A Certain Beauty
Cityscapes from the other side
by JOHN R. KEMP
New Orleans writer Andrei Codrescu describes the white-washed crypts and miniature temples of the city’s decaying above-ground cemeteries as “waiting rooms for the Day of Judgment” where the dead “rehearse the defense they will offer the Almighty and rest for the day when they will be called to rise and exert their creaky bodies again.”
To New Orleans artist Shirley Rabé Masinter, these Cities of the Dead are childhood memories. They and the poverty-ravaged inner city streets away from usual tourist sites and the grand antebellum neighborhoods provide rich imagery for Masinter’s highly representational and startling cityscapes.
Masinter is an exceptional artist who has gained considerable attention for her rich oil and watercolor depictions of New Orleans gritty streets, cemeteries and landscapes. A New Orleans art critic has described Masinter as “monster talent … as intensely skilled, focused and energetic as any artist in the city.” And like many other notable New Orleans artists, Masinter studied with the acclaimed southern regionalist painter and teacher John McCrady, who operated an art school in the French Quarter for many years and turned out other critically successful artists such as Rolland Golden, Henry Casselli and Alan Flattmann.
Traditionally, the interplay of warm sunlight and tropical humidity in Louisiana’s moody bayous, swamps and marshlands has seduced artists for generations. But Masinter’s work is different. She uses the intensity of midday sunlight to create stark visual and lighting contrasts in her graffiti-filled inner city street scenes, rural landscapes or among the crumbling tombs in the city’s still-used colonial cemeteries. With extraordinary drawing talents and a great deal of patience, perhaps tempered by her long career as a commercial artist for the now-defunct D.H. Holmes department store, Masinter meticulously records in her paintings every crack in the sidewalk, every leaf or the prawn of every fern growing from cracked plaster in an ancient tomb. She captures the dried rivulets of rust in the old Civic Theater and Kolb’s restaurant marquees that no longer attract customers but recall memories of long-ago stage productions and fine meals.
To Masinter, a New Orleans native, the city itself has an intensity and vibrancy that drive her work. In recent years, two major aspects of the city have captured her attention – the city’s historic cemeteries and poor, decaying inner city neighborhoods.
But why paint decaying neighborhoods in a city known for its singular architecture and landscape? “I’ve never really thought about it,” she says. “I just see a certain beauty in it. Maybe it’s because I grew up in an old neighborhood. I drive through a run down section of the city and say, ‘Wow! Isn’t that beautiful.’ Maybe these old neighborhoods show more character. Though some of the old buildings and houses are abandoned, they somehow show life, that someone once lived there.”
In an artist statement written in 2002, Masinter described her work as “suffused by a sense of nostalgia and remembrances; sometimes my images are more disturbing and gritty. I have tried in my work to create a vision and a style that tells of my city; its beauty, its mystery, its fascination with the celebration of life and death.”
Whether painting cities of the living or the dead, one could say her work is really about life and shadowed memories, her’s as well as our own. Like many New Orleanians, her family followed the custom of visiting family tombs regularly to make sure they were whitewashed and that the flowers were fresh. “It seems when I was a child we were always bringing flowers to the cemetery. It was an important part of New Orleans life. It was a continuity of taking care of the people in your family who had passed on,” she says. “The cemetery series was kind of going back to the neighborhood where I grew up.” When Masinter was a child, her family, who were descendants of Germans who settled in the old 19th century Third District of New Orleans below Esplanade Avenue, lived on North Johnson Street across from St. Roch Park. The old St. Roch Cemetery sat on the other side of the park from her house. She has vivid memories of walking through the cemetery on her way to school each morning and seeing “ex votos” lining the chapel walls. The unusual series resulting from these memories depicts an old Italian custom in New Orleans of placing relics and objects at the cemetery chapel altar to thank St. Roch, the patron saint of invalids, for curing some ailment. The place is filled with prosthetic hands, feet, ears, hearts, eyes and other objects representing healed maladies.
Art critics and art historians describe Masinter’s painting style as Hyper-Realism rather than Photo-Realism in the way Richard Estes and others made popular in the late 1960s and ’70. “Photo-realists strictly work from the photographs they shoot,” she says. “They make a few adjustments, because the camera distorts the image somewhat, but they don’t change backgrounds. I create my paintings by bringing in various elements of what I see.” Unlike the Photo-realists, she photographs and collects pieces of imagery from around the city and then builds a composite around a central image.
Earlier in her career, Masinter, like most seasoned artists, worked on location, sketching the scene in pencil and adding a few color notes for later reference back in the studio. “Now, I take a lot of photographs,” she says, “but every now and then I do a drawing on location to see if I can still do it.” Back in the studio, these images come together as she draws from the hundreds of photographs she has taken of old advertising signs, political campaign posters, street lamps, people’s faces, old decaying houses, graffiti scared walls and anything else that grasped her imagination.
Some people, however, have criticized her images of graffiti-blighted inner city street scenes. To some, her paintings may be an intrusion into a world they believe she does not belong to. “I think there is a lot of anger there,” she says, “but I hope my paintings will draw attention to the problems in a positive way. I also think many graffiti artists are frustrated artists. They’re trying to say something. They’re trying to make their mark, too.”
Masinter recalls the time she had a show at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. One painting depicted an old building covered with graffiti. The graffiti artists saw the painting in a newspaper review of the show and turned up at the CAC to complain about their work being depicted in Masinter’s work. A curator talked them out of pursuing the issue. The painting is now in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Masinter has rarely encountered problems gathering photo images of neighborhoods and people for her paintings. Some are paid models; others are friends, family or simply people who live in the neighborhood. “People are usually very nice,” she says. “If I’m sketching in a neighborhood, people come up to me and ask what I’m doing. Most people are wonderful and cooperative.” She recalled two experiences, one good, one ugly. Masinter was in the French Market one day, taking photographic notes and images for a painting. She saw a woman sitting on a bench and took a picture of her. The woman asked why Masinter was photographing her. She explained and the woman was delighted.
As to her rare negative experience, Masinter was driving through a rough inner city neighborhood when she saw a visually wonderful building with an American flag painted across its front. She stopped her car, got out and started to take a photograph when a well-dressed black man approached her and asked her what she was doing. She explained and the man told her, rather directly, to get out for she was not wanted in that neighborhood. “That was the first time in 30 years that I’ve run into anything like that,” she says, telling the story rather reluctantly. The encounter unnerved her. “Maybe it was the stress of unemployment or the economic downturn and then he saw this person like me who didn’t seem to have a care in the world come into his neighborhood. It might have brought on some frustration and anger.”
Answering her critics, she says she paints “to express visually things that excite me, interest me, or feelings that I want to convey to other people in a positive way even though they may be buildings with some decay. I think there’s a feeling of home in my work, and I don’t think it makes any difference whether you’re black, white or Indian. Georgia O’Keefe did some beautiful Southwest paintings and she certainly wasn’t a Navajo. She was trained in New York.”
Masinter’s paintings can be seen a LeMieux Gallery, 332 Julia St., in the New Orleans Warehouse District.