The rebirth of Detroit in the 21st century is being accompanied by a renewed awareness of its French roots. The French history of Detroit is the subject of media interest, lectures in popular history meet-ups, mardi gras events, and an interest in early Detroit folktales. Artist Nicole Lapointe has found a subject in Detroit folklore, especially the Nain Rouge, the focus of an increasingly popular Springtime community festival. Lapointe, in her own words, is a “Detroit-based digital artist who spends an exorbitant amount of time on Facebook, and the internet in general. When she’s not 2 pages deep into a Cracked article or looking up obscure Detroit history, you’ll find her out biking, roller skating, petting dogs, or generally getting into mischief.” For more information on the artist and her work, follow her Artist page on Facebook.—JL, editor
James LaForest: Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions for Voyageur Heritage. I’d like to know a bit more about your artwork. Going by your Facebook gallery, your work focuses largely on cartoons, comics, graphic novels. What attracted you to this type of work and do you work in other styles/mediums as well?
Nicole Lapointe: Growing up I watched a ton of cartoons. A ton. I lived (sort of) in the middle of the woods with no other kids my age to play with so I spent a lot of time fixating on cartoons and drawing what I guess you would call “fan art.” As I grew older I started getting into graphic novels, and began emulating that style of drawing, and I think that’s when my style really started: half comicy, half graphic novel-esque. From time to time I also paint (watercolors, acrylics, oils, spray) and sculpt. But to be honest, I’ll dabble in anything artistic at least once. I can do realism, but comicy stuff is so much more fun for me.
LaForest: I’m particularly interested in your work featuring the Nain Rouge and other themes that draw on French Canadian heritage. How did you come to this theme? Your name is Lapointe, so might I assume that you are drawing on something that reflects your own heritage?
Lapointe: The Marche du Nain Rouge is really what made me fall in love with Detroit, and I think one of the reasons is because it IS based on French folklore and being half French (Canadian) I felt connected to it somehow. But it’s funny, I’ve been to nearly every Marche (save the first year) and it never crossed my mind to draw the Nain….that is until last year. The night before the Marche I had a dream about the Nain in Normandy (where he is speculated to have originated from) and the whole dream was about this little red imp who had a bad reputation. But one villager in the town knew deep down that he wasn’t a bad guy.
At the end of the dream the villager convinced the Nain that he was indeed a good guy and he ended up saving the whole village from a natural disaster. Most dreams I wake up, laugh, and forget about an hour later. This one stuck with me for some reason. So the next day I drew the Nain. And the day after that I drew the Nain. And the day after that, and the day after that, etc… He started becoming a character that wouldn’t go away, so I ran with him. To this day I probably have at least 3 separate Nain’s living in my head. The Marche’s Nain, Silly Nain (whose antics you’ve seen on my FB page) and Rousel, the Nain that will appear in a graphic novel I have in the works.
LaForest: You frequently depict the Nain Rouge in a sort of normal, everyday life – a hangover from New Years eve, a response to the pre-Christmas “red cup” controversy, etc. What can you tell me about your conception of the Nain Rouge and where you think he fits into Detroit culture and society?
Lapointe: Well, in my head the Nain hasn’t done anything big and horrible lately, so I figure he’s either given up on destroying Detroit, or he’s bored and just wants to mess with people on a more personal level. Or, a little of both. And I guess that’s the basis of my “Silly Nain.” Plus, he’s a fun outlet for dumb ideas and addressing events and issues. Sometimes people give me ideas like, “Oh, the Nain should do this or that” because he’s a fun character even if he is kind of a jerk, and I think seeing folkloric characters meddling in everyday, boring affairs is interesting. One of my favorite graphic novel series is Fables, which focuses on old fairy tales and fable characters living in a modern environment, and I like it for the same reasons I like throwing the Nain into mundane human events.
Again, that’s just my Silly Nain. I’m excited to bring to life my much more serious Nain, Rousel. He definitely lives his life more in the occult side of Detroit, but at the same time he’s very much intertwined in our modern life despite his age and stubbornness. As far as where the Nain fits into Detroit culture and society? I think he’ll always be a bit of a mascot, even if he represents our worst times. He might be horrible, but people love to hate the bad guys. He’s also like our own New Jersey Devil or Mothman, but with a lot more personality and history.
LaForest: A number of your images are very strong graphics. I’m thinking in particular of the Nain Rouge sitting on a ledge (with a gargoyle just below him); the black and white caped Nain standing on what looks like a steeple; and possibly most powerful of all is the Nain Rouge in an alternate seal of Detroit where he appears as the famous statue The Spirit of Detroit. In Detroit, and among French Canadians around the area, he is really becoming, after lurking about for over three centuries, a fixture in local culture — a malevolent spirit but one that we also kind of love because he’s ours. What do you think and do you have a favorite image of the Nain?
Lapointe: I do love him because he IS ours. And the funny thing is, I find lifelong Detroiters who have never heard of him and when I tell them his tale, their minds are blown. As if they had no idea we had this sort of history or storytelling culture. I’m sad that I’ll never get to see how his tale will change or not change over the next 300 years and whether or not he’ll fade away. It’s amazing that anyone found his tale to begin with and brought it back into the light. As far as Nain images go, my favorites are the Chairmen Mao inspired banners that hang on the Masonic Temple at the end of the annual Marche. They’re dark-humored, in tune with the particular year, and graphically amazing.
LaForest: Thug Voyageurs…Je Ne Sais Pas. This is a fun, colorful image that would be a great way to introduce a very old, traditional subculture to the wider community. What was your inspiration for this drawing?
Lapointe: Haha! That actually came from a conversation with a French Canadian friend of mine. I’m not sure how it started, but we were joking about what “thug voyageurs” would be like. It basically centered around gold beaver bling, hydraulic canoes, and boomboxes blaring “Alouette” full blast. It was such a silly idea I had to draw it. I think I tried to release my inner Kate Beaton with that sketch (even I failed miserably.) If you’ve never seen her work, it’s amazing. She takes a humorous and modern look at tons of historical events and characters
LaForest: I’ve often been told in writing to take your last sentence or paragraph and put it at the beginning. I think, in a sense, your last sentence here really tells us a lot about your approach and what you want to do with the Nain Rouge in your art, with your art generally. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer a few questions. Congratulations on your good work and I know that I for one look forward to seeing much more in the future, especially of Rousel.