The Art of Hannah Chalew

The local artist finds beauty in ordinary New Orleans spaces.
Thom Bennett Photographs

Strictly speaking, most of the work in Hannah Chalew’s latest work, “Nature of the City,” holds still. It just doesn’t seem to.

Drawings of a sagging shotgun house or a single roof line might start off conventionally enough, but then these man-made subjects become the framework, and the vivid green vines and weeds growing around them (and over them) take over, sometimes spreading to additional sheets of paper, always creeping, twisting and seeming to grow again if you blink.

Other pieces are almost like theatrical backdrops, a series of two-dimensional screens lending depth to the view of a derelict house and its engulfing surroundings. And then there are fully three-dimensional vignettes, like the vine-covered wreck of a cottage presenting a somewhat coherent façade to the street but then gutted and teetering behind. These are ostensibly empty but in fact highly active landscapes, scenes that are surreal but also documentary in their way.

“These spaces have been forgotten, but not by nature,” says Chalew. “It’s the idea that the city used to be swamp; that’s the nature of the city, and there’s this ebb and flow where parts of it look like swamp again.”

This work offers a perspective on post-Katrina New Orleans from an artist who came of age as her city was experiencing the first phases of that monumental upheaval. Chalew’s freshman orientation at Brandeis University in Massachusetts was in the fall of 2005, as things were going to pieces back home. She returned to New Orleans after graduation in 2009, the same year of the citywide Prospect.1 art exhibition. It opened her eyes to the artistic possibilities of her hometown, and the neglected houses she saw each day while bicycling to her Bywater studio supplied the material for her own contribution.

“I find them beautiful in a way, but they’re also these memorials to loss,” she says.

Chalew’s work centers mainly on buildings, though she’s also found a way to reinterpret their onetime furnishings. She strips down sofas, armchairs, even a still-functional lamp and plants them with real vines, which entwine through trelliswork fixed to their frames. Some of the houses she’s depicted are no longer standing, but these furniture pieces literally do keep growing, whether you’re watching or not.

See more of Chalew’s work at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery or online at

Categories: Theatre + Art