If the well-worn walls of artist George Dureau’s three-story French Quarter home could talk, they would tell a story that spans well over a century. But it is the current resident who is apt to generate the most interest. Someone with a lesser vision might have quickly painted the unfinished, cracked gray walls, but no one would ever accuse Dureau of having a lesser vision. After all, it is Dureau whose photography, drawings and paintings have captured the attention of New Orleanians for most of his almost eight decades on earth. It is he who identified the inherent beauty in disabled subjects and amputees and even the artistic largesse of dwarves. Today, Dureau’s works grace the walls of galleries, museums and some of the best homes in the city.
“I work all over this house, up and down,” Dureau says. “The second floor, up front by the street windows, is where I do drawings on canvases and paper. The third floor is all paintings on canvases.” Also on the third floor are hundreds of black-and-white photographs Dureau has taken over the years. “I wasn’t really a photographer,” he says. “Around 1960 there was some questioning of my drawings and paintings, as to why there were so many naked people and bizarre subjects. Around that time I started taking photos of the neighborhood people. Those photos were really just impersonating perfectly what I was already drawing.”
Today, collectors fortunate enough to have some of those photos treasure them. A walk through the cavernous building Dureau now inhabits is a walk through time and a visual chronicle of his life and career. And anyone who wonders if Dureau is resting on his considerable laurels should be assured that he is not. Dureau works almost every day, somewhere within the thousands of square feet he inhabits.
“Moving to this house two years ago changed very much what I get to see because I had a lot of stuff stored away,” he says. “I had tons of pictures hiding away in closets, and now I’m seeing them for the first time since 1977 or 1986 –– old unfinished drawings or paintings suddenly get a whole new life. I live with them, and they live with me, and sometimes I’ll draw the same one over and over again and rethink them and change them as I see fit. I don’t always worry about getting finished. And here I have these great walls for them to hang on, so I can just retouch and redraw. It’s wonderful.”
The enthusiasm with which Dureau expresses himself also is evident in his surroundings. One whole section of the second floor has been fashioned into a huge working kitchen, with abundant fresh fruits and vegetables and sunlight streaming in through enormous windows. “I didn’t even bother to repaint the window frames in this place,” he says. “Everything just lends itself to everything else here.”
The irony so apparent in some of Dureau’s work spills over into his surroundings. On the stairway leading to the third floor rests an old prosthetic leg. “Oh, that belonged to one of my subjects, and that shoe on it is from when I was in the military,” he says. At the top of the stairs, there are more prostheses and more pictures of men without the requisite number of limbs. Dureau, who is in remarkable shape, somehow has always seen the beauty of human imperfection.
A new visitor to Dureau’s home is apt to quickly notice that the house is truly about the art; it is everywhere. “I do something every day with my work,” he says. “That’s why the house is left the way it is. When I walk past a painting, I might see something I think I need to move or change, so it’s important that it’s all around the house.”
Dureau is one of the most accessible and well-liked local artists in New Orleans. As he walks down the street, people call from doorways and moving cars just to say hello. For years he lived in the residential section of the upper French Quarter, but now he lives in an area heavily populated by local businesses. “Here it’s all businesspeople, but I still get the essential flavor of the neighborhood,” he says.
Indeed, his second-floor windows overlook a bustling street, complete with the requisite street noise. Still, his work shows focus and consistent vision. One full wall is taken up with a large painting of Artemis, the goddess of forest and hills, surrounded by dwarfed versions of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Another wall serves as the backdrop for a one-of-a-kind canopy bed he inherited from his grandmother, with a self-portrait, one of many he has created, hanging beside it. A nearby wall showcases a photo of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. On the walls of the makeshift kitchen hang works in progress, accessible enough for Dureau to make minor changes if he is so inspired while pursuing his other passion –– cooking. “Those drawings are just waiting there for me to touch them up, which I do a lot,” he says.
The aged building that long ago housed horses on the first floor is now a fitting studio residence for New Orleans’ grand master artist. What will they be saying about this place a century from now? Most likely people will stop on the street, point and proudly remark that this is the place George Dureau once lived.