Mil-spouse photographer/artist Narissa Alford has turned her frequent PCSes into opportunities. She meets change by embracing new cultures and translating them into visual works of art.
Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
I met my husband when we were both managers for a department store in Mobile, AL. We got married in his first year of law school. I continued to work in retail until he went active duty, then began my chopped salad resume. Some of my jobs include working at the APO, the Incirlik AB Marketing office, and volunteering as the President of the Spouses Club at Osan AB. I’ll be completely honest, I struggled my first few years as a military spouse. I had a hard time balancing being a new mom, finding a job I was passionate about, and knowing I needed to bring in an income. I was crushed when I found a job I loved only to have to resign because of a PCS. We’ve been stationed at Luke AB, Dover AB, the Army JAG school in Charlottesville, US Embassy Kuwait, Incirlik AB, Osan AB, and MacDill AB. Once we moved abroad, I grew so much personally and artistically. I don’t know if it was the fact that I was forced to “learn” since we were off on our own. I don’t know if it was the fact that I was past the newness of military life. I do know I started to find my voice as an artist and an active volunteer of the military community. Kuwait did not offer much in creative classes, so I immersed myself in classes online and in books. I am a lifelong learner and always looking for new ways to be inspired.
My husband has been an active duty attorney in the Air Force for over 18 years. We have 2 high school boys. We adopted our dog, Daisy, when we were stationed in Korea. She is my favorite Korean souvenir. Our entire family has grown to love living abroad.
How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as a painter – creatively, logistically, or otherwise?
The positive impacts far outweigh the negative ones. My husband’s longest assignment was three years, and we only had one of those; the rest of them have been 1-2 years. The largest hurdle is feeling like I have to pick up and start over after we move. Living abroad and deciphering the SOFA agreements are a pain point for me. But, I think about all the places I’ve been that I would have never thought of checking the box for pre-military life. I’ve found an enormous amount of joy exploring then channeling that inspiration into my art.
One of my proudest accomplishments was being named a finalist for the American Legion’s Veteranpreneur contest. We were tasked to make poppy themed merchandise. I created watercolor illustrations inspired by an outing to a small farm town in Korea. Above is my artwork and reference photos.
You can view more about the project here, including a video on Fox & Friends.
You can view more about the project here, including a video on Fox & Friends: https://www.nerissaalforddesigns.com/pages/national-poppy-day
When I was named a finalist, I left for New York while my husband was en route to Afghanistan for a year-long deployment. My trip to New York was right before the kids and I were to move to Maryland from Florida. It was equally an amazing and stressful time for me.
How did you get comfortable with solo traveling?
For me, I think my confidence grew through the years. When we arrived in Kuwait, I was nervous. After we moved into our house, I kept the window shades closed all day (think hurricane shutters or German rolladens) and hunkered down in our enormous house. After 6 months, my car arrived in country. I began getting comfortable driving to the local co-op (grocery stores) and photographing mosques along the way. I even found a group of Kuwaiti artists/creatives that welcomed me with arms wide open. In Turkey I started going on trips without my family. I went on a trip with other photographers and was hooked. I arrived with all the preconceived notions of living in the Middle East and left with a completely open heart. Very early on, after we moved to Korea, I took a class with AFRC (Airmen & Family Readiness Center). They taught me how to take the subway from Osan to Seoul, and I never looked back. I took day trips to Seoul to go shop at the various markets and art stores. I visited several temples in the area to photograph. I also took a couple of solo weekend trips. My most memorable was attending the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul, celebrating Buddha’s birthday. While I was thrilled that we Finally got stationed in the middle of Europe; it took me 5 months to get settled. My husband had finished a year-long deployment, then we immediately moved to Ramstein, Germany. With the timing, I started day tripping during the Christmas season and the markets. I visited 9 markets in Germany, France, and Luxembourg.
I will say, the ironic thing about all this is I am the worst navigator AND I’m so inspired by maps. My family refers to me as Magellan. I will also admit that I used to not research much when we got to Germany. I’d look at pretty pictures then press go on Google maps. I’ve come a long way as a traveler.
I’ve become quite the road warrior during my trips. One of my favorite things is pulling over when something catches my eye. I took so many pit-stops driving by giant fields of sunflowers in France. This was on my way to Riquewihr.
How has Covid affected your love of traveling and your artistic practice?
COVID has definitely thrown a wrench in my travel plans. I planned a bit and with my husband’s encouragement, I did a day trip every week from May when the EU borders opened up mid-September. I travelled the Alsace France region extensively. I visited art museums (wallpaper, printed fabric and a few illustration museums), took pictures for inspiration, shopped at the local grocery stores, and enjoyed the regional food and wine. I’ve even started learning French. I’m Nerissa Alford on Duolingo if you want to be language buddies. Now that the borders have closed up again, I am working on creating from all the photographs I took. I had saved Germany to explore once the borders closed, but much of Germany is currently on lockdown. I have since pivoted and have turned to hiking in our area. I’m enjoying the Fall colors and am still able to take photos.
When the first lockdown happened in the Spring of 2020, I was an active volunteer for the USO. I continued volunteering with them by creating video content for their virtual programs. I continue to create travel videos.
Rock Art: https://youtu.be/IHOJJzSwhwY
Travel Journaling Basics: https://youtu.be/wgupTBrBddE
Travel Journaling Layout: https://youtu.be/So2eGGm4jEc
Time to Travel – Alsace France: https://youtu.be/q-s2d7a8IWk
Time to Travel – Monschau, Germany: https://youtu.be/L1jVo8ZEZQ0
Describe for us your creative work and the aesthetic of your illustrations?
I scour travel blogs, Facebook travel groups, and Pinterest for locations and tourist highlights to visit. For my illustrations, it is important that I have traveled to that location and taken my own photographs. I am currently working on maps of all the towns I’ve visited and line drawings of buildings. I used to work exclusively in watercolor with ink, but have recently started drawing on my iPad. I love that it’s portable and forgiving. It’s also given me a chance to play more with hand lettering and traditional calligraphy from my childhood.
While stationed at Osan AB in South Korea, I was highly influenced by the temples, Buddha, cherry blossoms, and the paper lanterns. The country held festivals almost every weekend. This was an amazing way to experience the culture and find inspiration.
Find more of Nerissa’s work online at:
YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoyhsw7x97HU-tMRci-TJHw