Art Major Finds Inspiration in Southwestern New Mexico

Natalee Drissell speaks with director Daren Woolsey during production of “The College Tour,” Nov. 8, 2023.

© Western New Mexico University

It was a bit of serendipitous timing that brought art major Natalee Drissell to WNMU. Drissell moved from Iowa to New Mexico in 2022 after her father, WNMU Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing Matt Drissell, accepted his position with the university. That same year, New Mexico created the Opportunity Scholarship, which allows in-state students to attend state-funded colleges and universities for free.

But it was not just the prospect of a debt-free education that encouraged Drissell to stay close to home. “I like that WNMU is a small college,” she said, “I did not want to go to one of the larger state schools because I am interested in the personal interactions with professors, especially in art. I do not want to be in a huge studio class; I want to be in a class with, like, twelve people I get to know really well.”

She also appreciates the diversity of WNMU. “It is impressive that we have students from so many different places,” she said, noting how WNMU differs from the university she lived near in Iowa. “It was predominantly a white, rural area, and so even if kids were coming from different places, you saw a lot of people from the same background,” explained Drissell, “At WNMU, you have people from a lot of different backgrounds, and I really like that.”

Drissell emphasized that diversity affects her education in specific ways. “When I am learning,” she said, “if we all come from a similar stance, we are not going to have different opinions, and I am not going to be challenged to think outside the box, and then my opinion is not going to be as meaningful and well-informed.”

She pointed to her ALAS [Applied Liberal Arts and Sciences] class from the fall semester as an example. “The topic [of the course] was reproductive justice, so we were looking at it from a historical angle, from a sociological angle and from a political science angle,” she said, “There were multiple women in the class that were pregnant at the time, and there were multiple parents, and lots of people from different communities—some rural, some urban—lots of different ethnicities, so that suddenly changed the conversation. … When a parent is disagreeing with me, I am suddenly realizing that maybe there is more value to that other opinion because I do not have that perspective.”

While it was the small class size and diverse student body that attracted Drissell to WNMU, she has also enjoyed her academic experience and has taken advantage of opportunities to get involved in the campus community.

On the academic side, she especially lauds the university’s Expressive Arts faculty. “WNMU is really lucky,” she said, “because for such a small, rural school, [there is a] great variety of expertise and teaching style. That has really excited me.”

That diversity is reflected in the range of artistic projects that Drissell has worked on this year. In particular, she noted a wearable sculpture that she created for a class last semester, a project that she found both challenging and satisfying. “I think art should not just be something hanging on the wall,” she said, “I think it should be something we interact with.”

Making art accessible, she said, is very much in keeping with WNMU tradition. “WNMU excels at being a college that is for everybody,” said Drissell, “so we really should make art here that is for everybody.”

This philosophy has also informed her work with the WNMU Art Club, one of three campus clubs she belongs to. A recent Art Club event was a Valentine’s Day workshop, in which students used collage techniques to transform a variety of materials, such as lace scraps and vintage imagery, into valentines. Attendance at the event was exceptional, Drissell said, “Art Club always has the biggest turnout because people just really want to be making stuff, having fun and creating with their friends.”

She is also involved with the WNMU Horticulture Club and Queers and Allies Club.

Drissell said that she and her fellow Horticulture Club members are enthusiastic about the university’s new food security and sustainability initiative. “We are hoping that will result in a campus vegetable garden and campus orchard, so we are planning that and getting excited about what that might involve,” she said.

Her experience with the Queers and Allies Club has been partly focused on trying to boost student involvement. “We are trying to figure out how to get the larger campus involved,” she said, noting that the club’s name is intentionally Queers and Allies. “We are interested in facilitating a place for everyone. There is an angle of focusing on the LGBTQ+ community,” she acknowledged, “but it is because we are interested in inclusion and creating a safe space for people to come together and have fun.”

She is also serving as a liaison between campus and community as the student representative of LGBTQ Grant County, which is the organization that hosts the county’s Pride Fest each year. “I have been involved for almost a year, and I helped plan Pride this year,” she said, “I did some community organizing when I was in high school, but a lot of that was for teen-run groups, so it is really cool to work with a larger community organization. Really, my job is to be a voice for the younger community. I really appreciate that because I get to watch experts do their thing and learn a lot.”

While her campus and community involvement has influenced her academic and artistic studies, ultimately, said Drissell, one of most powerful influences has been New Mexico itself. Currently immersed in abstractive realism in her painting class, she said that the local geography is a powerful force in her artistic work. “I feel that the New Mexican landscape lends itself to abstraction so well,” she said, “It feels like you are walking through something abstract.”

“Sometimes, I feel like I am on a different planet,” she added, “I never run out of inspiration.”

Natalee Drissell is a featured student in the upcoming Amazon Prime TV episode of “The College Tour” that was filmed on campus in November.

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