Well, it’s been a year SINCE New Orleans has looked like her old self. The great event of 2005 did its best to, ahem, redecorate some of our noted houses—but New Orleanians wouldn’t suffer a wind-and-rain job lightly. We fight back, take back what’s ours, especially our architecture.
One New Orleanian who spent months exiled in north Louisiana came back to find his Uptown home and shop in their previous condition and his creativity recharged, but the market for decorative pottery somewhat challenged.
That New Orleanian is Mark Derby, the owner and artist behind six-year-old Derby Pottery and Tile, whose graceful castings adorned homes in the city and outside it before the big storm, and who was determined to revive his business even as other residents straggled back to washed-out New Orleans.
Before August 2005, Derby Pottery and Tile operated in a prime bit of Magazine Street real estate, near popular restaurants, art galleries and clothing shops. It was there that he cast and sold medallions, tiles and other pottery items that call to mind the era of gracious living, free from gutted houses, trash piles and abandoned cars. Foot traffic was good; so was business. Today, Derby Pottery and Tile still operates in its tiny little studio/showroom; it still turns out its historic-looking decoratives. Foot traffic might not be so heavy these days, but a stream of contractors and homebuilders adds to the shop’s clientele. This is the new New Orleans, preserving what’s left of the old, recreating the new, appreciating all of it.
“We’re very interested in all that is local,” Derby says, “and [I] would certainly consider myself a New Orleanian now and pretty heavily invested in the local rebuilding effort, in spirit and creating products that help people move it along.”
And though the city thankfully never actively pursued the faking of its legendary ambience, now it thankfully clutches any remnant of its heritage into an old and weathered hand.
Derby, a California native who once taught at Newcomb College, calls New Orleans his inspiration. That means he uses found objects of pressed tin, tooled leather and other materials with compelling textures as the basis for his pottery. He captures these textures through rubbings, then he casts them into Derby creations. Their gauzy, watery images give way to hard, shiny, cool surfaces—a contrast that speaks of this era and also of a classic quality that surpasses time.
Cameos are delicate, lions are regal; fleurs-de-lis are not the overdone symbols of T-shirt and tattoo, but simple flowers with sentimental value. “A lot of my product line has developed here, in the city, on Magazine Street. I’m still interested in my personal artistic direction, and to move away, I would sort of lose my fuel. My little fire would burn out,” he says.
Even though summer heat marked a slowdown of tourists and locals, it followed a spring with a high point being an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where, Derby reports, “There’s a lot of interest in supporting New Orleans artists.”
Life after Katrina brought renewed inspiration to Derby. Not only was his younger son born during the evacuation, but he dreamed up some new ideas, such as decorative platters that look like they’re about to be reclaimed by mold.
And his renditions of the city’s signature blue-and-white-tile letters and numbers and cast sewer covers are among the most recognizable and sought pieces, even among those who buy them on their way out of town.
Derby remains hopeful, estimating that in a few years life in the city will be more normal. “I think, and a lot of people probably feel this—it’s just a historic time. Our lives and lifestyle are worth fighting for.” •
Mark Derby, Derby Pottery and Tile, 2029 Magazine St., 586-9003