Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Big Easy. Easy to Love.

Not far from the street musicians in front of the Cathedral (well, everywhere, really),
there are the lush streets that are never entirely emptied with their posh shops and galleries,
and then the other Vieux Carre, or French Quarter that
offers surprising oases of calm that seem far away from the brash chaos of the lower reaches of Bourbon Street. That was our retreat, just across the street from the French Quarter on the edge of one of the oldest black neighborhoods in America, the Treme, where from time to time we could hear snatches of music from a Second Line drifting through the neighborhood.
Even the neighborhoods for the dead are interesting in New Orleans, and are, of course, where the idea of the Second Line originated - the joyous music leaving the cemetery. Now, people hire a Second Line to celebrate almost anything.
Lafayette Cemetery #1 in the Garden District houses the remains of the Americans (who pushed their way into New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase) and is, of course, an active cemetery. It's the second oldest "garden cemetery" in the country (the oldest being Mount Auburn outside of Boston), although it's difficult to fit in much garden when burial is almost always above ground (due, among other reasons, to the high water table). Our guide Naïf explained how hundreds of people can be entombed in the above ground vaults (hint: not a lot of embalming fluid). For much of the city's history, it seems like burial practices were one of the few things on which the Americans and the Creoles (pre-Louisiana Purchase inhabitants who were born in America, irrespective of race or origin). They lived in separate neighborhoods with Canal Street as their DMZ. The Cajuns are, of course, the descendents of the Acadians who, during the French and Indian War, were expelled from Atlantic Canada as a security threat. You might recall our posting from Cape Breton in 2014 in which we quoted the opening lines of Longfellow's Evangeline, his lament of the human suffering from Le Grand Derangement ("This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks . . .."). The Cajuns now live all over southern Louisiana and keep a lot of their culture alive.
In addition to family vaults, people also bought into burial societies through which families purchased perpetual rights to each of the mini-vaults, above. As always, people looked for a way to belong.
The same practices apply in above ground, in ground, burial. Pillows for the remains of those making way for the newcomers, but at least they get to stay.
Of course, there was some stubborn New Englander who decided he had to have a New England cemetery plot in the middle of New Orleans. Shh, we're just from out of town. If we make it back to New Orleans, maybe we'll visit St. Louis Cemetery #1. That's the even older one in the French Quarter where Nicholas Cage has purchased a plot and built a pyramid for himself.
Back among the living in the Garden District, we discovered why it is so popular with celebrities.
Here's one Nicholas Cage owned for a while because of its reputation for being haunted.
But, there are better reasons for living here. Gorgeous houses.
Your intrepid photographer naturally failed to snap the required photos to show where Sandra Bullock or John Goodman lives, although we learned that Goodman is a friendly guy who waves to people when he picks up his newspaper (no surprise, really)
What!? How can we go on about cemeteries and Nicholas Cage, ignoring the red hot reason people go to New Orleans in the first place? It's bands like the up-and-coming Brass-a-holics. Jim and Ken had seen the Rebirth Brass Band down in D.C., so it was time for something different. These guys offered up a sort of fusion brass band sound, mixing in everything from traditional sounds to hip hop, heavy on the electronics. They were great.
A couple of doors away at Bamboulas on Frenchmen Street the Sunshine Brass Band were playing a much more traditional sound and standards. Good listening.
There was a really well attended free concert at the cathedral featuring Sunpie, the zydeco musician. Unfortunately, the acoustics were terrible and the Christmas concert was so entirely down tempo that we moved on to see what was happening in the Quarter.
For a line like this, you know it's Preservation Hall.
It's a substantial wait, a tiny room and we ended up in standing room, but it's also a stellar performance, as they have a stable of the best musicians in town (in a town where music is the life blood). Worth the journey.
Back on Frenchmen Street, we caught blues man Walter ("Wolfman") Washington and the Roadmasters.
His friend Rooster of Rooster and the Chickenhawks ventured over from Bourbon Street for a couple of numbers. Loved it.
Grammy winner John Cleary (best regional roots album) is a kind of swamp music Elton John, stomping along with a really playful style. Really enjoyed him. Oddly enough, he's originally from England, but discovered where he's supposed to be.
We wandered into Vaso in between our planned visits to the d.b.a. to see Cleary and the 10:00 show. Ed Wills and Blues4Sale was a real treat with a great voice and guitar style for a classic blues delivery.
Then, back for the 10:00 show with the Luke Winslow-King Trio. Like a lot of the bands, hard to pigeonhole, but Ken bought one of their albums on our way out.
With no photo to show for it, our very first outing was to the Column Hotel in the Garden District to catch David Doucet, the legendary Cajun musician of Beausoleil fame. Despite starting the gig about 45 minutes later than advertised, he was, well, David Doucet and well worth the listen. After that, we started taking the camera. Lots of music for a 4 day visit.
And, what visit to New Orleans would be complete without a visit to the bayou?
An airboat is noisy, but it gets you out there quickly and the ear protectors are pretty effective.
It was too cold for the gators and when we got up to speed we understood why the guide wore a parka.
But, it was fun to explore and see things like the cedar knees that help the tree breathe.
One evening we went over to Lafayette Square for the Luna Fete, a visual arts festival with vendors. The light show was first rate, as the old bank's facade was continuously transformed, with the illusion of action taking place behind the columns and of the entire building pulsing with breath.
One artist came with a trailer for projecting series of images with which you could interact by tweeting your own images into the program.
Ken tweeted the bird (on left)
and the eye graphic (on right).
Colorful lasers lay over top
helping to link the installations together
for a luminous experience.
Young Life (1994).
Ken was familiar with Bo Bartlett, whose Young Life hangs prominently in the entry to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. He included a small insect and dandelion seed under the paint and a deer tail in the frame. Andrew Wyeth was a mentor early in his career.
The Rookery (2007).
This painting is enormous and completely immersive. It's creator, Simon Gunning, was on his way from Australia to England to go to art school in the 1970s when he stopped by New Orleans.
Crossroads (2013).
He was so captivated by the city and southern Louisiana that he returned in 1981 to make it his home.
The Canal in Lavender and Blue #2 (2015).
In addition to its substantial holdings, the Ogden had a special exhibit of Gunning's landscapes, each one captivating.
Mourners (1962).
The big break for Georgia painter Benny Andrews came when he could study art at the Art Institute in Chicago under the GI bill.
Death of the Crow (1965).
Teacher (1965).
He also became well known for his pioneering work in art programs in prisons. It was interesting that most of these artists spent time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where Amanda took a course in drawing.
World of the Happy and the Free (1986).
The Rev. Howard Finster was a self-taught Visionary artist who began creating art after God appeared to him on his thumb and said, "Make sacred art."
Man of Vision (1981).
One of the things that makes Visionary art interesting, as well as Outsider art and other ways we choose to think of art made by self-taught artists, is that it isn't part of the dialogue that naturally occurs within the realm of contemporary artists conscious of what has come before them.
Elvis at 3 (1984).
There is a wonderful intensity to it that is at once bewildering and fascinating.
Mississippi (no date).
Will Henry Stevens grew up in Indiana, but studied and worked in Ohio, New York, and Kentucky before winding up teaching at Newcomb College in New Orleans from 1921 through 1948.
Untitled (1945).
He was a naturalist, mainly drawing and painting in the outdoors, and so adapted his media away from studio easel painting, including developing his own pastels (having the benefit of growing up with a chemist father).
Untitled (no date).
He was interested in the Sung painting of the 12th century, in particular because of its philosophy of the artist as an extension of nature.
Pyramid (1995).
Over at the New Orleans Museum of Art we wanted to catch the special show featuring George Dunbar, New Orleans born and bred (art school at the Tyler School in Philadelphia), and his massive highly structured pieces. Being a land developer as a second day job, Dunbar is fascinated with land forms, bridges, canals and the like.
Marsh grass XXVI (2007).
Exploring the tension between order and chaos, Dunbar buried coils of red canvas in brown clay with red gold overlaid and then filed patterns into the surface to expose some of the underlying material.
Coin du Lestin XXXVI (1997).
In this earlier work Dunbar had also created a base of clay overlaid with gold that has been incised or filed off.
Glad to be outside again, we wandered the Sculpture Garden at the NOMA
We Stand Together (2005).
George Rodrigue's iconic Blue Dog image is also found in a gallery on Royal Street (as well as galleries in Lafayette, LA, and Carmel, CA). That dog sure showed up in a lot of ways. He is, of course, a native son.
Back downtown, close to the cathedral, we visited the Cabildo, the old seat of the colonial government and now a state historical museum. Among its holdings is this death mask of Napoleon, the man who wheedled the former French possessions out of the Spanish with a promise to not sell them to the Americans and who, naturally, turned around and cut the famous deal with Jefferson.
In a private antiques gallery nearby we found the desk at which Napoleon wrote his memoirs while imprisoned on St. Helena (and that's his footbath). It seems conditions weren't overly harsh for him.
Back at the Cabildo, Jim was tempted by new career options,
while Ken wasn't sure that was such a good idea.
We think of New Orleans as a city built by the French and Spanish, but in reality there was also very significant immigration from Germany (which is easy to see in the cemeteries). Much to our surprise, it was the German immigrants who introduced the accordion to the culture, providing some vindication for Jim's side of the family.
The museum at the Cabildo provides a very clear-eyed overview of the history of Louisiana, including the successful effort to overturn Reconstruction and reestablish white rule after the Civil War. Artifacts like a New Orleans slave auction block from around 1850 make it tangible and remind us that all of this occurred not long ago. Jim, for example, remembers his great grandfather Billy who, as a young boy, hid under the porch as Confederate troops made their way to Gettysburg.
It was, however, the World War II museum that was the big surprise of our visit to New Orleans. We are all quite well versed in that war, thank you. But, everywhere we turned we were advised by locals that it was an outstanding museum, that everyone raved about it, that it is consistently rated as one of the best museums in the world, and that at least 4 to 6 hours are needed for a visit, if not more. They were right.
The exhibit spaces are filled with documentary footage on the walls, compelling and carefully explained artifacts, oral history recordings running continuously as you move through the spaces, and fascinating detail on all of the more minor missions, engagements and battles you actually haven't learned about before.
It's a museum experience taken to new heights (actually, Jim had a tough time on the catwalk way up here!).
Finally, you can't think of New Orleans without thinking about food. Wonderful food. Muffuletta. Po-boys. Jambalaya. Gumbo. Sausages. Lots of pork. Here, Amanda enjoys a beignet at the Cafe du Monde. From very upscale eateries to absolute dives there are plenty of great places to grab a delicious bite to eat, including delis with smokers in the back. People are proud of their food heritage and, don't forget, if there's tomatoes in there it's not Cajun, it's Creole.
There you have it. Four days. The Big Easy. Hard to forget.