John R. Kemp photographed by Brian GauvinA s the early morning fog lifts from the river and settles on Jackson Square, an eighteen-wheeler grinds its gears to beat the stoplight on Decatur Street. The musty smell of the Mississippi River and roasting coffee from upriver fill the air as French Quarter shopkeepers and restaurants fuss with morning deliveries.
Artist Catherine Wilson is licensed to vend on Jackson Square.
Later, at a more respectable hour, just before tourists leave their hotels and breakfast tables, life slowly returns to the square. Tarot card readers, palm readers and a host of other psychics set up their tables and tune in their clairvoyant channels. Street musicians and mimes take their positions and the Lucky Dog stand sets up on St. Peter and Decatur streets, awaiting Ignatius. Artists roll their plywood carts into the streets surrounding the square to stake up their spots along the iron fence around the square.
Artists Bedonna Wakeman (left) and Jane Bowman sharea laugh behind St. Louis Cathedral. Their paintings hang on the ironfence behind them.
Sadly, though, only a few artists have returned to the square since Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city and the tourism industry. Prior to the storm, about 200 artists licensed by the city worked around the square, down Pirates Alley and along the fence behind St. Louis Cathedral. Now, about 20 licensed artists work the area. For over a century, Jackson Square artists have been as much a part of the French Quarter as its architecture, restaurants and popular gin joints. For years tourists and natives have strolled along the banquette, watching artists at work. That part of life in New Orleans is now threatened. The dozen or so artists working there on any give day tell the same bleak story – they’re barely making it and the dramatic drop in tourism has driven street artists like themselves to more lucrative venues in other tourist-oriented cities.
Skyler Emo of St. Louis has her portraitdrawn by artist Henry Wang. Wang has sold his paintings in JacksonSquare for four years.
Bedonna Wakeman, who lives in Faubourg Marigny below Esplanade Avenue, is one who stayed. Since 2002, she has painted and sold her colorful images of the city and music legends such as Dr. John, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King and Billie Holiday along the cathedral fence on Royal and Orleans streets. She intends to remain here, even though she lost almost everything to the storm. “I returned to New Orleans three weeks after the Hurricane hit the city,” she says. “I discovered that I lost 90 percent of everything I owned, including most of my finished canvases. I was able to find some canvas and frames to stretch my own canvas, paint and brushes and began painting and taking my work out on Royal Street as a statement that the art community had returned. Although this has been a very inspirational presence to the returning citizens of the city, there has been nearly a total loss of tourists who have been the financial backbone to the street artists. Without sales it has been very hard to pay for the basic needs for living, such as food and rent or for any art supplies.”
With sales in the dump, Wakeman chuckles and adds: “The myth about the hard life of an artist on the street has turned into reality.” She talks a good bit about her street painting days in Europe and the captivating images she found in small villages and marketplaces. When she moved to New Orleans – her children live here – she began showing her paintings on the cathedral fence. The priests found her paintings a bit too suggestive, perhaps a little too European, for the sacred real estate she occupied. They asked her to tone it down. She dropped her “suggestive” European palette and began painting images of New Orleans musicians. The music here, she says, speaks to her more about the real New Orleans than architecture, food or anything else.
Wakeman loves being a street painter. “Being on the street, that’s my life,” she says. “I feel like an anchor and an ambassador for the city. I want to talk to people and to get them excited about the music. The theme of New Orleans is music and I tap into that energy and spirit in the painting. I’m trying to keep the image in people’s minds.”
Another artist who plans to stay is self-taught landscape painter Miriam Ragan, a regular on the square for 36 years. Since Katrina, her sales have dropped 75 percent. “I was born in the French Quarter,” she says. “It’s slow but I’m staying.” Like other Jackson Square veterans, Ragan says business on the square before Katrina was good seven days a week. The square was an important spot for all tourists visiting the city. Now, she says, they’re lucky if people show up on weekends. Even then, she adds, some are tourists but most are locals.
Peggy Nead, a painter on the square since 1976, also has seen her business drop dramatically. “We’re just beginning to see days that are normal with the return of conventioneers and tourists other than recovery workers,” she says. “There are signs now of hope but it’s still inconsistent. Very inconsistent.”
Though artistic styles differ, most artists believe tourists eventually will return. To help them in the meantime, Blue Dog has come to the rescue. Lafayette painter George Rodrigue, of Blue Dog fame, has donated $16,000 in grants to almost a dozen artists on the square and in Pirates Alley. In a letter to the artists, Rodrigue wrote: “I know you each have had your own struggles following the devastation of Katrina and I, for one, appreciate your dedication to remain in New Orleans even though it has been a trying time for you.”
Since Katrina, Rodrigue, who has a gallery on the corner of Royal and Orleans streets in the French Quarter, has donated $1 million in Katrina relief to the Red Cross, New Orleans Museum of Art, the Louisiana Philharmonic Symphony and other cultural organizations. He has raised the money through the sale of a special series of prints he calls “Blue Dog Relief.”
The money has been helpful and new life is springing up along the fence. Ernest Brown, a 22-year-old artist from Gretna across the river from New Orleans, set up his easel on the square for the first time in early 2006. He had never shown his work in public before and this was an excellent and inexpensive way for him to show his charcoal drawings of street musicians and second-liners. But why Jackson Square? The answer was simple: “I needed a venue to sell my work,” he says with the cocksure exuberance of youth on his first professional outing. “I’m thinking I’m the best artist in the world and nobody sees it.” So far, he says, sales have been good but then, he has nothing with which to compare them.
At least one aspect of that new life has raised many eyebrows and the ire of many long-time street artists on the square and in Pirates Alley. In 2005, contemporary folk artist Holly Sarré filed a federal lawsuit against the city in her efforts to sell prints on Jackson Square. City ordinances require all art works sold on the sidewalk around the square be original works of art, not prints. Sarré claims the city ordinance violates her constitutional right to free speech. In July 2006, a federal judge ordered the New Orleans city council to consider amending the city ordinance to permit the sale of reproductions of original works of art. So far, the council has not changed its rules. Eventually, the federal judge will have the final word. Artist Miriam Ragan goes right to the point: “We don’t want prints here. People won’t buy originals.”
Despite the controversy, artists are desperate to see tourists return to New Orleans. Until then, says Bedonna Wakeman, “it’s a matter of holding on. We have to stick together.”