Painting the town, Cajun style.

Painting the town, Cajun style.

The eclectic and vibrant palette of New Orleans’ visual arts.

Photo: iStockPhoto

Life in New Orleans is nothing if not colorful. The city’s food, music, architecture and nightlife constitute one of the most vibrant and diverse regional cultures in America. Even its indigenous language—Louisiana Creole—is a fusion of French, English and African influences. In a very real sense, New Orleans is a city that speaks in its own voice.

One lesser-noted dialect: the visual arts. The city’s emerging visual vernacular has yet to achieve the stature of, say, New Orleans jazz or creole cuisine. But as with so much of New Orleans culture, the emerging aesthetic is an expression of a dazzlingly unconventional past.

Up from the ruins

Up from the ruins

For more than a century, New Orleans served as a global clearinghouse for southern cotton, along with a huge supply of goods from the American interior. As the railroads gradually displaced the Mississippi trade route, New Orleans’ shipping receipts dwindled, and by the early 1970s, warehouses once packed with coffee and cotton stood virtually abandoned.

Cue the artists. Painters and sculptors poured in, drawn to the vast spaces and low rent. Galleries and cafés soon followed, and today, the Arts District of New Orleans houses dozens of studios and galleries, a fine arts academy and the largest collection of Southern art in the world.

One of the early denizens of the warehouse district was George Rodrigue. In his early career, Rodrigue gained local renown as a landscape and portrait artist, but it was his Blue Dog paintings—modeled on Cajun werewolf mythology—that launched him to international celebrity. The oddly enchanting Blue Dogs became pop art icons, appearing in everything from museum exhibits to vodka ads. They also helped Rodrigue raise $2.5 million for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Another warehouse wunderkind: James Michalopolous. Like Rodrigue, he found inspiration in the iconography of the south. His bold colors and skewed perspective lend a lurching, almost surreal quality to the streetscapes of the French Quarter. Michalopolous was also a sculptor, and his massive installation, "Mother Cluster," stands on Veterans Memorial Boulevard near another monumental work—a 16-foot-tall Blue Dog, by Rodrigue.

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The past as prelude

The past as prelude

On the first Saturday evening of each month, a minor mob of art lovers can be seen ambling down Julia Street, touring the dozens of galleries along the way. A few blocks down, the 10,000-square foot Contemporary Arts Center hosts an avant-garde art show and contemporary dance performance. At the Ogden Museum, a vast collection of Southern art stands as a vigil to the immutability of history.

At every juncture, on every corner, New Orleans’ remarkable past finds a vital contemporary expression. In the burgeoning tradition of New Orleans art, the past is more alive than ever.

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