
Rachel Speck: Although my grandfather, and even my mother and father, were all very creative, I was not really encouraged to show or make art until fairly recently. Both my grandfathers and father always encouraged me to take photographs and document my life. However, those photos, for them, were meant for a family photo album, and not the public. I think that a lot of that has to do with my grandfather’s struggle with trying to support his family by selling his photographs. And although his photographs are beautiful and inspiring, he wasn’t really successful at it… I started showing my work at Florida State at a student gallery that was managed by the school’s art department. Also, in order to graduate from that school, I had to have a graduate art show.
Who were your role models, both creatively and as a teacher?
My three major role models that have stuck with me since I was a youth, as far as creativity goes, are Julia Margaret Cameron (a victorian photographer), Sally Mann (I am sure everyone remembers her as the mom who got arrested for the photographs she took of her kids), and I always admired the raw emotion Frida Kahlo was able to portray in her self-portraits. As far as recent inspirations, Anne Carson and Pippi Zornoza. My role models as far as teaching goes are Edith Kramer, a Holocaust refugee that was an art therapist to orphaned boys of color in the New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s [and] Pat Ward Williams, a photography professor I had that was a real hardass. She told you exactly what she thought and made no apologies for it. It was kind of awesome. She is a black photographer that mainly talks about race issues in the US and recently has been shooting videos of self-reflections on what it means to be an African American in Africa. My third influence is Mrs. Oswald, who was my philosophy teacher in high school. She is the reason I graduated high school. She found me work when I needed it, made sure I did my homework [and] volunteer hours, and supported me in a crazy situation with my family that could have gotten me kicked out of school.
How do you balance being creative and being professional?
Lots of lists and planning. I have a three month goal list. On top of that, I have a daily list that I use to achieve things I need to get done at the moment and small things that I need to do in order to accomplish my three month list. Also, I find that it is not that hard to be creative and professional at the same time. My profession is being an art teacher—which rules—and I love almost every second of it. It forces me to be creative and to show the kids things my friends and I are working on, so that they also can stay motivated.
Rachel Speck is a New Orleans public school art teacher, a mentor to youth through the New Orleans Community Print Shop and one of the organizers of Not Enough! Fest. She is a visual artist whose work can be seen in local fliers and for now, upstairs at Mimi’s in the Marigny. She is also the bassist for the Marigny. She is also local band Bitchface.