“I wish I had started this 10 years ago,” when he retired, he said during a recent interview in the sun room of his home in west Ville Platte, surrounded by the paintings and drawings he has created during the past two and a half years.
It was his sister, long-time artist Connie Reed, who convinced him to start taking art classes when he was 65. “She wanted me to go to an art class,” she also planned to attend that is taught by Gertie Mayeaux of Ville Platte.
Soileau said it mostly involved drawing, and he did produce some high quality cartoons. “But I became disinterested,” as he pursued other interests, such as hunting, “so I quit fooling,” with art.
He never was able to shake the notion that there was an artist somewhere within him that needed to be set free. Perhaps it was in his genes, he said, because his sister, father and nephew are all artists.
So he consulted with accomplished artist Gary Steckler, a native of Ville Platte, who encouraged him to paint instead of making drawings. “He said if you can draw, you can paint,” Soileau recalls.
Steckler suggested Soileau try acrylic paints, and he found he enjoyed that better than drawing. So he went back to Mayearx’s art classes armed with a brush and acrylics instead of a drawing pencil.
He started finding subjects in books, calendars or other places that he could paint. He said he will get an idea when he sees something -- a mountain man, a bird or other object -- that he makes into the focal point of a painting. “Then you want to do it your way,” by modifying that, and then creating a background -- a prairie, river, mountains or something else -- around it.
“I would do stuff on my own,” he said, and then take his paintings to the class, or to Steckler, to find out what techniques he needed to work on.
Another person he sought advice from, Lafayette photographer Cecil Fuselier, suggested Soileau put his artwork online, on fineartsamerica.com. His art also is displayed on swabby-soileau.artistwebsite.com.
He sold one of his paintings online, but most of his sales are in person, to local buyers, he said.
One example is the 15 paintings he sold of the old Evangeline Club on the west side of Ville Platte, mostly to older people who have some fond memories of being there. In fact, Soileau met his wife there, and they frequently went on dates to the Evangeline Club.
Soileau is now working on another popular place young people used to go to, the Kit Kat Club, which also was on the west side of Ville Platte. Although photos of the Evangeline Club were fairly easy to find, he had a more difficult time finding a photo of the Kit Kat Club.
Another subject he’s researching for a future painting is the old Sacred Heart Elementary School and the adjacent convent where the nuns who taught at the school lived.
He also likes to paint Western scenes, “but my wife says I do too much of that,” Soileau said. He has painted a number of Native American and mountain man scenes. And he frequently paints scenes he might see while hunting.
Sometimes, when he’s deeply engrossed in one of his paintings, he tunes out of the world altogether, oblivious of people around him. “This is my passion; my solitude,” he explained.
Mayeaux, the art teacher, has encouraged him to move from painting with acrylics to oil-based paint. He said the colors “are much more vivid with oils.”
Soileau has taken part in other forms of expressing himself. He used to play the guitar but didn’t stick with that.
Perhaps his most unique form of expression is doing Elvis impersonations. Like his venture into art, his sister Connie got him started impersonating Elvis. “My sister coerced me into doing that,” for their mother’s 90th birthday party. People saw a tape of him doing the “shake, rattle and roll” routine, as he calls it, “and they asked me to do that,” at their parties. He used to do Elvis impersonations every month or so. He still impersonates Elvis “every now and then,” he says, but usually just does it at Halloween, to put smiles on the faces of young trick or treaters.
But painting is something that Soileau is getting more involved with.
It’s not always what he expects. Not completely satisfied with some of his paintings, he puts some out of sight of visitors to his home. But maybe he shouldn’t. He puts some paintings he’s not satisfied with on the wall, and is surprised when people say they are their favorites.
Other of his paintings are easily recognized as high quality works of art, and those will be among the ones that will be on display at the Perkala Coffee Shop on Saturday, August 4.
Some are not only high quality, but let Soileau’s wry sense of humor shine through. One he calls “Bad Timing,” shows footprints in the snow, leading from a hunting lodge to an outhouse. A large antlered deer has just come up to the footprints at the middle of the trail and is looking curiously toward the outhouse. What happens next is anyone’s guess.