Alumni Spotlight: A life of one’s own

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“Gathering III” by Andrew DeCaen, class of ‘97. Photo courtesy of andrewdecaen.com.

“When I went to Rome, I was a double major: studio Art and English literature,” said Andrew DeCaen, graduate of the class of ‘97. This double major was a compromise; his close relatives doubted the practicality and safety of a major in the studio arts. DeCaen proved them wrong: he graduated with only an art major and succeeded regardless.

Despite their resistance, or perhaps because of it, DeCaen is now an Associate Professor of Art and the Printmaking Program Coordinator at the University of Northern Texas. He is an internationally renowned artist with permanent collections in the United States, Europe and Japan. And he did it without the double degree.

“I was discouraged from pursuing a studio art career from the time I was very young,” DeCaen said. “[People] said things like, ‘Your artwork might sell for a lot of money one day, but not until you’re dead.’”

“I came to accept that possibility,” DeCaen explained. “That discouragement tested whether this was something I really wanted. It takes a lot of commitment…” 

DeCaen was an English major at UD long enough to take on the infamous Junior Poet. His love for the “wonderfully eccentric poetry” of Gerard Manley Hopkins is as strong as ever, but the lure of the sketchbook was always greater than that of the textbook.

Even so, remnants of his love for the literary discipline surface in his current work. “Each drawing,” he explained of his ever growing portfolio, Lines, “is like a line in a poem with its own specific trajectory, course, pauses, pace, and momentum.” The portfolio explores people’s body language and physical appearance as they participate in the unifying human experience of waiting in line.

By sharing his own unique perspective on the world, DeCaen aids his students at the University of Northern Texas in developing their own. “My job is not to make a bunch of little Andy DeCaens,” he said. “My job is to get inside their head, understand what they’re interested in and help them achieve that.”

His ability to teach them well is dependent on his own dedication to his practice. He first learned of this vital connection at UD, where his own professors spent their after-hours dedicated to a private career.

“I think of myself as an artist first,” DeCean revealed. “The best teachers are also dedicated to a professional practice and engage their field.”

The balance is often difficult, but teaching art and making art breathe life into one another. DeCaen finds himself more focused than ever after spending the day with his students and their diversity of youthful, creative minds. 

After indulging and directing their energetic, tangential eagerness, he is able to retire to his own studio and there hone the core themes of his own art and research. 

His appreciation for diverse artistic outlooks expanded during graduate school. And it was his UD professor, Juergen Strunck, who helped him get there. Strunck handed DeCaen 20 years worth of photographic slides — it was still pre-google images — acquired from 20 years organizing the University of Dallas national print invitationals. 

The slides depicted the work of current artists in DeCaen’s field. They placed him in South Dakota, chasing after a particular professor whose work had caught his attention. “South Dakota…Go figure!” DeCaen laughed. 

But the University of South Dakota was a gift like no other. His instruction in the shaded studios of the art village was “the stepping stone to professional activity,” but USD was the springboard. 

There, DeCaen was given the opportunity to work with various visiting scholars every year and increase his exposure. DeCean called it his “oasis in the desert,” and was even able to take an in-depth semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

His MFA complete, DeCaen spent the next few years teaching in central California and Florida, until he found himself, once again, back in the Lone Star state. “I had no sense that I was ever going to come back.”

His arrival in Texas as a freshman in 1993 was a stark contrast to his return years later as a married associate professor with a burgeoning career. 

“When I came to UD, I knew no one, and no one knew me. It was a time for discerning what I took with me and what I left behind from my upbringing and previous experiences. Rome too was another big step in that process of self-discovery and self-actualization.”DeCaen now leads biennial summer study abroad programs in Florence, Italy. Once a student keeping a sketchbook at Due Sante, he’s now the one critiquing those of his own students. “There are so many paths in our future,” he said. “You never know what experiences lead to the next.”

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