For a glimpse at Deborah Lillie’s multifaceted life, look no further than her office walls. Nearly every inch is covered with family treasures, artifacts picked up during international travel and photographs — lots of artsy photographs taken by Lillie, her students and her admired colleagues. Taped to the ceiling are textured world maps, and leaning against her windowsill is an X-ray of a K-9 dog that Lillie cares for and trains. As she sits next to her cappuccino machine and handmade ceramic mugs — in a corner of her office that she calls “the café” — Lillie tells stories about each piece. With her soft, cool demeanor, it’s easy to lose track of time.
A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., Lillie has an unassuming yet versatile presence on the Nicholls campus. She can often be found in the photography and sculpture studios, where she serves as an instructor of both disciplines. Or in the Ameen Art Gallery, where she helps coordinate student art shows. Or even in Talbot Hall’s foundry, where she does blacksmithing.
Although Lillie has always wanted to teach, art was not her original plan.
“I resisted majoring in art for a while,” she says. “I guess I just didn’t value it as much as I should have, probably because it came so easily to me.”
Now, in her 14th year as an educator, Lillie is known as a stickler for the technical aspects of her students’ art. She does, however, strive to be a fairly hands-off instructor, hoping that students learn to recognize their own vision.
“I make it my business to really get to know my students as it relates to their artwork,” Lillie says. “That way, I can give them feedback on how well they seem to be tapping into what is really ‘them’ and not just making stuff that looks like what they’ve seen presented as ‘legitimate’ artwork elsewhere.”
Outside the classroom, Lillie trades one type of student for another. In 1999, she began working with police groups as an interested civilian. Now she’s a reserve K-9 deputy with Assumption Parish Sheriff’s Office, where she trains police dogs, especially for search and rescue.
“I’m not athletic, especially compared to the cops who become K-9 deputies,” Lillie says. “But it turns out I am good at reading and speaking ‘dog.’ Dogs have taught me a great deal about teaching humans. They respond very honestly. If your dog isn’t doingthings the way you want, you usually need to look at yourself to identify the problem.”
Lillie’s medley of talents, though quite diverse, seems to complement one another well. A few years ago, she discovered that her family’s artistic genes run deep and probably had a lot to do with her unorthodox life. Lillie says that as her great-grandfather lay on his deathbed, he made a special request to the family: “Make sure Deborah knows that her uncle was a blacksmith, a photographer and a taxidermist,” he said. “That must be where she gets it from.”
— Written by Lee Daigle (BA ’06)
This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.