New Iberia artist Paul Shexnayder creates pieces that deliver universal messages.
Paul Schexnayder is living out a life-long dream in New Iberia. The walls of his spacious art gallery near the center of the city’s historic district are filled with his bright, whimsical paintings of musicians, dancers, piano keyboards, Louisiana wildlife and occasional images depicting the eternal struggle between good and evil.
Schexnayder describes his paintings, which can be found in collections throughout South Louisiana, as “poetic art” and “primitive and folk” but “accessible and fun.” Yet, his compositions, “Angel & Demon” for instance, often have an underlying spirituality that he readily acknowledges. “That comes out naturally,” he explains, glancing across the room. “It’s a part of the culture down here in South Louisiana.” Ironically, this artist who is known widely for his intensely colorful paintings is colorblind, especially when working with dark shades such as blues, purples and browns.
Born in New Iberia in 1966, Schexnayder has enjoyed drawing most of his life. In the mid-’80s he studied graphic arts, painting and drawing at LSU. And like most art students during those formative years, he searched for his own style and artistic voice. Almost immediately, he gravitated to the edgy work of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau and especially to paintings by the early modernist Marc Chagall. “The more I looked and learned about the life of Chagall, the more I connected with him,” he explains. “He had a beautiful way of telling stories of his life, culture and love. I loved that anything can happen in his work. I like how he used symbols in his work to help further the story.” It is a lesson Schexnayder continues to explore in his own visual stories inspired by the music, religion, pop culture and “good times” of South Louisiana.
Schexnayder had to spend a few years away from Louisiana to truly see those influences, however. In 1988, with a bachelor of fine arts degree, Schexnayder moved to Beverly, Massachusetts, near Boston to take a teaching job at a school for dyslexic students. “Those four years in Boston opened my eyes to our culture in South Louisiana,” he says. “While in Boston, I made two trips to Guatemala where I saw every tribe of Indians there. They had their own way of dress with bright colors. They were completely happy. Their culture made me more aware of my own culture in South Louisiana. I wanted to move home, and I dreamed of a shotgun house in New Iberia owned by my parents. I moved in and opened my studio there.” Shortly after returning home in the early ’90s, life fell into place. He reconnected with an old high school friend, Lilla “Lee” Himel, and in 1995 they married. In 2009, Paul and Lee opened their A&E Gallery in a spacious 19thcentury building on West St. Peter Street once owned by a former mayor of New Iberia. There he teaches art workshops and represents a number of local artists.
After a long career of teaching in local public and private schools, Schexnayder has found his place among contemporary artists who explore the eccentricities and rhythms of life in South Louisiana. “All my life I have heard stories, tales and phrases that are part of our culture in southern Louisiana,” he says. “As an artist I have the privilege of being a participating native as well as a recorder of details. Most of the stories I paint are local, yet they have a universal meaning. I am exploring simplicity in my art and message. The attraction may be the color and shapes, and hopefully they make the viewer linger a bit longer, allowing their experiences to add to the story or message. The paintings are instant messages and reflections on our pop culture, our past and current world. Each painting has its own flavor, setting and atmosphere.”
Schexnayder adds to that “flavor” by painting his images on unconventional objects that he finds in his travels around town. Rather than the usual canvas or paper, he prefers to paint on Masonite panels or discarded objects such as old window frames and cupboard doors. As a result, each work has a distinct personality. Also, people depicted in his paintings have featureless small heads that amount to little more than circles mounted on large bodies. “That just happened recently,” he explains, pointing to a nearby painting titled “Gator Back Boogie” with three faceless figures dancing on the back of a smiling alligator. “Is the head more important or is the body more important?” he asks rhetorically. “The clothing made the scene and got the message across. The objects they are holding carry the painting. It’s the story that’s most important. If you paint an expression on the face, people read into it more than I intended.”
Schexnayder’s primary audience, however, is himself. “I create the work for me first,” he explains. “I have to like it and then I share it. The thought and sketch of the piece belongs to me but the painting belongs to the world. The most important step for me is the process of the idea. To get it on paper first and work it out with paint, color and form. I am inspired by language and stories. Words, phrases and puns – usually something offbeat – go into my style of art. The challenge is to create a visual language quickly. I want people to make an instant connection to the piece and, hopefully, they will linger beyond the initial attraction and see more than they first thought. I want people to feel something and respond.” He recalled the reaction he got from a woman just after viewing a painting in his “Vessels” boat series. She claimed the “movement” in the painting made her sick. “I thought that was the best compliment a person could give me,” he says with a broad smile.
Like most artists, Schexnayder is constantly thinking about the next painting, the next composition and story. “I keep a sketchbook next to my bed because I often dream of new ideas and paintings,” he says. “I have several dozen filled sketchbooks that I often use for reference. It seems the older I get the more I want and need to create. The urge to paint is stronger each day. I love to make people smile and laugh and feel good and most of my art does that.” He doesn’t see himself slowing down any time soon either. Meanwhile, he is collaborating with friends in producing illustrations for a line of “Happy Cajun” porcelain plates, bowls, cups and other memorabilia. In addition, he does the artwork for a series of children’s books, Mr. Tootles and Those Oodles of Noodles and Mr. Tootles and the Giggle Wiggles, for Tootle Time Publishing Company in New Iberia.
“My career as an artist is the same as it was when I started,” he states. “I still straddle the literal and poetic edges and I’m still in between the commercial and fine art world.”
For more information about Schexnayder and his work, visit schex.com.