Welcome to the first Spring Issue of New Orleans Canvas Magazine! The arrival of Spring in New Orleans means you’ve survived another Mardi Gras and festivals are now blooming in the gorgeous Southern sunshine. Local artists who’ve done the hard work of decorating Carnival can usually be found somewhere on a blanket in the grass, contemplating a plastic tray filled with boiled crawfish …
This is an especially exciting issue because we’ve profiled some exceptional artists and readership is continuing to grow. Photographer Pamela Reed has also expanded her role with the magazine: In addition to taking all of the artists’ portraits, Pamela has taken on the role of Photo Editor. Pamela’s tireless work ethic and singular talent are abundantly evident in these pages.
We’re understandably proud to feature popular local artist Terrance Osborne as our cover artist for this issue. Terrance is known throughout the world for his vibrant paintings of New Orleans Architecture and local culture.
Pamela Reed and I also spent a day with contemporary abstract expressionist painter Nancy Hirsch Lassen in her studios. Nancy (also a well-known interior designer in the city) paints beautiful abstract paintings inspired by her surroundings.
We also profiled Jeannie Tidy, who is the Executive Director of Community Visions Unlimited (CVU) here in New Orleans. CVU is a local non-profit that aims to rebuild New Orleans and combat blight by providing housing and using public art to empower communities. Jeannie Tidy and CVU are responsible for the painted utility box program in Metropolitan New Orleans.
Additionally we profiled three other fascinating and vastly different artists our readers should become more familiar with. Derec Donovan is a local comic book artist who has had a successful career drawing comics for the last twenty years. Eric Odditorium is a professional sword swallower and side-show performer working in the French Quarter. Lance Vargas is a local gallery owner and Southern Primitive artist specializing in re-purposing and reclaiming antique lumber and mechanical parts which he uses to make art.
Finally, we’ve interviewed our first art collector: Dorian Bennett graciously allowed us to visit his home and take pictures of his collection for this issue. He discusses his fascinating process for collecting art.
Pamela Reed introduced me to Lance (AKA Reverend) Vargas this past February at his Deurty Boys gallery in the French Quarter on Chartres Street. Lance, along with business partner and fellow artist Jeremy Hebert, welcomes potential customers with a down-to-earth attitude and a witty sense of humor, very different from what one might experience at the average art gallery.
Lance deserves recognition for being brave enough to represent himself and start his own gallery in the French Quarter. Looking at the copious amounts of art that grace the walls you realize that he must work constantly to maintain his inventory of art, much of which does get sold!
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Lance: I moved to New Orleans in the late 1900s from Pensacola, FL. I’m a Gulf Coast kid.
NCM: And I understand that you are a professional artist as well as a gallery owner?
Lance: Yes, I’m the owner, operator, and proprietor of Deurty Boys Gallery. My art and Jeremy Hebert’s art are also featured.
NCM: What led you to become a professional artist as opposed as to just having it as a hobby?
Lance: I’d been laid off from two or three jobs in a row. I decided that I was going to do this and (even if I only made $5 an hour) I would work 100 hours a week. Just keep doing it until it hit. I started selling my art on Jackson Square, for which the City of New Orleans graciously provided a permit! I was able to reach a wider audience there and started selling and making more art. Constantly having to create more art has made me a better artist.
NCM: How long have you been a professional artist?
Lance: Ten years this Summer.
NCM: What made you decide to open a gallery as opposed to finding a gallery to feature your work?
Lance: We were featured artists in another gallery and we were making the majority of that gallery’s money. We had a falling out with the gallery owner due to shady business practices, so we left and opened our own place.
NCM: How long has Duerty Boys been open?
Lance: Since May 2016.
NCM: What genres do you work in?
Lance: Jeremy focuses on Pop Art and I focus on Southern Primitive.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most? Do you have any artistic heroes?
Lance: I very rarely look at other visual artists. I don’t want to be influenced by somebody and have their work creep into mine. I don’t want to bite into someone else’s style.
Some artists do that subconsciously and more disreputable artists do it consciously. In order to avoid that, I try not to look too much at other artists. Unless they’re my friends and I’m looking at their art because they’ve asked me and want my opinion.
I get most of my inspiration through film and music. Some pieces are directly inspired by lyrics in songs. Stuff like that inspires me more than other visual arts.
NCM: Did you go to art school or are you completely self-taught?
Lance: I’m completely self-taught. I enjoyed drawing as a kid and would decorate my room every year.
NCM: What’s your favorite medium to work in?
Lance: Wood. Definitely wood. Always wood. I love using lath board out of old houses with plaster walls. Basically obsolete building materials because houses all have dry wall now. A lot of the Mardi Gras Indians in town use lath board. Any old Southern city with a bunch of old houses has a lot of lath board. You can see it used in several pieces around the gallery.
NCM: Do you ever have trouble finding materials to work with?
Lance: Yes, it is boom or bust with the lath. When I find a 1600 square foot house that is pulling out the lath, I can get all of my lath board for a year. It’s just a matter of finding that house. There are less and less as the years go by. I have an 8 foot bed in my truck and I usually fill that up trolling around neighborhoods, looking for the lath sticking out of the back of dumpsters.
NCM: When did you first start working with wood?
Lance: The genesis of it was when I moved into an old craftsman house in Algiers. I was refinishing my wood floors. It taught me about sanding, staining, and coating heart pine, using masking to create lines and designs in the stain.
Since I had my own shop in the back of the house I was able to develop from there. It took awhile because a lot of the early stuff was really bad.
NCM: What made you choose Southern Primitive over other styles?
Lance: I just have a Southern soul. I have always been interested in Southern Gothic writing. I grew up taking road trips through the South. I’m fascinated with the Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner aesthetic that they created through their books and the films based on those books. The deep primitive South provides endless subject matter.
NCM: You might be the first “Southern Primitive” artist we’ve interviewed. Your art is different from everyone else we’ve featured so far.
Lance: There are other primitive artists, but I might have been the first person to put the two words together. Not everything that I do is Southern Primitive, but my best work is.
NCM: What, do you find, is the most challenging part about being an artist?
Lance: Probably just the straight logistics of the career. The most challenging part for many other artists is one that I have never had a problem with: self-doubt. Thinking that your stuff is not good enough and comparing yourself to others is a huge problem for a lot of artists. But once I figured out that I was doing this or nothing, once I understood there is no Plan B, then I was able to push away the doubt and negativity.
NCM: Is there anything you wish you’d have known about being a gallery owner before you opened this gallery?
Lance: It is really hard to say because this is my first gallery and it’s my only experience. You definitely need to pick the right partner. Go into it with somebody that you get along with and who has a similar personality. Jeremy and I are two creative guys from small cities where there wasn’t a lot of opportunity or encouragement to be creative. We both showed up at Jackson Square at the right time and we’ve been on a parallel path for a while now.
NCM: How do you handle negative criticism? Has anyone ever given you negative feedback that has really stung?
Lance: I tell them to go f___ themselves. Just kidding! You can’t please ’em all, though I’m sure that I can handle anyone that walks into this gallery and starts into an abstract critique of my art. First, I’m closely connected to every piece of my art. And second, I’ve heard everything by now. I’ll engage them, but there’s nothing they can tell me about my art that I’m not prepared to hear.
I can show you the flaws in any one of these pieces because I know each one intimately. For example, that one came out too dark over there. And that one over there has too much stain around it’s eyes. Or that one’s theme is too abstract.
NCM: If you had to pick one favorite of all of your work, which one would that be?
Lance: Of the art in here, I would say the decorated door over there. There’s also the one with a girl running away from a tornado. It’s based on a Neko Case song about a tornado stalking this woman. I like it because I did a good job conveying the synesthesia of the song. The song created a mood for me. I had a visual image in my head and I was able to put it onto the piece of wood and carve it out perfectly.
NCM: How do you come up with a pricing structure for your art?
Lance: I’ve used several factors: the rarity of the wood, how much attention the piece gets, the time involved making it, and how easy it will be to move it out of here. That’s how I’ve done it in the past. Then I recently watched a documentary about art auctions in New York and realized that their pricing (structure) was all bullshit anyway.
NCM: What is the best advice you’ve received from other artists about being an artist or gallery owner?
Lance: As an artist, if you hang it on the wall, it will eventually sell. As far as being a gallery owner, that’s harder to answer because most of the gallery owners I know are very competitive and don’t share information. I don’t want them to influence me and destroy my mission.
NCM: Anything else to share with our readers?
Lance: Just that we are living in an age when a lot of the things in our homes aren’t authentic and homogeneous. What you buy at Deurty Boys Gallery is original art made in New Orleans from antique lumber out of New Orleans homes.
You can see Lance’s work in person at the Deurty Boys Gallery at 901 Chartres Street in the New Orleans French Quarter. Deurty Boys also has a website at www.deurtyboys.com.
For this issue we were very blessed to interview local collector Dorian Bennett about his fine art collection. We wanted to learn his thought process when he’s building his collection and what he looks for in a piece of art. Trevor Wisdom interviewed Dorian at his home in the Marigny for New Orleans Canvas Magazine.
TW: How did you first start collecting? How old were you?
Dorian: I wasn’t really thinking about collecting per se. Basically I’d been admiring art and creating art from a very early age as an actual artist. A lot of the work in this house I created.
Eventually, I woke up one day and people started saying, “You’ve got quite a collection!”
Penelope Jenkins helped me hang and organize a lot of these pieces and she’d worked at Arthur Roger. She said to me that this collection is very much like the Barnes collection. (Which I think is a real big stretch). My collection is more focused on my knowledge of art.
I’ve taken Art History courses and read a lot of books about art. I’ve visited a lot of the major art museums all over the world. I’ve visited: the Louvre, The Hermitage, The Prada, The National Art Gallery in DC, the Smithsonian, the galleries and museums in Palm Beach and Miami, the Museums in L.A., museums in Colorado, and the Chicago Art Institute.
So I’ve basically refined my taste and what I like and don’t like. Some art is very kitschy and catches your attention, but won’t hold it. It doesn’t resonate. I like art that resonates with me and makes me continue to ponder: “Well, how did they do that? And what were they saying when they did it?” I like art that I continue to puzzle over.
TW: So it’s important for you to have a reason to dwell on it.
Dorian: I do like to think about each piece of art. For example, the Mel Bochner in the hallway. That deals with people and their attitudes because there is a very bad son of a bitch there! He’s irritable. He’s a cantankerous, argumentative, bellicose, dyspeptic, petulant, bitchy, bitter, dark, dour, sour, surly, nasty, peevish, pissed off, looking for trouble son of a bitch. Thinking about that keeps me engaged.
To the right of that is a new piece that I got by Catherine Philpott about racial inequalities. It’s got this black man reading in a very Rodin Thinker posture. It’s engaging. Part of my art collection is focused on African American artists. There’s some amazing creative energy coming out of that world.
I’ve got that brilliant Benny Andrews over there between the two windows. It’s the Chess Player. He was one of the early African Americans admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago. In the front room I’ve got a beautiful Richmond Barthe’ who was from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and the first African American admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago.
I’ve got my Epaul Julien, whom I adore, here. He’s a cool dude. And I’ve got my Tony Green, which is a painting of Jules Kahn’s funeral march. To the best of my knowledge, Jules was the only white Jewish guy here in the city of New Orleans who had a Jazz funeral. I saw that painting in Tony’s studio in Venice in 2000 with my late wife, Kell. We had lunch with him and bought this painting.
TW: Have you gone through different stages? Do you remember your first collectible and why it spoke to you then? Was it a casual purchase or something conscious? Do you remember how old you were?
Dorian: My first serious purchase was at a special show in Williamsburg, VA., when I was a student at William and Mary. There was a Francisco Goya aquatint etching of dogs fighting, a very serious piece. I don’t know why but it wasn’t much money. I bought that and a Henri Daumier. I bought the Daumier because it made me laugh.
It was a traveling show. There are kinds of different dealers in the world and you learn about them as you move through life. Some are reputable and some are not. You find out by the quality of the artwork. If they’re stealing art out of someone’s home or the library, that’s a different thing.
Robert Hicklin, Jr. at the Renaissance Gallery in Charleston is a brilliant dealer. Or there’s also my friend, Tim Foley. Tim knows exactly what I want to buy.
TW: How does Tim peg you? What is that je ne sais quoi?
Dorian: We’ve talked about art and he knows what he’s sold me in the past. He knew that I am a fan of the Whitney Biennials. I love to go to the Biennials. I love to go to Art Basel. I loved my one trip to the Venice Biennialle. Maybe I’ll do another one.
TW: Did you and Kell ever collect jointly?
Dorian: We did a lot.
TW: Did you influence each other?
Dorian: She and I would play off each other. Like that Mel Bochner! (the aforementioned portrait of a cantankerous, argumentative, bellicose, dyspeptic, petulant, bitchy, bitter, dark, dour, sour, surly, nasty, peevish, pissed off, looking for trouble son of a bitch) It was something she and I bought together at the Barbara Davis Gallery in Houston, for a considerable amount of money. Probably one of the most expensive works that I have in here. We paid it off over three months. We saw all kinds of Mel Bochner work and we responded to it. There was something in it that kept grabbing us. And finally we decided that we could live with this son of a bitch. It’s a painting that has a message. Mel Bochner is all about the message.
Then there’s Robert Gordy’s ‘ Study for Rimbaud’s Dream’. I bought that from Simone Stern. That’s one of the early things that came out of my little quad space.
TW: Was that one of your early ones?
Dorian: One of my earliest ones. That was in the Museum’s retrospective because Gordy was incredibly generous to New Orleans. He was a friend of mine.
I didn’t have any of his work and I wanted some. I was flattened by the images I saw there. And there was an image there that was in the show. It was labeled The Private Collection of Bob Gordy, and they told me many of the works at the museum were for sale. Immediately I stopped everything I was doing and asked, “Which pieces are for sale?”
She pulled out the catalog and let me flip through it, saying “Pick out what you like.”
I picked ‘Study for Rimbaud’s Dream’ because it contains forms that he would reuse in all of the works that he did afterward. Like the squiggles in one and the textural flat plains in another one. Or the striped zebra type thing in another. Or the lettuce looking format. That’s the premier study and the one that I wanted.
I got a phone call after I acquired the piece telling me that Gordy had previously promised it to a collector in Baton Rouge who was going blind. And my response was simply “I’m sorry. I bought it. You can’t have it.” I was being ranked! There was a ranking going on.
TW: Strong armed? Like you weren’t good enough to collect it?
Dorian: I was being pressed! Really being pressed and I didn’t like it one bit. So I stopped everything I was doing and I drove up to the gallery, got out of the car and said to Donna, “What you just don’t understand is that I’m going to be a real collector. I’m going to have a real collection. You don’t want to mistreat me! I had your word that you sold it to me and you had my word that I bought it. I’m obligated to give you the money so here’s the money. There’s nothing left for you to do now but give me the painting.” Just as I was leaving Bob Gordy comes in and gives me a hug. I said, “Bob, would you please get your gallery director over here straight? Tell her I’m buying Study for Rimbaud’s Dream.
And he said, “Of course!”
TW: What advice can you give to an up and coming artist.
Dorian: I would say that for an up and coming artist its just a matter of going to the galleries and meeting the people who are buying the art. If you want to sell your art, it’s not a bad idea to figure out whose collection you would like to be in. People consistently come to see my collection, from museum curators to gallery directors. They want to see and learn about the artists that I have in my collection, taking ideas and building their own collections with those ideas. It’s a hard thing to say because everyone does things differently. The sensitivity level of some artists is different than others.
I have a disease that I like to call Purchase Mania or Art Gropia. You can die from that disease. There’s no cure for it.
Still, the bulk of my collection is not bought on impulse. I’ve really studied the bulk of these works. I’ve studied the artists’ CV’s and where they went to school. If it’s a self-taught artist then none of that is important. But if it is somebody who has a nice CV with a list of galleries, then you do want to know.
Like the Peter Roth that you’re fascinated with. This was one of those real surprise treats that I brought home from Chicago. Kell hadn’t seen it, but once she saw it she loved it. She wanted it hanging near her. It’s everything Warhol, a gallery of Warhols. No one could afford a gallery of Warhols! Sure, Sidney Besthoff could afford a gallery of Warhols. Or Billy Wiseman. I can’t afford a gallery of Warhols. Peter Roth is an architect and a painter. An artist who happens to be an architect! Whichever way you want to spin that.
TW: So that’s why it’s like a 3D model of a house. Does he do all of his stuff “three dimensional” like that?
Dorian: Yes! And he does them in different scales. Like this scale. Then there’s one that is about three times this size. That’s just too big. Then there was another scale that was too small. There are three different scales, at the Gruen Gallery in Chicago. I love to shop art in Chicago. I don’t go there much because I know it’s going to get me! It’s a deadly city for art, phenomenal galleries with great work. Work that says, “ You need to come home with me!”
TW: What about something from an artist with whom you aren’t familiar or don’t know about their reputation?
Dorian: Yes, I might buy it.
TW: Just for the whimsy?
Dorian: There have been some things I have done like that. I did an art auction supporting different organizations and cooperatives that will be selling little sections of art that I don’t know a thing about. I bought a piece from an auction that was held at Mimi’s bar. The artist was a Yale grad or something like that.
I sat there and I bought hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars worth of art. I bought a bartender’s piece. I don’t know what her list of histories and stuff is, but she did this really cool piece and I have it.
TW: And you did it just as a whimsy?
Dorian: Totally! Another thing I love doing is provide housing for visiting artists. I love doing that.
TW: How do you do that?
Dorian: I’m a Prospect member and I make it known to the curators who are doing the shows that I have guest accommodations for their artists.
TW: You have them here at your house?
TW: Do you ever think about having a gallery or museum?
Dorian: I do think about that! A mini-Frick or something like that. I don’t know what the pluses and negatives are. I open the house up for (CANO has a number of tours) Jeanne Nathan. She brings curators and museum directors or whatever. Collectors from different parts of the country and the world. She brings them into see my collection, multiple times a year.
Occasionally I’ll get involved with one of her fund raisers. They’ll do tours of collections and I’ve participated with that and the museum. NOMA had tour days. Or if it’s architectural students or students studying art from Tulane or another school, I’m game for that.
TW: How do you build relationships with artists? Does your being a collector affect the way you approach your relationships with artists?
Dorian: They either seek me out or I seek them out. There is the artist and my relationship with the artist. There was one artist named Letitia Huckaby whose work I remember seeing at the Roadhouse in Houston, TX. It was fascinating. She does quiltwork and photography. I pulled her aside and I said, “I want to meet you. I am really fascinated with your piece. We’re going to be best friends. I will always have your work in a place of honor. It will always be available to you for any shows you have got. You’ll get the money and we will become really good pals. You can drop in any time you like.” She said, “I don’t see any problem with that.” And I said, “Smart lady. I will get you a check and we will be squared away.”
Letitia Huckaby also manages Sedrick Huckaby. Sedrick is nationally if not internationally one of the most prominent African American artists in this country. As far as his work. He is sought after. All of the museums and collectors seek him out. His work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Letitia is from Zachary, LA. And she is just a marvelous person. She is a mother and has beautiful children. She and Sedrick have a lovely marriage. It was very hard for her to separate from her art. I told her that I understood that and that her art would be treasured and cared for. And I told her that it was always available for her to borrow for shows.
She has never asked to borrow them, but she does drive in. I have invited her to parties and things I might have going on for artists. She has become a friend. It’s cool! She loves that. She loves to surprise and ring the doorbell.
Some are really arm twisters. Like Robert Barnes, a Houston artist and also African American, is a lovely man and does beautiful work, wonderful work. I’ve got a major piece of his that I found at the CAC show that Don Marshall had curated. He’s got another work of his that he is gifting to me because of this major piece that I bought. And he should do that because he strong armed me. He pegged me and said, “ I’m selling it to this man!” Put my name on it.
TW: And you have a continuing relationship. So you build continuing relationships with your artists?
Dorian: Oh yeah, we are friends.
TW: Do you feel strongly that when you buy something from an artist, you want to have a relationship with them?
Dorian: I want a friendship. Epaul Julien and I are super close pals. I sell more of his work that just about anybody! When I see his work going on, I call friends of mine. And I’ll say, “you’ve got to come see this!”
Dorian: Here’s the Letitia Huckaby piece. The woman is reaching up and pondering some leaf or flower or whatever she’s looking at. Behind the sheets. Doing her daily laundry. It’s really cool.
This is the Robert Barnes. “If I ruled the world, I would make them my sons. Love ‘em baby!” He’s got that George Washington feel with that George Bush face!
And that, of course is Enrique Alvarez.
TW: And I remember the Indian things used to be in the living room by the piano over there.
Dorian: Yeah! They move around. Move around a little bit. This American Indian Boys Beaded Jacket is Sioux 1880s.
This piece came out of the Ceramic Museum in Havana, Cuba. It’s a calendar. See that? It’s a little monstery thing. This reminded me so much of a potter friend of mine, my best friend Paul Dudenhefer, who died 15 or 20 years ago. He did crazy things like that – little monstery things.
Dorian: Isn’t this fun? I found it in Taos. It’s another American Indian piece. I just thought he was so cool. With his little hands on his hips and the crucifix around his neck. Reminds me of a friend of mine.
Jeannie Tidy is the founder and Executive Director of Community Visions Unlimited, a local non-profit that is responsible for the utility box program art in the New Orleans Metropolitan area. She’s also responsible for doing a lot of other wonderful things that make New Orleans a much better place to live. Jeannie is a tireless community crusader and activist who works tirelessly to make our streets safer and more beautiful.
I first met Jeannie a few years ago when I answered a Craigslist Ad looking for artists to paint utility boxes here in New Orleans. My assignment was to paint two boxes in the Basin Street “neutral ground, dedicated to two local musicians: Deacon John Moore, at Basin Street and St. Louis Street, and Little Freddie King at Basin and St. Peter.
Jeannie has found a way to harness the power of public art to bring joy and happiness into some of the poorest and most dangerous parts of New Orleans. Simultaneously, she is giving local artists the opportunity to display their work to a wider audience.
NCM: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you get your start revitalizing neighborhoods?
Jeannie: I’m from New Orleans and I grew up here. I lived here until 1999, when I was recruited to run a program in Petersburg, Virginia. The program in Virginia was similar to Community Visions Unlimited (CVU), which was originally founded to help get rid of blight in our neighborhoods. Then I came home, to the neighborhood of Mid City. We moved into that neighborhood when it was very scary.
The area of Mid-City New Orleans bounded by Ursuline Avenue, Orleans, Broad, and the Bayou had over a hundred vacant buildings. There was constant gunfire and crime everywhere, but I decided to dig in and refused to leave. I started a letter writing campaign to the City Council to improve the neighborhood, back when you had to actually write letters. Through that campaign I learned who all of the code enforcement people were.
I became very adept at knowing all of the police and city codes. I got a code book from the city and I started memorizing the codes. At the same time I also started writing letters to the owners of the properties saying, “CVU would like to find a buyer for your home that will restore it. It doesn’t cost you anything and we aren’t interested in making money off of it, we just want to see the home restored.”
NCM: So CVU wasn’t started in order to paint murals around the city, it was started to combat blight?
Jeannie: CVU was started to empower and enhance neighborhoods. Whether it is for a beautification campaign like painting the utility boxes or planting trees and flowers. For example, we planted all of the trees in that neighborhood in Mid-City. We started three community gardens.
We worked really hard in that neighborhood in Mid-City. The first year we were there was the hardest. My poor husband helped me mow grass on the blighted properties. We just went out and started mowing the grass and cleaning up. We would seek volunteers to come out on a Saturday and pick up trash.
There was a vacant lot filled with abandoned cars and mattresses that we asked the City to clean off so that we could plant our first Community Garden. The City refused our request, so I approached a junk yard operator to tow the abandoned cars away to sell them for scrap. He towed everything off of the lot that was mechanical and that became Parkway Partners first Community Garden. It’s still there to this day, on Dupre and St. Philip.
We would work in the garden with all of the neighbors and their kids. We got to know a lot of people that way. My husband is from the U.K. and he would serve tea in the afternoons. The kids thought that was hilarious.
We created this “barn-raising” momentum where we would recruit people, introduce them to each other, and help them to renovate blighted houses together. They would trade skills. An expert carpenter would barter his skills with a guy that could do electrical work. This helped them afford to renovate their houses and created a really tight knit community. Within three years we had facilitated seventy-five home renovations.
After the Times-Picayune did a big story about our achievements in Mid-City people started contacting me to find them houses to renovate. That’s when my husband said to me, “Here come the speculators!” Occasionally someone would flip one of the houses but most of the buyers stayed in the properties themselves. Flippers never really bothered me. I had created my own little network of contacts and property owners.
NCM: When did CVU start painting the utility boxes?
Jeannie: When Katrina happened, I had just taken a job in San Diego, but we decided to come home because the destruction upset me so badly. We moved back to New Orleans in March 2006. We have a daughter who was living here in New Orleans and we wanted to be near her as well. We moved to Lakeview when it was at its worst and it was a long slow recovery.
I started out as an artist. I’m very impatient and I have a lot of energy. I have a vision of the potential of all of these neighborhoods and want to make it happen. I’ve learned to become more patient with people who don’t see this vision right away.
Art is definitely a big part of revitalization. It makes a neighborhood stronger and brings people together. In 2009 the first utility boxes were painted. At first the Public Works Department wouldn’t even talk to me. Then I apporached another concerned citizen named Denise Thorton, whose husband manages the Superdome, who loved the idea and was well connected enough to pick up the phone and get me an appointment with the city’s Head of Public Works, Robert Mendoza. He said that it was against policy at the Department of Public Works to give us a formal letter giving us permission to paint the utility boxes; however, if we could get the neighborhoods to do it, there would be a “gentleman’s agreement” that the Department of Public Works wouldn’t get in our way.
Sure enough, Councilwoman Susan Guidry loved the project. She got us our first grant to get started. And eventually we got more money to do more.
Originally we set out to paint ten utility boxes, but I would drive around town and see these really trashy boxes covered in graffiti and bumper stickers and I started making a list of utility boxes that needed to be redone. Other citizens started to call me wanting to know how they could get a painted utility box in their neighborhood. It started to become a grass roots effort to raise money to paint the boxes.
Our budget for each box is $750. We pay each artist $250 and we furnish them with all of the paint that they need and the primer, which is very expensive at almost $50 a gallon! We also pay for chemicals needed to clean the boxes. I’ve also had to scrape off stickers with razor blades. Some boxes are worse than others to prep.
NCM: How many boxes have been painted?
Jeannie: We’ve painted 165 so far, and I’ve raised over $100,000 to pay for them. We’re doing more all of the time. Four are presently in the pipeline. We have boxes in St. Bernard Parish, Jefferson Parish, and Orleans Parish. I hope to get boxes done all of the way down into St Bernard and Holy Cross. That’s my goal in the next year.
People are so excited. Businesses are calling and wanting to donate money to get a box. I’m even working on putting together a book about the boxes and the neighborhoods where they’re located.
Every once in a while a box gets damaged or wiped out and we’ll have to get new artists to paint new boxes because some of the artists have moved on, but I love dealing with problems and figuring out ways to solve them. My grandmother always told me to find a way to get my toe in the door and that is how you force the door to get a little wider.
NCM: How do you find the artists to paint the boxes?
Jeannie: Artists can go online to our website, download the forms and email them back to us. Every time a new box comes up to paint we send out a brief description of the proposed theme and where it is located to all of the artists on our list. Artists will then submit renderings of their ideas for our art committee and a neighborhood representative to review. The committee judges strictly on the rendering, we don’t reveal the identity of the artist to them. Then the art committee chooses one of the artists to paint that box.
A lot of the artwork is really incredible. And it requires a lot of coordination because most of the artists have other jobs. It is the most inclusive way that I can think of to make it fair for the artist. It’s such a joy to see the finished product.
NCM: Have you ever had trouble with people destroying or vandalizing the boxes?
Jeannie: We had one box on Esplanade right by Decatur where the artist left the bottom blank and that part of it was vandalized. I called and asked her to paint flowers along the bottom and they left it alone since she fixed it. They really never touched the upper part of it.
When those monument activists came here from out of state, they started putting posters on some of the boxes in Mid-City. The president of the neighborhood association in Mid-City got so angry that she contacted their organization and threatened to sue. We were able to get the posters off pretty easily. Luckily the glue didn’t stick very well.
Overall I would say that that the utility box program has been a huge success. To just have a few blips like that is a miracle. I do think that people really respect the artwork. The neighborhoods also have a vested interest in taking care of the boxes because we had to get their permission to paint them and they helped select the artists.
For example, before we started, Jefferson Davis Parkway was a dump. There was garbage everywhere and we used contractor bags and a team of people to help clean it up. We’ve noticed now that the painted boxes not only beautify the area, but they also stop people from littering!
NCM: When I painted the box in honor of Little Freddie King next to the fire station on Basin and St. Peters, I noticed that the firemen kept coming out and checking on me to make sure that I had everything I needed and that no one was bothering me while I tried to work. I think that they were very proud of that box.
Jeannie: The artists have all told me stories like that. That people have brought them popsicles and plate lunches. Because the residents worry about them painting out there in the hot sun.
If you’d like to learn more about Community Visions Unlimited, you can visit their website at www.cvunola.org. They’re always looking for more artists to paint boxes. You can also donate money to help pay for an artist to paint a box.
Derec Donovan is a comic book illustrator in New Orleans whose works I have personally admired for years. Derec’s regular Facebook postings are always dazzling and often hilarious. It’s doubtful that many New Orleanians are aware that such an accomplished Comic Book Artist lives and works among us!
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Derec: Born and raised in New Orleans. I left once, for a year, when I was twenty and worked in a studio in Georgia. Then I lived in Tampa for about eight years. Both were for artistic reasons. But I always came back to New Orleans!
NCM: When did you first start drawing?
Derec: When I could first pick up a pencil. I can’t remember not wanting to draw.
NCM: What made you decided to be a professional artist as opposed to something you just enjoy as a hobby?
Derec: I just always drew. I always made art for myself. At fourteen I met someone older than me who was making comic books for a living. That was the first time I equated something I enjoyed with getting paid. It sounded better than digging ditches! When I realized that it was a path, it clicked.
NCM: When did you sell your first piece of art?
Derec: About fifteen or sixteen. I started doing commercial jobs for people. It just snowballed from there.
NCM: Which comic book characters do you draw?
Derec: I have worked on: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, X-Men, Robin, and a lot of others. Most of the major characters. I’ve been doing this for twenty years.
NCM: Whose work inspires you most?
Derec: I’m inspired by a lot of people. When I was younger, I had a very narrow pool of comic book artists that I would go to. That was my thing. As I have gotten older, I have become inspired by other painters, film directors, sculptors, and musicians. Anything that gets me going.
NCM: What’s your favorite character to draw?
Derec: Batman is fun to work on. A lot of them are fun. I don’t have just one in particular. Drawing these characters makes going to work pretty easy.
NCM: Do you ever have trouble getting motivated to work? Or do you just draw constantly?
Derec: I’ve never had a problem with artist’s block or anything like that. More like the opposite problem, when I don’t have enough hours in the day to get all of the ideas in my head out on paper.
NCM: What is the most challenging part of being a comic book artist?
Derec: Since I’m really my own boss, it requires a certain amount of discipline. I have to crack the whip. Time management is my biggest issue. Making time to do all of the things you have to do in normal life. Like doing your taxes, mowing the lawn, going to the post office while still meeting deadlines.
NCM: How do you differentiate yourself from other artists?”
Derec: I don’t spend too much time thinking about trying to differentiate myself. I just try to do work that stands out strongly. Just trying to be as good a version of myself as I can.
NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism?
Derec: I ignore it. I’ve been doing this too long. I don’t care if someone has a negative opinion of my work.
NCM: Anything you wish you’d known about being a comic book artist before you started?
Derec: I wish I had known so much more about business. I got into this because I liked to draw and not because I wanted to be an accountant. But you still have to learn things like accounting and taxes. I had to learn a little bit about copyright law. Things come at you that you didn’t see coming.
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your art? Do you have to negotiate with the comic book companies?
Derec: It is tricky and I find myself struggling with that. Especially right now. When the economy crunches, customers sometimes have to choose whether or they can buy my artwork. When it becomes a push-to-shove thing is when you end up moving your prices.
I make money several different ways. When I work for a company, they give me a page rate. That rate can go up or down depending on the company. I also make money from selling the artwork. That number is set by me. It all depends on who my customer is. If I am working for Marvel or DC, we come up with a rate for every page that I draw. When I am selling original artwork it depends on the artwork itself. If it’s a unique piece of artwork, say, a cover, that can sell for a lot more. I set the price. Sometimes the price is determined by how “hungry” I am at that time!
NCM: Where do you sell your original art?
Derec: Lots of places. Sometimes I sell diretcly on the internet or at comic book conventions and sometimes art dealers act as middlemen. Art dealers might buy art in bulk from me at a lower price and sell it at a higher price. They just have to carry it longer and give me a check up front.
NCM: What’s the best advice that you have ever received from another artist?
Derec: I have just watched other artists and picked up their techniques. I will see someone do something elegantly or with a certain amount of confidence and realize, “Wow! I’m doing this the hard way! Why don’t I do it the way that he is doing it?”
NCM: If you could be any super hero, which one would you choose?
Derec: Spider-Man is pretty good. Yeah! I’ll go with that one!
NCM: If you could have any super power, what would it be?
Derec: I like teleporting. I like the idea of being able to travel from my house to this interview in the blink of an eye without having to endure weather or traffic.
NCM: How has new technology effected your work?
Derec: Digital publishing has encroached on my work in a couple of ways. In the creation of art and then also in the distribution of content. Some people embrace it and some people don’t. I’m kind of in the middle, a hybrid. I try to balance computer stuff with painting as much as I can. It’s important to me.
NCM: Do you ever worry that with digital technology, the thought process that occurs when you actually pick up the pen and put it to paper is going to be lost?
Derec: Yeah – it’s the digital undo!
NCM: If any of our readers want to buy some art from you, where should they go?
Derec: Just look me up on Facebook or online.
Derec Donovan’s work is featured in many different comic books by Marvel and DC Comics. He is also the author and illustrator of Bionic Bombshell. You can also buy prints of his work online at Deviant Art or from him directly.
New Orleans Canvas Magazine was very fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Terrance Osborne in his beautiful gallery on Magazine Street, located in the heart of Uptown and actively managed by his lovely wife Stephanie.
Terrance has enjoyed the type of success that most artists can only ever dream of. Upon entering his gallery and actually beholding his paintings up close one can see why he has become so famous and so popular with the public.
NCM: How did you get your start as an artist?
Terrance: My mom, my stepdad, and my oldest brother all make art. My mom worked with pastels and was a particular influence. She liked to create serene nature scenes. She introduced me to art and encouraged me to maintain my interest in it.
By the time I got to fifth grade I was drawing a lot. My teachers reinforced my interest in art. I would also seek out other friends who could draw.
My family rented homes and moved around a lot. I was always the new kid at school. I would purposely look for other kids at school who could draw. There was always one. There was always one who was “ice cold”. That’s the one I would find and try to learn everything that I could from him. Then, eventually I would go to another school because we would end up moving. I learned a lot from my peers.
In middle school my teachers encouraged me to get into this program called Talented and Visual Arts. You had to be tested for the program and pass as a talented kid. As part of the program, a practicing professional artist would come visit the school. I would work for an hour twice a week outside of class with that artist. That was a big deal for me because I’d never met an artist who was making a living off of his artwork. That left a very big impression on me. It set a new standard for me.
My teachers encouraged me to go to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) for high school. There I learned pretty much what I would end up revisiting once I got to college. During my first year at NOCCA, I met a guy named Frederick Johnson. He was such a good artist that I wanted to hang with him and learn from him.
Frederick introduced me to Richard Thomas. Richard is a local artist who has done Jazz Fest posters and has some national recognition. He’s super talented and a wonderful person on top of that. I became Richard’s assistant and he gave me my first canvas and brushes to paint with. I sold my first piece in Richard’s gallery for $55.
Selling my first piece of art was also a big moment. I realized then that people would by my art. Before that I just made just drawings that I would give to family members. I never did it for the money, I was in it for the pleasure and passion of making art. I knew that I wanted to express a language and the more art I made, the more that language became clear. Intuitively that’s what I was chasing after.
When my portfolio would get low, I got nervous. It didn’t feel right. How would people know what I was saying? I needed to create all of these pieces to express that.
NCM: Where did you go to college?
Terrance: I went to Xavier University. I thought college would be pretty intimidating. I lived in this old apartment full of artists and there was always a bit of friendly competition going on. But that competition helped me.
NCM: What genres do you work in ?
Terrance: Expressionism is probably the closest category that I can put my work in. That’s a tricky one for me because whenever I’ve had to categorize my art, I’ve always thought of it as boundless. One of my favorite quotes is, ” Learn the rules well so that you can break them.” I try to push the boundaries of whatever it is that I am creating.
Ultimately, realism doesn’t do it for me. I’m not entertained by just painting a photo. I want to ‘spike’ the photo. Alter and change it so that you can see it differently. To me it is much more interesting that way. So when I paint, it is usually with exaggerated colors with exaggerated expression and movement.
I paint with acrylic on wood. I started painting on wood in college because it was a lot cheaper. I use those big 8’x4′ sheets that you get at Home Depot.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most?
Terrance: There are four artists I am most inspired by: Richard Thomas was my early influence, James Michelopoulas, Van Gogh, and John Singer Sargent. I would say I am a combination of the four of them really.
NCM: Those are such vastly different artists.
Terrance: Yes, they are! Sargent was such a master at painting Realism, but he had an Impressionistic style. I mean I got something from every single one of these artists, but with him I learned that if you paint a glass, you do it in a few strokes and just move on. He didn’t dwell on it long. He was a master at leaving the brush stroke. It takes a serious understanding of what paint is doing when it hits the canvas.
NCM: Have you always used acrylic or have you experimented with other types of paint?
Terrance: I tried oils when I was at NOCCA and at Xavier, but it didn’t quite do it for me. I need it to dry faster so that I can work on the next layers. Oil paint just takes so long.
Even before I started painting, I was looking at other paintings and analyzing them. For example,let’s say you look at a digital illustration of a blender, and then you pull apart the blender and see all of the mechanical things that are in it and then you put it back together. When I look at paintings, I can see them that way. I can see the way that the artists compiled the layers of paint. That became my technique. And I start by painting the first layer black and slowly introduce light by painting in layers.
Some artists paint the opposite way. They start lighter and then go darker. I think oils work better that way. That’s probably why acrylic makes more sense to me.
There’s a point in the painting where it becomes euphoric to me. That’s usually at around 60 or 70% completed. That’s the zone where everything begins to come together. I know what I’m doing and what I’m going to do. It’s just beautiful. Right at about 90%, I know I’m about done.
NCM: Do you ever have a problem with knowing when to stop?
Terrance: No, because I’ve already finished it in my mind. So I know where I’m going to stop. There are some things that are like little added things, but (for the most part) it just happens.
NCM: Do you have a muse?
Terrance: Yeah! My wife. She shows up in a lot of my work. My daughter is a muse as well. I use both of them. For example, on that Heineken painting over there, I made the face look like my daughter’s face. They are my easy “go to” muses. They’re always available.
NCM: It seems like there are a lot of other artists out there who copy you.
Terrance: I don’t spend a lot of time looking at what other artists do. I don’t obsess over it. I do enjoy asking other artists about their artistic process. I have a high respect for what other artists do. Art is mostly a silent experience. I think of my work as different from that.
I’m honored that people would mimic or be inspired by my work, because I’m also inspired by other artists. I’ve been told that my work looks like James Michelopoulas’ work. To that, I’ve always said, “Thank you!” He’s a really talented artist so I’m honored that some can see him in my work. So when I see someone inspired by my work, I’ll cheer them on.
Now there have been a few companies that have used my work without my permission and I’ve had to diffuse that, but that is different. That’s just business.
NCM: What do you think is the most challenging part of being an artist?
Terrance: Probably the business part. I think I share that problem with a lot of artists. Because all you want to do as an artist is create. But you have to pay bills and feed your family. I’m happy that I can survive off of my art and also be successful at it. I feel like I am in the NFL of art and I’m very thankful for my success. In a perfect world, though, I would only create art.
My wife does manage the business, so I do have that luxury. She used to do a lot more, but now we kind of do equal parts.
NCM: Is she your Lee Krasner?
Terrance: She definitely is! She handles a lot and she has taught me some things. Over time she has initiated a lot of my business ventures. Eventually I kind of learned her style. And I was able to take some of the load off of her.
NCM: That’s rare for a couple to be able to work so closely together.
Terrance: It was a trick at first. She would say, there is this job I would like to have. Let’s send these people a proposal and pretend that I am you. Sometimes I would create some artwork to go along with her proposal, and we got jobs that way. That was our first working formula. Eventually we didn’t have to chase after jobs. I was able to pick the projects that I wanted to do. I don’t take everything on.
NCM: Do you ever get negative criticism and, if so, how do handle it?
Terrance: Yeah! I get it. It is rare, but I do get negative criticism. I think I realize the truth about it. My art is not going to appeal to everyone. I used to think that it would appeal to everyone because it was happy and colorful. The truth is that you never know what people are going through. There was one guy that ripped into my artwork and said, “you are borrowing from this person and that person and it’s not original.”
My response to that was that, ” I’m honored that you see those people in my artwork because I respect them highly. And I appreciate your attention to detail.” I’m not interested in the fight. I’m interested in discussing it. Maybe the person giving the negative criticism likes dark stuff. It’s just like the difference between a person who enjoys a movie with a happy ending versus someone who likes tragedy.
NCM: If you had to pick one favorite artwork out of everything that you’ve ever done, could you do it?
Terrance: No, but I can pick two favorites: the tree here, “From Nothing”, has remained a favorite for a long time. And “Lady Mardi Gras” because it has my daughter’s face and my wife’s eyes. Those are my two favorites.
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your art? That seems to be a skill that eludes many artists.
Terrance: I’ve come up with a solution, and it is a good working solution. I used to worry about losing potential customers, but I also didn’t want to give my work away, so what I do now is play a game with myself.
During one of my first years exhibiting at Jazz Festival, when my originals were going for about $500 (right now they average around $35,000), I painted this piece called “Buck Jumping”. In it there was a lady on a porch with a rag in her hand and she is sticking her butt out. And next to her was a guy playing the guitar. I loved it! I t had all of these blues in them and there was a warm sun casting shadows on the porch. You can see the railings also have long shadows. Lots of blues and golden colors.
I was going to price it at $500 like all of the other originals. But I thought that it was so much better than the rest. I was stressed about it. I wanted to make more so I mentioned it to my wife. She said, “What do you want to price it as?” I said, “How about $800?, which I thought was a ridiculous number at the time. So she said, ” Ok, make it $800!” I said, “No, I’m not going to make it $800! That’s way too much! My other work is $500.” But I got up the courage to do it. And sure enough a guy walks up to the booth and asks, “So why is this one $800 and the others are $500?” I said, “Because I like this one better. I really like it and want more for it.” And the guy says, ” It’s not like you are famous or anything. Why don’t you just sell it to me for $500?” So I said, “Nah, I’m only going to sell it for $800.” And then sure enough the next day at Jazz Fest a woman bought it for $800 without any questions.
That’s become my formula for pricing artwork. Every time I do a piece that I really like, I decide to kick it up to a new price. Then eventually all of the rest of the work follows. That is how I got my work from $55 to $65,000. My two highest selling pieces (so far) went for $65,000.
NCM: What made you decide to represent yourself rather than working with an art dealer?
Terrance: We’ve partnered with people in the past and it never works out. My wife has my best interests at heart and she would say stuff that I knew was true. For example, if the person we were partnering with seemed crooked she would mention it to me. And we would discuss it. And I wouldn’t leave my art with that person. Each time we would partner with someone those relationships would fall apart. Ultimately, we just realized that no one was going to do it the way that we will. No one is going to have our best interests at heart.
I’ve never really been interested in galleries because I couldn’t get over that hump of paying 50%. Now I understand that the galleries have their bills to pay and they are promoting the artists. I respect that, but I could never put my work in there and walk away with half of the profit. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
I found ways to go around that. I would exhibit at restaurants because it was free. And we’ve only had this gallery for about ten months now. Ten months ago all of this was in our house.
Our kids are getting older now. Our daughter is fifteen, our middle son is seventeen, and our oldest son is twenty-three. We didn’t want to open the gallery early because my studio is at home and we promote the art through our website and social media. We wanted to be available for the kids. We don’t punch a clock, but we are also working 24/7. But I’ll take that if I can be there to raise my kids.
Terrance Osborne’s Gallery is located at 3029 Magazine Street in New Orleans, LA. You can also visit his website and purchase art at www.terranceosborne.com.
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in, A race that can’t stay still; So they break the hearts of kith and kin, And they roam the world at will. They range the field and they rove the flood, And they climb the mountain’s crest; Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood, And they don’t know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far; They are strong and brave and true; But they’re always tired of the things that are, And they want the strange and new. They say: “Could I find my proper groove, What a deep mark I would make!” So they chop and change, and each fresh move Is only a fresh mistake.
– Excerpt from “The Men That Don’t Fit In” By Robert W. Service
The New Orleans French Quarter is one of the few places in the United States that attracts and welcomes artists and performers who would otherwise be considered misfits in most parts of the country. It’s a place that nurtures artistic freedom and has consistently provided a haven for artists since the city began 300 years ago. On any given day you can walk through Jackson Square and meet painters, musicians, and street performers from all over the world busking for cash.
Eric Odditorium is a professional sword swallower who has been performing in Jackson Square for about two years. Eric loves performing and knows how to draw a crowd. He’s also befriended many other artists in the Quarter despite his short history in New Orleans.
NCM: You’re the first performance artist we’ve interviewed for this magazine. Where do originally come from?
Eric: I’m originally from California, but I moved here from Austin, Texas.
NCM: Does anyone else in your family perform in side shows or carnivals?
Eric: No, I’m the only one. And I’ve been a professional sword swallower for twenty six years.
NCM: What made you choose sword swallowing as a profession?
Eric: I always wanted to swallow swords. I first saw a sword swallower when I was five or six years old and I wanted to be one ever since. I learned side show first. I’ve been a human block-head, I can eat broken glass, I’ve learned to eat and breathe fire. I met another sword swallower in the carnival and asked him to teach me. It took me two years to learn to do it properly.
NCM: When did you first join the carnival?
Eric: When I turned eighteen years old. As soon as I legally could.
NCM: Where else have you lived with the carnival?
Eric: Initially I would tour three to four months out of the year and then move back to California. I’ve lived up and down the coast of California. Then the cost of living in California became crazy. I was earning decent money, but housing became unaffordable. I started looking at cities that were more affordable where I could earn a decent living. That’s when I moved to Austin, Texas, and started working at a place called the Museum of the Weird on 6th Street, which is basically an oddities museum with a theatre in the back. I also did a fair amount of street performing. Eventually gentrification pushed me out of Austin.
NCM: Gentrification is effecting artists here too.
Eric: Yes, in certain sections. Originally I lived in the St. Roch neighborhood and my rent more than doubled in the course of a year. But I moved a few streets over into the 9th Ward and my rent went back down.
NCM: A lot of artists live in the 9th Ward.
Eric: Yes, it’s filled with great artists and musicians. I recently went to Fats Domino’s second line parade. Fats never left the 9th ward.
NCM: Whose work has influenced you or inspired you?
Eric: A man by the name of Johnny Fox who used to own a museum in NY called the Freakatorium. It was an oddities museum when he performed. I used to write him letters and he would write me back on the backs of the letters I wrote him. So I have our whole correspondence in a scrap book.
NCM: Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
Eric: I did! I met him twice in person. I was very sorry to see him go. He died this past year. But he lived the life that he wanted to live and died a happy man.
Todd Robbins also influenced me. Although my performance is nothing like his. He does various things. He had an off-Broadway play called “Play Dead”. I believe he has even had a TV show.
NCM: Why have you decided to focus on sword swallowing as opposed to other types of side show performance?
Eric: It seems to be the most popular. I do still perform other things. Depending on how much time I have I still do the human block head and eat broken glass. I also still do animal trap stunts. For example, sticking my hand in fox traps and rat traps. I close out shows with the human tip jar where people staple money to my body. I learned that from a man called Red Stewart in the carnival. I start my stapled tips at $5. The higher the dollar amount, the stranger the location on the body. (Note: New Orleans Canvas Magazine feels compelled at this point to insert its standard disclaimer: Do not try any of what you read here at home!)
Technically what I do is not strictly side-show. I don’t set up a tent. And I don’t do a grind show, which is one show after another all day long. I busk in the street. To strictly be a side-show performer you have to travel from carnival to carnival and put up tents. I generally call myself an entertainer rather than a side-show artist. The genre I perform in is traditionally known as side-show.
NCM: Tell us about the comic book you are writing.
Eric: I am collaborating with my very good friend Jeremy Kennison (who is also head of the Cut-Throat Freak Show) on a comic book based on my life. It will be The Adventures of a Time-Travelling Sword Swallower. He will illustrate it and I am going to write it. We have already started working on it. Hopefully we will finish mid to late this year.
NCM: Have you ever written anything before?
Eric: I’ve never written a comic book, but I am a huge comic book fan. I grew up during a really great time for comic books. I’d like to write something non-fiction.
NCM: It seems like there’s of material available to you just from the people you’ve met.
Eric: Because I have always been a freak show and side show enthusiast and historian, I feel like I am uniquely qualified to write about it.
NCM: There has to be a market for that.
Eric: I think there is too. I read a book about Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. It was a new genre of writing. Kind of fiction/non-fiction. They took all of the known facts and filled in the blanks.
NCM: Didn’t Chang and Eng marry some women from North Carolina?
Eric: Yes they did! And they had a whole bunch of kids. I’ve met some of their descendants. They are very proud of the twins!
NCM: How do you differentiate yourself from other sword swallowers?
Eric: There is a kind of brotherhood among us. We know we all do the same material. I think the biggest different between me and most other sword swallowers is I typically use two or three swords for an entire season of shows. Most sword swallowers require more swords for more material. But I write acts around the same two swords. I do a lot of movement based sword swallowing. I am well known for doing the worm while swallowing a sword. In my most recent act I swallow a coat hanger, which is straightened out roughly in the shape of a sword. I can fish a king cake baby out of my stomach with a coat hanger.
NCM: Ever injure yourself doing that?
Eric: No, I’ve yet to injure myself swallowing swords or anything else.
NCM: I’m sure that’s one of the first things that people might ask you.
Eric: I’ve been very lucky. I attribute that to other sword swallowers who gave me pointers. I’ve always been concerned with safety first. (!) I’ve heeded warnings and have yet to injure myself, although I’ve been told that it is just a matter of when. Hopefully if I ever do hurt myself, it’s just something minor.
NCM: What’s the most challenging part of being a street performer/sword swallower?
Eric: Well those are really two different things. The most challenging part of being a street performer is building and holding a crowd. It’s also hard to get people to tip. A lot of them don’t carry cash anymore. There are also other street performers who might try to move in to close to steal my audience. I’ve also got to be careful if people try to grift my crowd. Street performing requires a lot of multi-tasking. It’s not my favorite thing to do. I prefer the stage. But I end up performing on the street an awful lot.
The most challenging part of being a sword swallower is how to market yourself. In today’s world (with YouTube) you have to be really creative about how to market your show. More stage shows are working with a troupe. For example, with Cut-Throat Freak Show, we have built a name and they know it is not just going to be the same old side-show. We always switch the acts around. We usually have burlesque. We are able to book a lot of interesting shows. We’ve performed in Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy Festival two years in a row. We’ve done Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare. The biggest challenge is not swallowing words, but knowing how to sell it.
NCM: What do you wish you had known about all of this before you got started?
Eric I wish I had realized that sideshow entertainment and sword swallowing is a very niche market. If you try and blast it all over the internet, you’re kind of throwing away your money. You’ve got to advertise to your niche. Because I was a fan of it and also marveled at it, I always expected everybody else to.
NCM: How do you handle negative criticism? Has there ever been something said that’s cut you deeply (no pun intended)?
Eric: I generally don’t get much negative feedback. I’ve been doing this for so long now that if I ever got negative criticism from another Sword Swallower, that might sting a little.
NCM: How do you come up with a way to make your art profitable? Have you figured it out yet?
Eric: I have, but the problem is that every time I’ve got it figured out everything changes. It definitely has its ups and downs. One year I might be saving money every month and doing really well, and then the next year I am scraping by. I’ve managed to make it profitable by being open to doing anything. I’ve done some really weird gigs lately. I was recently the subject of a Sociological book called Down and Out in New Orleans. I get paid to do appearances in connection with that book. I recently did a book signing at Octavia Books. I also did a Kenny Chesney video. You never know who is going to need a sword swallower.
NCM: What is the best advice you ever received about your profession?
Eric: First, never get overconfident. It could get you killed! That’s why I’m still here. And second, be your own agent. Don’t hire anyone else to do it. I do all of my own booking.
NCM: Where can people see more of your work?
Eric: In June and July, I am going on a National Tour with Cut-Throat Freak Show. Go to www.cutthroatfreakshow.com It will post where we are going to be. I am also in Jackson Square most days.
Nancy Lassen is an accomplished contemporary artist and interior designer based in Uptown New Orleans. For many years she ran her own interior design firm off of Metairie Road called Interiors and Extras. Nancy recently made the decision to focus her efforts on her career as an artist, and it’s a decision that is paying off handsomely. Her work is collected in corporate and private collections all over the country.
Contemporary Abstract art can be difficult for an artist to create and difficult for viewers to understand and grasp. Nancy’s paintings are rich with color, but also soft and luscious. She’s inspired by lines and colors that she sees in everyday objects, often overlooked or taken for granted, and she turns them into something abstract and beautiful.
Pamela Reed and I toured Nancy’s two studios Uptown to see how she works and understand her process. Nancy’s life is devoted to her art and she remains constantly inspired.
NCM: How do you come up with subjects to paint?
Nancy: The subject of the first show that I did on my own was trains. I was working on Metairie Road for thirty years and I got stopped by the train all of the time. So I started taking pictures of them and I got totally blown away, fascinated. I was fascinated by the lines, the wheels, the tracks. I was fascinated by the colors of the cars against the different skies. It turned out that one of my former Assistants ended up working for Stacey Serro, who was in charge of purchasing art at one of the hospitals, and Stacey was interested in doing a show on transportation. She bought four or five of my train paintings and a few other things – Eighteen pieces sold that time. Then the hospital called and said, “You know, we would really like to put them in our patient rooms. Do you think you could make thirty?”
I said, ” I can make forty!”
NCM: Do you ever “overwork” a piece? How do you know when to quit?
Nancy: I paint with a lot of other people, and fortunately we will tell each other our honest opinions about how our pieces are progressing. My friend Rhenda Saporito has the “Rhenda Rule”, that you have to stop for two weeks. Think about it for two weeks and then decide what to do with it. And it works! Sometimes you just put it aside and say, “Oh my God! That’s awful!” Or other times, “Thank God I stopped. It looks great!” But in two weeks you will know if you are supposed to go back.
NCM: You incorporate magazine cut outs and different mediums, papers, and colors into your work They’re amazing!
Nancy: I can’t throw anything away. I drive myself nuts. If you’re an artist, you look at everything with the idea of, “What can I do with these? It’s cool!” When I get gifts, I’m more excited about the tissue paper. I will never use all of the paper that I collect.
I just went to this exhibit in San Francisco called “Fog”. It was fabulous! Down on the wharf there was this place called Flax that had great papers. If I paint 24/7 for the rest of my life, I will still not be able to use all of my paper!
NCM: Do you think that there’s an addiction to the tactile feel of the paper?
Nancy: Yes, most definitely.
NCM: If you had to give up one studio, which one would you give up? The home studio or the studio on Soniat?
Nancy: The home studio. The other studio on Soniat is very special. It is on a corner and I can drive my van right up to the curb. I can unload and reload easily. The light in the Soniat studio is very good.
NCM: Do you take many commissions?
Nancy: I have always liked commissions, except that now that I am painting more, I’ve noticed that it gets me out of my rhythm. If it is not a commission that’s in your current field of vision, then it messes with your rhythm and it’s hard to get back.
NCM: My experience with abstract work is that it’s always harder than it seems. Often, people can be heard commenting of abstract art: “Oh! I could do that! Anybody can do that!” That’s not true, is it?
Nancy: It’s funny because (at the Academy), they didn’t really think very highly of contemporary either. It’s a very traditional teaching school. And I won the Director’s Award this year, which is great!
I got into Nell Tilton’s class in 2004. I’ve never given up my spot because there are too many friends in there now painting. We’re super close. We do trips together. Now Zona Wainwright is teaching beginning Contemporary. Up until now they were lumping beginning painters with people who were painting for years, which was so unfair.
NCM: Studying art is not like work for an inspired artist, is it? It takes over.
Nancy: The more you know, the more that you want to know. For example, if you look at that wall over there, I probably have $5,000 worth of paint right there. My teacher sent us a fresh list of supplies (which she hasn’t sent in a long time) and I realized that there were about five out of a list of twelve that I did not have. Basics! I had gotten so far away from those basics. It was life changing! I was so glad that she sent that list because I can go to a workshop in California or wherever and just take this, instead of taking all of the other stuff.
I went to a workshop in Maine. I used a lot of texture in my paintings. A lot of hard molding paste and glazes on my canvas. And I was complaining that I couldn’t get the texture because I didn’t have the right stuff. And the guy teaching the class said, “Just get a glob of paint and get it on there!”
We had these big jars of paint for the class. So I made it work. And that was the point of the workshop. Try something new.
NCM: What made you decide to be a professional artist as opposed to just having art as a hobby?
Nancy: This year, I hope that I can support myself strictly with painting. My degree was in painting and I’ve started to paint much more, even though I’ve also always loved interior design.
I went into interior design, had a child, and a store. I was all consumed with that life for years. And then when my daughter went to college, I went back to classes at the Academy and just started painting, painting, painting!
I want to really focus on painting. I read a lot of blogs on different artists, and they all say that when you think you are ready to go to the next step, go. Just jump!
I’ve been very dependent on Interior Design and it’s paid my bills. And I’ve loved it. I’ve loved meeting people. I was afraid for a long time that it would be isolating to paint. I did try it right out of college. I was in a studio by myself and it was lonely. No one tells you in school that being an artist can be such a lonely deal.
Now painting is not lonely at all. I think I am also older and more mature and ready to be in a studio all day by myself. I could be very content, but I have so many friends that I’ve met through art to keep it from being a lonely profession. I’m turning 65 this year so I can slow down the pace and I’m hoping that this will be my final career, and I can paint all day every day.
NCM: Have you always been an abstract painter or have you tried other genres?
Nancy: Pretty much. When I was a little girl and wanted to please my dad, my biggest fan, we would go on River Road and he loved to take pictures of shacks and buildings that were falling down. I would paint those.
He was a Pediatrician and I decorated his office. I picked the paint colors and the carpet. The whole nine yards. I even framed everything myself. So I guess I started painting barns when I was in college. But the minute that I picked up a brush after college it was contemporary.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most? Do you have any artistic heroes?
Nancy: Krista Harris, who lives and teaches out in Durango. It was a really cool experience to see where she paints. She lives on a gorgeous piece of land on top of a hill, and the vistas are gorgeous. She did a gallery talk in Telluride, CO at her workshop.
I stayed with Krista in Durango. She gets inspiration walking to her studio every day. For example, she’ll see a deer or perhaps a bush without leaves. What she sees on that short walk determines what she will create that day. That’s her inspiration.
One series that Krista did was on wind. She researched wind and cyclones. You see it in her work. She’s phenomenal.
I also have learned a lot from Steve Aimone. He has a website called Pink Dog Art Group. I probably have 300 to 400 artists friends online who follow the Pink Dog Art Group.
There is also an artist named Madeline Denaro whose work I love. Her colors are beautiful. Also a lot of the girls in my painting group inspire me all of the time. We are all totally different. It’s so fascinating to me that we can get an assignment in class and our creative output is so completely different.
NCM: How many people do you normally work with at one time?
Nancy: About twelve. I think that there are twelve in the class. The morning group is the group that’s been there forever. We all show up.
NCM: When did you first try painting with acrylics? Have you always painted with acrylic paint?
Nancy: I used oils in college, but I hate cleaning up oil paints. I hate the fumes. I don’t like the clean-up. I do love the fact that you can work oil paint forever.
NCM: What do you wish that you knew about being a professional artist before you got started?
Nancy: I guess I wish I had known sooner the wonderful people I would meet and the fun I would have. I wish I had known some of the colleagues and friends sooner. I had to seek out those relationships. When I was in the design world, I had a lot of clients, but they were clients and not friends. My artist friends are soul mates.
NCM: How do you handle negative criticism?
Nancy: I am fine with it. I don’t take it personally. Everybody has different taste. For example, I’ve had art teachers whose art I didn’t necessarily like. I prefer more contemporary art. And not everyone else does.
Trestle in the Light of Day
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your art?
Nancy: I usually start by the square foot. But that price per square foot is going up, because now I see how hard it is to produce the ones that I really want to get out there. If I try to sell my best work, I want to charge more it. I started out at $200 a square foot and I am inching up. If I feel like there is one that is really spectacular, then it is more. If someone really loves a piece, then they’re willing to pay for it.
You can see more of Nancy’s work at her upcoming show “Trestles” at Degas Gallery. The opening reception is April 7, 2018 from 5 to 8 p.m. The show will continue until May 4, 2018.
Nancy also has a website at www.nancyhirschlassenartist.com detailing her portfolio and current pieces available for sale.