Welcome to New Orleans Canvas Magazine for Winter 2019. As the New Year begins in New Orleans, the whole city is preparing for another Carnival season. Local artists are working hard to create floats, sets and costumes, in order to take advantage of the many creative and financial opportunities that occur during this time of year. And with the recent proliferation of all-female Krewes and marching groups, it’s clear that more and more women are taking advantage of those opportunities!
In the same spirit, this issue is unique for our magazine as it marks the first time we’ve profiled more female artists than male artists in a single issue.
Midori Tajiri-Byrd was photographed by Pamela Reed for the cover of this issue. Midori is a Makeup Artist and Costume Designer who has also excelled in many different mediums throughout her career. Pamela has once again done an exceptional job creating portraits of all of our artists and we can’t thank her enough.
This issue also features in-depth interviews with two self-taught painters: Jim Sohr and Isabelle Jacopin. Jim, who taught himself to paint while serving time in Angola Penitentiary, paints wildy Surrealistic pieces. And Isabelle is a French New Impressionist who taught herself to paint before she relocated to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
There’s also a very engrossing interview with award-winning multimedia photojournalist Julie Dermansky. Julie discusses how she’s inspired to record and report on issues regarding climate change and social injustice.
Also, Chef Leah Chase graciously allowed us to visit with her in Dooky Chase Restaurant and take pictures of her collection of African American Art . Leah talked with us at length about her many friendships with notable African American artists throughout her lifetime.
We hope you enjoy this issue and we are looking forward to bringing you more in-depth interviews of New Orleans visual artists in the future!
Isabelle Jacopin is a French expatriate artist based in New Orleans’ historic French Quarter who creates artwork that is vibrant and full of life. Her balcony studio overlooking Royal Street is filled with all sorts of lovely creations. Isabelle has a tremendous work ethic and loves being in the middle of the hustle and bustle of New Orleans’ busiest neighborhood.
NCM: What part of France do you come from?
Isabelle: I was born in Brittany, which is in the Northwest of France. But I also have a studio in the Southwest of France, in Dordogne.
NCM: Did you go to art school?
Isabelle: Not really. I just studied a few months because I had to make a living early in life. When I was 18 I started painting on silk dresses, lamp shades and scarves. I was selling on the street and in the flea markets. I did that for about 10 years.
Then, by luck, I discovered a small box of soft pastels. Soon I stopped painting on silk and started using pastels. I was then addicted to pastels.
NCM: Is anyone else in your family an artist?
Isabelle: No, my mother was terrible to me when I told her I was going to be a professional artist! She told me to leave the house. She finally accepted my profession about 17 years ago when she was around 70, but in the beginning she didn’t want to talk to me.
NCM: Are your children interested in art?
Isabelle: Yes, of course. They were raised in my studio. My son studied trompe l’oeil for one year. He went to a school to learn how to paint faux wood and marble. And my daughter studied Art History. She was a cultural mediator and she’s studying to be an Illustrator for Children’s books.
NCM: What genre do you work in?
Isabelle: My style is New Impressionist. It looks very Impressionist. But I do also have some abstract paintings.
NCM: How do you find your subjects to paint?
Isabelle: I just look around me! New Orleans has so many subjects. It is so inspiring. And when I’m in France, I love to paint the river and beautiful landscapes. But I also love music and enjoy painting female singers, especially Josephine Baker.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most?
Isabelle: It’s hard to say. As a little girl I was very attracted to Toulouse-Lautrec’s work and love his pastel paintings to advertise for shoes. I also love Alphonse Mucha.
As a teenager, I was attracted to Monet’s paintings. I also eventually discovered the Surrealists. I didn’t have any access to art so in my family, so I just had to discover things by myself through reading.
NCM: Did you ever consider being anything but a professional artist? Ever try anything else?
Isabelle: I knew that was what I was going to do when I was very young. It was always my job and passion. Now, I’m 62 and I always tell younger people that it is possible to make your living as an artist. Don’t listen too much to teachers or parents who say otherwise – if you believe in yourself, you can make a living. It’s not the type of job you choose when you want to make a big amount of money, but it’s a passion. If you have the ability but don’t choose to pursue it, you will live your life in regret.
NCM: When did you start painting for the first time?
Isabelle: Since I was about four or five years old. I always had a passion.
NCM: Do you have any favorite medium or do you like to experiment?
Isabelle: I love to experiment. I enjoy using canvas as a base, but I also enjoy painting and drawing on plexiglass and brown paper. I’m always happy to paint with oils.
NCM: How do you differentiate your art from other people since there’s so much art on the market these days?
Isabelle: Oh, I don’t feel the competition or even think about it. I like to meet other artists. I’m not competitive or jealous. I love to visit artists’ studios more than galleries.
A pivotal experience for me was a three week trip to Cuba. There I met many Cuban artists and worked along side them. Every Sunday I was showing my paintings and my sketches. I realized how fortunate we are here to have access to art supplies.
They taught me how they make white paint when they don’t have any on the island. There was no white paint! They used shoe polish and toothpaste. I gave them all my art supplies before leaving. That was a powerful experience.
When I returned from that trip I decided I needed a medium that allowed me to paint big. I liked the texture of oils, but I hated cleaning brushes. I took a palette knife to the canvas and learned it’s way easier to clean. So I started painting with palette knives. There’s so much more potential with oils. I also like to paint on old newspapers and shopping bags. I try to reuse and recycle.
NCM: What made you decide to come to New Orleans?
Isabelle: My first trip to New Orleans was 22 years ago for a one month stay. I knew the day after I arrived, that the bulk of my life would be spent here. I met the right people and felt like I was home. I decided it was time to really move here after Katrina.
NCM: Do you show in a gallery?
Isabelle: I don’t have a gallery right now. I open up my studio to people who are interested in purchasing art. People can contact me through Instagram and Facebook to see and purchase my art.
NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism? Has anyone ever said something to you that really hurt?
Isabelle: Since I paint a lot outside on the street, I think I learned how to focus on my work and not listen to the conversations around me. I can still hear what people say and enjoy a compliment. But to be honest, I don’t have that many critics.
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable price structure for your art?
Isabelle: I’m in a “medium price” range. My work was way more expensive when I was working with galleries. I’ve been surprised that more people haven’t jumped at the opportunity to buy my work at these (non-gallery) prices. I think some people maybe don’t feel comfortable buying directly from artists.
NCM: Do you think you sell more by yourself than in the gallery?
Isabelle: It was my destiny to sell by myself! I have had some successful gallery relationships, but most of my life it was more about representing myself.
NCM: If you had to pick one favorite of all your work, could you?
Isabelle: The next one I begin – the one I have on my easel!
Julie Dermansky is an award winning documentary photographer and multimedia journalist based in New Orleans. Her subject matter primarily focuses on social injustice and society’s impact on the natural world. She is interested in covering industrial landscapes, extreme weather events, and people who are fighting to protect the planet. Julie’s work has been published in many news outlets, including: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Weather Channel, The Daily Beast, and Bloomberg. We sat down with Julie one afternoon to discuss her work.
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Julie: I’m from Englewood, New Jersey.
NCM: When did you come to New Orleans?
Julie: The first time I came to New Orleans I was 17 or 18. I went to Tulane as an Undergraduate student and returned to New Orleans after Katrina.
NCM: When did you first realize you were compelled to be a photographer?
Julie: When I was seven years old I used to drive around taking pictures with my imaginary camera. Making the okay symbol when no one was looking. I decided in high school that photography wasn’t for me because my brother was into it. My mom had a darkroom and we were very competitive. Once he was already great, I wasn’t going to go near it.
I was very stubborn about it. I got a camera in college and barely used it. At Tulane, I took one photography class and learned how to use the darkroom. I remember getting all my prints dirty because I wasn’t good at cleaning my hands when I was working. Photography still wasn’t for me at the time, even though I really enjoyed making it.
I was already committed to being a fine artist when I was 16 or 17. My focus was painting and sculpture, even though I always used photography as reference for my artwork. I always made collages with my photos. It wasn’t until later that I started using photography conceptually. The switch to full-time photography came for me around 2004 or 2005. All art making tools, from pencil to camera, can be seen as instruments to use to express your visual vocabulary.
NCM: So you have almost no formal education as a photographer?
Julie: I only took one intro photography class in college. But I grew up very close to Manhattan, so I was always looking at art and going to galleries from a very young age .
My mother was a pretty damn good photographer. I grew up in a home where Photography was valued. We had a huge, Best of Life Magazine book on our coffee table that I would look at endlessly. I knew what a good photo was at a very young age.
It wasn’t like I just discovered what it takes to make a good photo. I was always looking at photography and I never thought of it as less than other forms of art. Photography was very exciting to me.
NCM: What made you decide to go into photojournalism as your chosen path?
Julie: It was totally accidental. As a studio artist, you’re in your studio and you’re responding more to what’s inside of you, which (I dare say) is pretty lonely place. And so I went the opposite direction. Now I’m going out and hunting for my subject matter. I find myself in the middle of things and I’m responding to everything that is going on around me.
I have always been an issue-driven artist. I’m a sensitive person who pays attention to the environment and social injustice. My first long term project, while I was still primarily an artist, was about looking at dark tourism. I went on a trip to Auschwitz and took pictures there. Then I went around the world to sites of genocide. At the same time I also did a series on natural history museums.
The natural history series indirectly led me to New Orleans. Nine months after Katrina I made a trip down here and was really embarrassed that I didn’t understand the damage from the storm. I started shooting the damage and was drawn to what I saw. The highs and the lows as well as the culture of the city just attracted me here.
I ended up staying in New Orleans and was suddenly riding with the national guard through the streets to do documentary work.
Over the years, I had a fantasy of being a war photographer, but I never thought that was something I could do. I knew I would really like to go to Iraq. Eventually though, I made it happen from my time in post-Katrina New Orleans, riding with the National Guard.
The local Fox station sent me over to shoot with my partner Phin Percy. We figured out a way to get embedded and went over there (to Iraq). That was my introduction into war photography.
Soon after that experience, the BP oil spill happened. I think it’s my compulsive, workaholic nature that makes me a good photo journalist. Once I’m onto something, I just have to keep going. I was determined to find the oil and keep ahead of where it was washing up. Some of that work created some buzz for me.
When I got into photography as a business, photojournalism was crashing. Compensation for work just dropped through the bottom. I had to figure out a way to be creative instead of just whining about it. So I started writing as well. I found my own voice as a multimedia journalist. When I publish a story, it’s the same as hanging a painting on the wall.
On a conceptual basis, when I started shooting at concentration camps, I learned that if you could make evocative pictures that told the story, people could look at them and be able to take them somewhere they weren’t planning to go.
I would purposely photograph basic symbols into the image (which some people might even say is corny) so the average viewer can relate to it. For example, in art school you are told not to use Barbie dolls because they are cliche’. But, I believe, if a Barbie doll is going to help you get your message across, use a Barbie doll! Some of the most basic images (like broken McDonald’s arches after Katrina) are going to tell you the story about our society better than anything else.
I did a lot of collage work when I was a fine artist and became adept at using scrap metal out of dumpsters and scrap paper collages. Now instead of hunting for new objects to put together, I hunt for subjects in the real world. There’s nothing like being in the middle of the first carnival parade in Haiti after the earthquake and finding yourself on top of a float with your cameras around your neck.
If there’s a hurricane coming, I’m out the door within five minutes. Some people think they want to shoot with me and I tell them,”No you don’t.”
You don’t want to shoot with me because I don’t stop. I don’t stop for eating or anything else during daylight. God forbid it’s magic hour and someone wants me to stop. That would be the end of day. So I shoot alone.
NCM: Do you upgrade equipment, software, and hardware that often?
Julie: I try not to because I’m very stubborn and I don’t like to change. I mean with cameras, if you break one, you have to send one in for repair. Instead of bitching about it, I just buy the next one and then I upgrade both. There’s nothing like better stuff.
NCM: What do you use right now?
Julie: I’m using the Canon Mark IV with a bunch of good lenses. I would definitely go with the smaller mirror if I were starting over. My favorite software program is Light Room.
NCM: What would be your dream if you could shoot whatever you want and not have to worry about your bank account?
Julie: I would love to go to Antarctica. But, unfortunately, you have to bunk with a stranger unless you have a friend to travel with you. In that scenario, you could end up spending over $10,000, but end up being stuck with some asshole. And so this is kind of off-putting. A single room is very expensive. It costs around $22,000.
NCM: Where do you think the photography will be in the next 10 to 25 years?
Julie: People with a real vision will have a chance to shine because everyone can use a camera now and it’s cheap enough to get good cell phone cameras. Your work will still be able to have a voice if you have your own vision. Art and photography are never going away. Who knows how the business models will evolve? The more special your vision is, the better chance you’ll have to survive whatever changes come.
NCM: Is there some advice you could give to new photographers out there trying to break into becoming a pro?
Julie: Photojournalism isn’t viable, so make sure to have an income separate from your passion. It’s a rich kid’s sport. It will cost between $70,000 and $100,000 if you decide to go to school to get a degree in photojournalism. You have to be realistic and know that you always have to find a creative way to make yourself valuable. You can’t just do something standard and think that’s enough.
NCM: Who inspired you along the way? Did Anybody influence your style?
Julie: No one has really influenced my shooting style. I love the photography of Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, and Joel-Peter Witkin. Eugene Smith is also one of my all time favorites.
Some of the first artists I really got into were Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. I used to like to go to look at a Picasso’s Guernica which was at the Museum of Modern art when I was growing up. I always loved medieval work, so I’d go to the Cloisters and fantasize about medieval times. Renaissance painting also inspired me.
NCM: Do you have a very favorite image and why?
Julie: I think it’s whatever I’m working on at the moment. Inspiration always finds me.
NCM: What are you working on now?
Julie: I’m interested in all things related to climate change. It’s a combination of extreme weather and the industry that’s helping induce climate change. In Louisiana, I’ve been covering Cancer Alley, which is a stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans packed with petrochemical companies.I’ve been covering that in depth for the last couple of years. I also travel to the extreme weather spots to cover storms that are record breakers.
You can read more about Julie Dermansky and see more of her work at www.jsdart.com or on Facebook under Julie Dermansky Photography.
Midori Tajiri-Byrd is a powerhouse of artistic creativity. Her many talents include, but aren’t limited to: makeup artistry, costume design, and drag performance. Throughout her career she’s demonstrated an ability to adapt and remain a creative force. We interviewed Midori in her Bohemian studio above Zeitgeist theatre in the OC Haley Arts District to discuss her life and creative process.
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Midori: I’m from Chicago, but I have been in New Orleans for almost nine years. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago and worked about a year and a half in fashion. Then I worked in the music industry for 10 years before I moved into Architecture and Information Technology.
NCM: What brought you to New Orleans? Why have you decided to stay?
Midori: There’s several stories of why I ended up here. The easiest story is that I needed to move and wanted to live here! New Orleans seemed like an adventure. It is like living in another country without leaving the country.
I was also leaving a bad relationship and wanted to have a fresh start in a different city. My grandfather had ties to New Orleans years ago and for some reason it was just a place that I just ended up not really ever going. So I thought it was time for me to experience it.
And then the other part of the story is that I had read the book, Eat, Pray, Love. That book talks about how every person has a word and every city has a word. If your word doesn’t match your city, you’ll never really feel like you’re home. Over time your word might change too. We’re not always the same person that we were to start with. I just felt like, my word didn’t match Chicago anymore.
I tried to think about what my word would be. At the time I felt that my word would be “celebrate”. The word “celebrate” means more than just partying in the sense that when there’s a thing that I like, I want to share it with people. If there’s food I like, I want everyone to have a taste. If there’s a person that I like, then I want everyone meet my friend. I like to celebrate people and things. So I thought: where in the world might that place be? And then I thought it might be New Orleans!
I came here to visit and figured, if it felt right, I’d get an apartment. This turned out to be my best decision! I’ve met some of the best friends of my life here. Some of the most awesome and creative women whom I’ve ever known live here. One of the strongest and most creative communities in the world is here in New Orleans .
Make-up art turned out to be the skill that people wanted most when I decided to focus on an artistic career. It had the best returns.
NCM: Your makeup art is like makeup on steroids! Did you go to art school to learn this technique, or are you self taught?
Midori: I started out at the Fashion Institute in L.A., so I had a little bit of experience in fashion and costuming. But I realized how competitive it was and didn’t feel like it was my strength at the time.
So I went back home to Chicago and enrolled in the Art Institute because both my parents went there. The Art Institute was perfect for me because I didn’t have to declare a major and I was able to take a lot of things before deciding on a focus.
NCM: What kind of art do your parents make?
Midori: They were both painters and sculptors. Most of the people in my family are working artists and writers. They are filmmakers and sculptors here and overseas. Art was almost something that I took for granted because everyone important in my life was making it.
I definitely feel like my family is far more interested in what creative pursuits that I’m up to than anything else in life. I’m so lucky and appreciative for that. My aunt is a filmmaker, Rea Tajiri, and she has some of her video art in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. My grandfather was a photographer and author. He was the art editor for Playboy magazine for the first years in the sixties and seventies.
NCM: That’s so unusual, for an artist not to have to justify their career to their family.
Midori: Yes, I spent many years trying to do the opposite and get a “real job” to prove to myself that I could be something other than being an artist. Then one day I had an epiphany. What’s important about the arts is just the simple reminder that we’re not alone. Art communicates whatever it is you’re experiencing emotionally or within your life. From a psychological standpoint, the act of seeing something beautiful creates a feeling that you’re not alone in that experience. That concept is so valuable for humans, a reminder that we’re not alone in the universe. That even without words, you can feel a connection to another person.
Art is a reminder that somebody else experiences or sees things in the same way you do. Aside from whatever value something has in its visual content, there is an emotional drive behind it. When I was reminded of that, I thought, “Oh, okay, what we’re doing really is valuable to society”.
NCM: Where did you first learn to do makeup?
Midori: As a kid, I was always trying to put makeup on everybody. It was more about theatrical transformations to me than it is about any sort of like specific beauty ideal. I was definitely always trying to transform myself. Like most kids, I had a dress up box – my mom used to have those little Avon miniature sample lipsticks and I took some of those from her. I was so small that I had to sit in the sink in order to see in the bathroom mirror. I ended up with lipstick all over me, but I don’t think she was angry. Luckily my parents didn’t get upset with me about things like that.
Growing up, a lot of my artistic expression was expressed through creating my appearance and other people’s. I’d usually just strong arm friends and family into letting me change their appearance. I’d also put on living room fashion shows. As I got older I spent a lot of time working in fashion and the music industry. Eventually, I met a lot of makeup artists through that work. I love that whole backstage culture and the makeup artists who prepares people’s faces for a show.
I also started doing photo shoots with friends in Chicago. Someone needed to do makeup for our little photo shoots and videos that we would make.
After I got down here, I had to think about embarking on a new career. There are a lot of creative things that I like to do, but makeup was the thing that was most promising. So I went through a program and got a Cosmetology certificate.
NCM: Did you have any trouble building up a client base?
Midori: The first place I worked fed me clients. I was also already in a couple of parade Krewes and had a bunch of girlfriends who always need someone to make them up before parades and events. It didn’t seem that hard for me. I also enjoy marketing myself. It’s a fun challenge to me.
NCM: What about costume work? I see all of these different costumes here – are you constantly sewing?
Midori: The costuming really came about because it was something that I was always doing for myself. When I started doing drag performances, I wanted to make my own costumes and make my own things. Eventually people wanted them and asked if I could make costumes for them.
I’m usually naive enough to not know what I’m supposed to be afraid of and brave enough to do it anyway. Many times I roll up my sleeves and look up things on Google. And then it’s like: “Well, “I’m one foot in anyway, might as well just go for it! I guess I’ll learn along the way.”
I have learned that, if you really want to do something you can probably do it. Right now I’m trying to work on my own projects as much as possible. I enjoy the autonomy and creative directorship of doing my own thing. I still obviously take a bunch of assignments, but I’m trying to make more time to do the projects that involve my own weird dreams.
NCM: Who influences your style?
Midori: I’m always, always on Pinterest or online and looking at different people’s artwork. There are so many! I’ve been obsessed with the work of Kirsty Mitchell. She’s a photographer who creates images of a model in a costume within a fantastical set. She designs the costumes, the makeup and does the photography. What I also like about her is that she is her own publisher.
She basically grew all her own projects with Kickstarter type of funding. So as a business person as well as an artist, I love those things about her. I like that she creates alternate realities and worlds you can step into, and I love that you can lose yourself in the reality of those images.
As a kid I was really obsessed with the Narnia books and the idea that within your world there could be portals to other places. As humans, we also have the ability to structure and build our own sense of reality and our own reality of ourselves within our shared reality.
For example, you could meet someone who is just completely delusional, but in their world these delusions are real. In subtle ways we all have little delusions within ourselves. The delusions could be with our self image or other things. There are so many beautiful people out there that have a poor self image of themselves.
I feel like transforming one’s self is one way of expressing your inner reality. The transformation could be simple or excessive body modification. Or the transformation could be the costumes we wear at carnival. But those times when you get to live your own inner reality outwardly is fantastic and I want to encourage more people to do that.
NCM: Did you have any artistic mentors along the way?
Midori: Just seeing that people in my own family had working art careers made me realize that it was not out of the realm of possibility. But, I don’t think I’ve had any specific mentors whom I’ve worked with who looked over my work or gave me any specific guidance. I think I just kind of do my own thing and find people who get involved with things. I also used to move every year. New Orleans is the first place that cured my wanderlust and provided enough of all of the emotional and psychological nutrients that I need. I’m satiated! I don’t need to like look at another menu. I never really locked into a community before living here.
NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism?
Midori: I always like to hear what other people think about things because I want to understand other people’s perspective and why. I prefer positive feedback to negative feedback. But it doesn’t mean that I’m going to take negative feedback too much to heart. There will always be people who love you and people who aren’t into it. And that’s totally okay.
It’s good to have some negative feedback out there because when you only have positive feedback you can lose perspective on where you’re going artistically, and you can lose the drive to continue to evolve as an artist. I get the most satisfaction when I’m solving a creative obstacle. I want to keep learning and growing and doing more.
NCM: What would you say is the most challenging part of being an artist?
Midori: The hardest thing to do is edit yourself because most artists have so much random inspiration. It is hard to let go of your little babies. We get so attached to all the details within our little baby that it’s hard to see it critically. Editing yourself for sure is the hardest thing to remind yourself to keep doing properly.
But the hardest part about being a makeup artist is carrying all this gear around! When I’m on location, I might have a 150 lbs. of gear on me. And sometimes I have to go up narrow staircases in New Orleans or across City Park.
NCM: What do you wish you knew about your profession before you got started?
Midori: I wish that I knew I could have started earlier and that I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone else in order to get to this point in my life. I wish I had stayed on my path as a kid and kept doing my weird art. Perhaps I wouldn’t be any farther along than I am now. But I am happy as I am now. My theory is, if you have no regrets, you’re not trying hard enough.
My best advice really is that, in the long run, you’re going to end up following your passion anyway. If you settle on being a mailman or a doctor, thinking that when you’re 80 you’ll finally get back to painting, well you could have been painting the whole time. Why not start now?
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your art?
Midori: It’s important to pay attention to what people in your area are charging as well as across the country. I’m always factoring in the usual math plus how much I’m paying myself per hour and then looking at that price compared to what my peers charge.
I usually lay out three price levels for people. If it’s commission based, once I’ve figured out the range that I’m willing to do the project for, I’ll offer a client three levels with different options included in each level. The higher price includes extras. Or if you ask people for a budget, then you can tailor a plan. I think giving people a choice of at least two to three options saves you the trouble of worrying about too much about what this client can and can’t afford.
NCM: If you could transform or make up anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Midori: Everybody! I’m always thinking about transforming people all the time. I love transforming people into their alter ego. Whether it’s human based beauty or if it’s letting them be their spirit animal. I like the joy of working with someone to find out ways that they either see themselves or want to see themselves.
Chef Leah Chase has led a charmed life. She and her husband Edgar “Dooky” Chase established their legendary Creole restaurant on Orleans Avenue in 1941. Over the years, Leah has served three U.S. Presidents, many foreign leaders, and countless celebrities. Along the way, she became a patron of the arts and made lasting friendships with many important African American Artists. We had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Chase one afternoon in October to discuss her amazing collection.
NCM: Do you keep in touch with the artists in your collection?
Leah Chase: I do love to keep in touch with them, but my best friends that were great artists are now dead. Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence were my good friends and contemporaries.
Jacob Lawrence was the first African American to have a show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Jacob really introduced me to the arts. My friend Celestine Cook, who was the first African American woman to sit on the board at NOMA, brought me to meet him at that show. She convinced NOMA to bring Jacob Lawrence to New Orleans.
Jacob’s speech during that show really moved me because, as he talked about his life, I realized that we came up through the same era. He came up under the WPA, (the Works Progress Administration) during the Great Depression. I came up under the WPA as well. I could relate to him and we became good friends. His wife, Gwendolyn Knight, was a good artist too. Unfortunately they are both gone now.
Then I met John Biggers. What I liked about John was that he had a lot of respect for women. You can see it if you look at his work around these walls. If you look at the painting “Upper Room” that is hanging here in the restaurant. We know the upper room was where the Apostles waited for Christ to come. And the upper room is where Christ appeared after he rose from the dead. John Biggers painted women holding up that room. He wanted to show the strength and the power of women.
I also love his piece called “Autumn Twins”. I always thought that represented me and my husband Dooky. It makes me think of a couple growing old together. I imagined us getting old together, sitting on a swing. We worked together a long time before he died two years ago. We were married 71 years.
When I first started collecting art, I bought an Elizabeth Catlett. Elizabeth was one of the foremost African American female sculptors. She sculpted pieces in Louis Armstrong park. She created “Two Generations” which is in the main dining room of our restaurant.
The Louis Armstong mixed media piece in our Gold room was made by my granddaughter, Chase Kamata. She’s also a great jazz singer. Her mother is also a jazz singer and the vocal coach at the university here.
I was also good friends with the artist John Scott. He was just like my child. He used to come over here all the time. I’m old school and I believe you should go to church on Sunday. I used to preach this to him. When he died, I went to the memorial ceremony and realized the spirituality that was present in his work. His work was his prayer.
You see a mixture of art in these rooms because these pieces all speak to me. There aren’t any specific themes in the way I have them arranged. Some are by well known artists and some are by family members.
NCM: Is there any work of art that you wish you owned?
Leah: I wish I owned a nice big piece by Charlie White, who was Elizabeth Catlett’s first husband. Elizabeth and I were great friends. After she left Charlie, she married a Mexican artist named Franscisco Mora. I have a piece by him as well. He was a good artist too.
Elizabeth moved to Mexico to get away from all of the injustice towards African Americans here in the United States. But after she moved to Mexico, she also took a whipping down there! They treated her bad and she went through a lot to just stand up for what she thought was right.
I also wish I owned a Romare Bearden, who was another great African American artist. He created a lot of collages. If I’d known then what I know today, I would have bought a Romare Bearden. Romare had a piece called “Morning of the Rooster” which I could have had for $750.
NCM: How old were you then when you really started to get interested in art?
Leah: I was already 27 years old and working in this restaurant. When Celestine Cook got off the board at NOMA, she came to me and she said, “Leah, I’m going to nominate you to take my place.”
I never thought that I had a chance at being voted in because the other person nominated for the spot was a wealthy member of Ida Kohlmeyer’s family. He had a large art collection and knew all of the right people. But they did vote me onto the board and it was a very exciting time.
All of the art pictured in this article is on display at Dooky Chase restaurant at 2301 Orleans Avenue in New Orleans, LA.
Jim Sohr’s artistic career began when he was serving time in Angola Penitentiary for marijuana possession in the late 1960s. He hung out in the art room while he was in prison and learned to paint. He was eventually released for good behavior and continued painting at night while he worked as a carpenter during the day. We visited Jim at his art filled home in Chalmette to discuss his life and artistic process.
NCM: Are your paintings very expensive?
Jim: They are now! I just sold one for $22,000.
NCM: Wow! Congratulations! When did you first start showing your work?
Jim: 1967 is when I first started showing my art. After Katrina, I took a holiday for a while. I still kept painting but I didn’t show anything. Now I’m getting back into it a little bit. I have shown at the Crescent City Brew House and the New Orleans Art Center Gallery.
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Jim: I’m from Waukeshaw, Wisconsin, which is about 17 miles west of Milwaukee. When I turned 20, I threw everything in my car and got out of there. I never went back! I drove straight to the French Quarter.
I have been in Louisiana off and on ever since the early sixties. I went out to New York and San Francisco for awhile, but I always came back here. After Katrina I wanted to get out of New Orleans, so I moved to Chalmette. I don’t like New Orleans now because it’s not the same. I lived in the Bywater for many years.
NCM: What led you to become a professional artist as opposed to just painting as a hobby?
Jim: When I was in Angola, I was assigned to the Education Department but I didn’t know exactly what part of the Education Department I wanted to be part of. I was walking up and down the hall when I looked in this room and I saw Harold Swan painting. He was painting big paintings. I was so impressed, I said, “I’d like to get to assigned to the art room”.
So I got assigned to the art room and I was able to paint morning, noon and night. They even bought supplies for me.
NCM: Did you ever paint or draw before you went to Angola?
Jim: Not really. I was interested in it and I liked to look at pictures of European Masters – the works of Picasso and Chagall fascinated me – but I didn’t devote much time to art until I got to Angola.
NCM: Did they give you actual lessons in Angola? Or did they just give you a paintbrush and say, “Have fun!”?
Jim: I was pretty much on my own, but Harold Swan gave me a few points. He was self-taught too, but he had learned a few tricks over the years. He told me about underpainting and things that came in handy. He was a very good artist.
NCM: What genre of art would you call your work?
Jim: I have been labeled as a Surrealistic Primitive Cartoonist, if that makes any sense to you. Everything has a heavy black outline around it. And that’s where the cartoon influence comes in. It’s Surrealistic, has a cartoon influence, and I’m self taught.
NCM: Do you use acrylics or oils?
Jim: Acrylics. I started out using oils, but what I like about acrylics is the drying time. With oils you have to wait a day for it to dry before you can go over it again.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most?
Jim: I would have to say Picasso. Right behind him I would say Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali. I never got to that degree of sophistication as far as Dali’s techniques and everything, but I like some of his ideas, like the melting clocks.
NCM: Did you have any other mentors besides Harold Swan?
Jim: No. He’s the only person who ever gave me any hints, that I can think of.
NCM: When you got out of prison, did you immediately start supporting yourself as an artist?
Jim: When I was in Angola, I had a girlfriend that would come up every week and I could give her my paintings. She took them and brought them to galleries. I had an art show, but I was in Angola, so I couldn’t attend it! Then I had regular art shows for years. After Katrina I had a show and it flopped, so I said: “To hell with this! I’m just going to get out of the art scene for awhile.”
For several years I didn’t show my work. I didn’t go to art shows. I just stayed here and painted. And I have accumulated a lot of paintings in the process.
NCM: How do you differentiate your art from other artists work?
Jim: I’d say that the black all lines have a lot to do with it. The only other artist that I know whose used them as extensively is Fernand Leger.
NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism?
Jim: I love it because it brings attention to me! Negative criticism can be very, very valuable. Especially if they don’t have a valid reason for saying it other than it being their own personal opinion.
There was a long period where I painted a lot of women’s breasts. A lot of people didn’t like that. Men more than women.
NCM: Men didn’t like it?
Jim: They don’t like it at all. It makes them very uncomfortable. They could look at Playboy magazine and enjoy it, but they can’t look at one of my paintings without being embarrassed. That’s funny to me.
NCM: Would that cause you to change your style? Would you stop painting breasts?
Jim: No, I would just go somewhere else. I have removed paintings from display and brought them home or displayed them other places.
I like negative criticism. Still, when somebody likes it, that’s so much better.
NCM: How do you come up with some of this wild imagery? I’m asking from a creative perspective.
Jim: The images come from my subconscious mind. I can sit down and close my eyes and can conjure up everything since almost the day I was born. My earliest recollection was when my mother tied me up in a snuggle bunny. You know what that is? And I couldn’t move and it was cold. And she went off to another room and I was screaming. “When are you coming back?”
She had control over me. That was before I could walk and talk. I can recall just about everything that ever happened to me.
NCM: Are you putting yourself into your paintings?
Jim: I don’t know. It comes from my subconscious mind.
NCM: Did you read a lot of cartoons or comics growing up?
Jim: I have loved comics all of my life. Pablo Picasso, Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney, and comics, that’ll get me started!
NCM: What do you wish you’d known about being a professional artist before you got started?
Jim: Absolutely nothing. When I got out of Angola, the government gave me money to complete my education. I enrolled in an art school, but the instructors didn’t like what I learned in Angola. So I didn’t last there.
NCM: Do you have any advice for new artists or anyone thinking about becoming an artist?
Jim: Yes, don’t give up your day job! There is no money in it. I would work all day as a carpenter so that I could paint a few hours at night.
NCM: When did you start supporting yourself as an artist?
Jim: I never did. I’m in the hole now. I lose more money than I make.
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable way to price your art?
Jim: I don’t want to price my art. I want somebody else to do that. I have an agent who has helped drive the price up. There’s so much expense that people don’t know about. When you buy art in a gallery, the gallery takes 50 percent. Art supplies are also sky high. For example, that jar of pink paint that cost me $70!
NCM: How many paintings do, or did, you complete in a week?
Jim: Well that’s hard to say because I’m working on 18 at one time.
NCM: So it’s kind of like an assembly line type thing?
Jim: Each time I go to paint I decide which one I want to work on. I’m not going to let anything go out if I’m not happy it. I’m sort of a perfectionist too.
NCM: Could you pick a favorite of all the things you’ve done, all the work you’ve painted?
Jim: I think “Big Foot” would be my favorite one. That’s the one that sold for $22,000. I sold that recently. I had originally taken it to a gallery on Julia Street to see if they could sell it for me and the owner ran me out of the gallery. He said, “Well, that’s nice, but I can’t use it.”
NCM: Did you paint that one recently?
Jim: No, I painted it years ago. I sold it recently, but it never got any exposure. I just put it off in a pile somewhere else and forgot about it. I wanted to destroy it, but I am glad I decided not to.
NCM: That’s a wonderful painting. Was it a private sale?
Jim: Yes, I had an agent who knows a lot of people who collect art. I’d much rather sell to individuals than go through a gallery.
NCM: How did you find your agent?
Jim: After the storm I’d given up on the New Orleans art world. Luis Colmenares had just opened up a shop and I drove by there a couple times. I saw his sign and got curious, so I went in there and talked to him. He’s a fantastic guy! He does huge sculptures. I realized he was the person who could sell my paintings.
An artist is the worst person to sell his own work. The trick is to find the right agent. I had an agent before who skinned me alive. I had to go see a lawyer to break the contract and get out from under him.
You have to depend on the integrity of the person you’re sending the paintings to, and that can be dangerous! Don’t ever misjudge a person’s integrity in this business. There are a lot of scoundrels in the art world.
NCM: After your experience in Angola for marijuana possession, how do you feel now that all these states are legalizing marijuana? Are you bitter over your punishment?
Jim: It makes me angry when I see the cops busting a little kid for marijuana. I equate marijuana with alcohol possession. Parents should be responsible for keeping their kids away from those things. I’d rather have a kid smoke dope than get drunk.
I think they did get kind of carried away though: they gave me seven years for a matchbox full of marijuana. But I’m not bitter because going to Angola probably saved my life. If I had stayed out there, I’d probably be dead. I knew a lot of people out there who are not around anymore. I was in the drug world and it’s a vicious, vicious world.
I knew one drug dealer in San Francisco who was stabbed during a dope deal. They took his dope and instead of paying him, stabbed him in the heart with a butcher knife, then rolled him up in the sleeping bag and threw him off a cliff. Those are the elements that I was exposed to.
And without Angola I wouldn’t have started painting. I would have ended up being a 40 year old junkie!
I quit smoking 30 years ago. Three years ago I quit alcohol. I haven’t had drugs for 30, 40 years and I don’t chase after women. I gamble a little bit at the Pool table. If I’m not careful, I’ll turn into a Buddhist monk! But I’m happy. I don’t miss any of that stuff.
You can see more of Jim Sohr’s work at Crescent City Brewhouse and New Orleans Art Center Gallery.