New Orleans, Louisiana: All that Craft

New Orleans, Louisiana: All that Craft

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Brain Container Necklace & Brooch by Thomas Mann created from silver, brass, bronze, glow in the dark plexi and found objects.

Brady Fontenot

Even post-Katrina the Crescent City’s arts community won’t rest.

If you want to discover craft in New Orleans you need look no further than the streets. Although it's present throughout the city's many galleries and museums, craft also appears in architectural adornments, on tombstones and, of course, in Carnival floats and costumes. In fact, the hands of skilled artists and artisans have created so much of what is quintessentially New Orleans, it's ironic that the visual arts have traditionally received less public attention than the city's musical and culinary feats.

Though it may operate in the shadows of famous jazz bands and gumbo chefs, the local arts community thrives, inspired by the city's eclectic cultural makeup. "We have lots of different types of people, with all of them bringing things from their own culture," says glass and metal artist Arden Stewart, a local who owns Nuance Louisiana Artisan Gallery in the Riverbend area, where St. Charles and Carrollton Avenues curve into one another.

The metalsmith and jewelry designer Thomas Mann discovered this for himself when he came to New Orleans to exhibit at Jazz Fest in 1977. The Pennsylvania native never left. "Everybody is kind of searching for his or her spiritual home, and everything about New Orleans clicked with my personality," says Mann, who nevertheless describes the local art scene 30 years ago as "backwaterish." "But I've watched it come alive and mature over the years to the point where now we're enjoying an incredibly sophisticated and vivacious scene," he adds.

A major catalyst for that evolution was the city's hosting of the 1984 World's Fair. That event spawned the development of the Warehouse District, where a number of art galleries and studios soon began to sprout. Located between the French Quarter and the Garden District, along the banks of the Mississippi River, the neighborhood pulses with creative energy.

Mann also points out that artists have found New Orleans to be a relatively inexpensive place to live. But for artists without their own studios, the lack of adequate work space has long been a factor pushing far too many of them to seek their livelihood elsewhere. Solving that problem was the impetus behind Louisiana ArtWorks, a 93,000-square-foot Warehouse District facility containing 19 studios for artists-in-residence and shops for metal, glass, ceramics and printmaking that officially opened in June 2008 after 13 years of planning. According to its director, Joy Glidden-who before her arrival in New Orleans was a consultant for the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York City and founder of the DUMBO Art Center in Brooklyn, two nonprofits dedicated to supporting the arts-the facility is unique in its comprehensiveness. "There is no other program that includes studio residencies and four [art shop] components under one roof in the middle of New Orleans's city center," she says.

Louisiana ArtWorks provides New Orleans with an opportunity to maintain a craft heritage that has evolved over the years. As Glidden notes, while there is a significant contingent of glass and metal artists in New Orleans, ceramic artists are a bit less prevalent. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, New Orleans was actually a major pottery-making center. Newcomb Pottery, whose hallmark motifs celebrated the life and landscape of Louisiana and the Gulf South, was produced by students of Newcomb College, the first women's college in the South (now part of Tulane University). Today, however, craft artists tend to be more interested in Newcomb Pottery's history than its aesthetics, says Sally Main, curator of the Newcomb Art Gallery. "These are obviously pieces of their time and period," she says. "I'm not sure there are a lot of contemporary artists who are doing magnolia designs, for instance."

If there's one art form where tradition still rules, it's the labor-intensive making of Mardi Gras costumes. Darryl Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe, spends an average of 5,000 hours each year working on his hand-sewn feathered and beaded suits. That's in addition to the work of about 10 assistants. Montana teaches at Xavier University's summer Mardi Gras Indian Arts Intensive, a program that introduces kids ages 11 to 14 to Mardi Gras Indian masking and costuming, a custom dating back to the 1880s. "I realize that if these are not taught to the kids, there's a great possibility that we could lose the tradition," he explains.

Despite craft's ingrained traits in the culture of the Crescent City, its disappearance is something many local artisans fear. For all New Orleans craft artists, the challenges of making and selling their work have multiplied in the post-Hurricane Katrina environment, as Elijah Sproles, a sculptor who oversees the metal shop at Louisiana ArtWorks, can attest. Like many local artists who had works or entire studios destroyed when the levees broke after the storm, he sought assistance from a state business grant program to get back on his feet. "One of the frustrations was that it was hard to get the state to recognize art as a business," Sproles says.

With a new, accelerated push from Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu to promote Louisiana's cultural economy, such blinders may be falling away. Also, a state law enacted in July 2008 provides for tax-free sales of artworks and tax credits on certain expenses for rehabilitating art galleries and other buildings within designated "Cultural Products Districts" throughout the city.

What the state seems to be realizing is the importance of arts in revitalizing any city's economy, but especially one with such a rich heritage. "The arts are really key to our recovery," says Jan Katz, curator of the Center for Southern Craft and Design at New Orleans's Ogden Museum of Southern Art. And they aren't just necessary to bring in tourists. Geriod Baronne, volunteer director-or "den mother," as she likes to call herself -at the New Orleans School of GlassWorks and Printmaking Studio, emphasizes that the city needs skilled craft artists for the architectural and interior restoration work that's so essential to its recovery. "They won't be able to restore things, particularly after Katrina, unless there are artists with some sort of a background in stained glass, kiln firing, the blowing of chandelier parts," Baronne says. "You're not going to get a machine making some of these things around here."

While Katrina may have left destruction and heartbreak in its wake, a strong sense of hope is rising. This is partially due to the new influx of young-and artistic-residents eager to be part of the city's comeback. "It's kind of like the 60s," says Katz. "A lot of artists have fallen in love with the city-which is a siren song-and are going to stay."