A few years ago, as I was training for a marathon, I had a crazy dream, which I wrote about at the time. It went something like this:
I was in an adventure race with a bunch of my gailfriends, and we were running, and then there was the paddle part, and the water was furious, the kayaks bobbing up and down on super-high waves. And I wound up right by Kristie Cornell, but it wasn’t a kayak, it was one of those paddle boat things, and it was all torn up, the front bow completely gone. I looked at her with horror and said, are we going in THAT? And she grinned that beautiful, glorious grin of hers and said, “Get in!”
So obviously this never happened, but there are two parts of it that are absolutely true. One, Kristie Cornell does indeed have a glorious grin, and two, it is not out of the realm of possibility that one could embark on some kind of wild escapade with her. In fact, although it’s been a minute since Kristie and I got to hang out, we have had a lot of adventures over the years, sometimes just the two of us, and sometimes with other friends.
Kristie came into my life more than 20 years ago at a Lucinda Williams show at the Varsity. She was there with another bunch of folks I was getting to know, and the lot of us became—and still are—the best of friends, even though we live all over the country now. Kristie is widely known and universally beloved, especially by little kids. I’m also pretty sure that all of our moms, including my own, love/d her more than any of the rest of us. When I meet with her to talk about this new blog project, we sit outside at a Lafayette coffee shop, where she charms a chubby-cheeked toddler and is greeted by half-dozen friends.
Over the years, Kristie and I have shared road trips and concerts and confidences and late-night breakfasts at dive restaurants. She came with me to Missouri, her first time to the Show-Me state, to see Mama J and my brother Mike. We headed to Memphis and Birmingham and Oxford, and San Francisco, and Nashville, and a million times to New Orleans to see Wilco, still my favorite band. We were nearly run off the road in my two-seater convertible by a semi on one of those trips, and on another we struck up a conversation with two old fellows who turned out to be the mayor of Oxford and the dad of one of Wilco’s band members. Happy times, and none of them dull!
A senior instructor of geology at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where she has taught for 15 years, Kristie has traveled far and wide, from annual field camp trips out West with geology students, to places like Turkey and India, Namibia, Iceland, and even on a ship to Antarctica as part of an LSU research team.
Her latest adventure, though, has been right here at home, meandering down the Bayou Teche and making art with her longtime friend Marla Kristicevich.
The premise of the project was this: Riding in a boat, a Boston whaler that Marla bought from her dad and restored, the two artists would make their way from one end of the Teche to the other, capturing and reimagining the varied and changing landscape of this 125-mile waterway in the heart of Acadiana. Marla, a sculptor, would fashion environmental sculptures of the natural landscape using mud and branches, while Kristie put her photographic talents to work.
Kristie has had a camera in hand ever since I’ve known her, and she has loved photography since she was young, borrowing her mom’s point-and-shoot and lusting after her dad’s SLR camera. “I was always fascinated by it and wanted to know what all the numbers and knobs meant,” she says. “I had no idea how to use it, but I knew I wanted one.”
In high school, she says, “I read every book I could get my hands on and taught myself how to use it.” She laughs, adding, “I took a whole bunch of terrible pictures.”
Kristie went on to learn how to develop film, which she did for a while in a makeshift darkroom in her closet. Printing photos came much later. In the meanwhile, she began to experiment with photography, using a pinhole camera, then shooting slides, and then, later, using a machine that transferred the slides onto 600-series Polaroid film. She eventually bought a DSLR camera but says she “got bored” with it, adding, “The photos were too perfect, right? I spent a long time trying to make my digital prints look like something else.” Part of this artistic journey involved deconstructing digital prints and using inkjet transfers onto absorbent paper, creating lovely, ethereal prints, many depicting Louisiana scenes like traditional Mardi Gras or a sugar cane harvest.
Then, about seven or eight years ago, she wound up buying a used medium-format Hasselblad, which has been her go-to camera ever since.
So just how did she and Marla embark on this project? “Marla is a sculptor. And we knew we wanted to somehow blend her sculpture and my photos into a project,” Kristie tells me. “She was really interested in waterways, and we talked about exploring different types of water environments.”
About two years ago, the pair took their ideas to a friend’s camp in Toledo Bend, where they holed up for a weekend and hashed out this budding idea. They considered a project on a body of water or “landscape defined by water” somewhere out of state, but the logistics of spending enough time in one place to explore and develop their plan simply weren’t feasible. Marla had grown up on the Teche, and they knew they could make a series of day trips when they had the time.
With a plan in place, they decided to apply for some funding for their project before they had even gotten on the water. They turned to BasinArts, a local arts organization in Lafayette, and were awarded a two-month ProjectSpace residency.
Now, they were on the hook to make the project happen, and off to the Teche they went. “We were like, let’s just put the boat in the Teche and go from start to end,” says Kristie. Along the way, Marla made sculptures that reflected and reimagined the landscape they were seeing along various sections of the waterway. “There were canopies, towers, arches, and vessels [ …] from Port Barre to Patterson,” Kristie says, “and I was taking pictures along the way. You notice patterns and shapes, and that’s what I’m photographing generally.”
In St. Martin Parish, where there is a lot of sugar cane, for example, Kristie notes that there were old smokestacks and other tower shapes, so Marla started making tower-like structures. “She made little sculptures and would leave them there, and I photographed them in place, and then we’d leave,” Kristie tells me. In another part of the Teche, Marla’s sculptures were arches that reflected the landscape in that area.
Part of the Meander Mindset installation at the St. Landry Parish Visitor's Center (photos by Kristie Cornell)
I ask Kristie how her science background (she has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology from ULL) informs her photography, particularly with this project. “I think it is, for me, the perfect mix,” she responds. “For art and science, you’re making observations about things. You’re noticing patterns. And you’re trying to isolate one thing that stands out, like a little flutter, smoke, vegetation, or whatever. It’s noticing patterns and noticing exceptions to the patterns and trying to figure out how to convey that in a photograph.”
Back in Lafayette, the pair began their residency at BasinArts in June and July of 2022. “We had done maybe half of the bayou before the residency started, and we finished up kind of that first part of June,” says Kristie. The idea was that they would spend the first month of the residency at BasinArts showing the progress of the project, with the second month the final installation. The show included Kristie’s prints and larger versions of Marla’s sculptures.
Shortly afterwards, they applied for and were awarded an ArtSpark stipend supported by the Lafayette Economic Development Authority and administered by the Acadiana Center for the Arts. With these funds, which required some kind of “product” as an end result, Kristie and Marla proposed to publish a book of their meanderings, which they will have in hand any day now.
I ask Kristie how the name of the project, Meander Mindset, came about. “We were sort of brainstorming about what to call it,” she says, “And kind of the whole point is to go out in the world and notice things, just the idea of going out and exploring. And meandering has a connection to water, so it all made sense.”
Before we part ways, I have a final question for Kristie, who was born and raised in Lafayette. I ask her, as much as she’s traveled, what is it about Louisiana that attracts her to stay. “It’s family, it’s culture, it’s the landscape,” she says. “It’s always held a fascination for me. I just love it.” Louisiana and the lives of those who know and hold her dear are certainly the beneficiaries of that love, and all the better for it.
Meander Mindset is currently on display at the St. Landry Parish Visitor’s Center in Opelousas, with a book release scheduled for 1-4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25.
To learn more about Meander Mindset, visit @meandermindset on Facebook and Instagram. Kristie Cornell’s photographs can be seen on Instagram at @kccornell or on her website, https://www.kristiecornell.com. View Marla Kristicevich’s work at www.marlakristicevich.com.
Getting to Know is a new series of human interest stories by Gail Suberbielle.