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the house that cajun homes built
Ted Bertrand’s downtown Sunset gallery makes space for his paintings and the work of other local artists
For Ted Bertrand the preservation project starts (and ends) with a paint job. He is an unapologetic and non-traditional documentarian of a culture he hustles to capture before the creeping shadow of homogenization covers everything.
On the busiest street in this never-busy town, across from the church and without a stoplight in sight, sits a century-old bank turned art gallery — a long-awaited “place of my own” for an artist whose clout was strengthened by artistically reproducing the places of others. Inside, Bertrand is putting the finishing touches on a commissioned piece, a colorful and even whimsical painting of an old Cajun-style home with a dominant front porch located along Highway 31 near Robin Bridge. Two stately oaks frame the dwelling, giving the structure a prominence impossible to ignore. Such subjects — unmistakably Acadiana places and people — are Bertrand’s bread and butter.
“My goal with each painting is to bring out what’s already there,” Bertrand says. “To illustrate the beauty that comes with age.”
That same attitude is exhibited in Bertrand’s new gallery.
In May 2017, Bertrand transformed The Bank of Sunset Building on Napoleon Avenue (which was also the Town Hall for many years) into the ARTworks by Ted Bertrand Gallery & Studio. Bertrand breathed life into the dated structure, creating a platform to display not only his works, but the paintings of others. For instance, in August, Bertrand’s Gallery also housed the works of long-time Sunset artist Bea Sibille. Since its opening, paintings by Anne Matt – the Gallery’s artist in residence, if you will – have hung right beside Bertrand’s pieces. Open houses are a regular thing, and not only attract visual artists, but also local musicians and writers, too.
And of course, Bertrand gladly welcomes consumer foot traffic, even when he’s in studio painting.
“I’m not sure that the intention was ever to have a quiet place where I could work uninterrupted. If it was, then this wasn’t the place for that, because we always have people coming in – which is the point of having this gallery,” Bertrand says with a bit of a chuckle. “My flow or rhythm, my concentration, I guess, isn’t easy to keep, because we always have visitors. So I don’t know if I’m getting more done here, but I like having the space.
“I like having it to display not only my work, but others’, as well.”
The route Bertrand traversed to get to this place — 855 Napoleon Avenue in Sunset, to be specific, if you wanna pop on in — is a bit unorthodox compared to his Cajun painting contemporaries, but does explain why his subject matter hasn’t altered over the years.
Growing up, Bertrand didn’t receive formal art training. Instead, he spent his childhood on his family farm in central St. Landry Parish. The setting was quintessentially Cajun. Looking back, it’d be perfect for a Bertrand painting — they grew cotton and soy, raised animals in a sparsely populated area that somehow maintained a strong sense of community.
Those images Bertrand witnessed all around him as a youngster are now the inspiration for all of his pieces. Swamp landscapes painted upon horizontal wooden slabs. Cajun cottages, wooden docks, cotton gins, grain bins and any other dated or decaying structure that exudes authenticity captured on canvas. Bertrand refers to his paintings as “somewhat expressionistic” in that the colors used gleefully distort any semblance of reality, while the size and scope of the subject itself still rings true. A Cajun house still looks like a Cajun house in a Bertrand piece…just with bright shades that bring a sense of life and movement to the inanimate focal point.
Over the years, Bertrand’s work has appeared at The Frame House Gallery in Lake Charles, The Historic Washington Art Gallery in Washington, and dining establishments like NuNu’s in Arnaudville and the Grand Coteau Bistro. He’s also a regular at art shows like The Big Easel in Lafayette.
Ted’s wife, Ava, played a large role in the formation of the Sunset Gallery and still has a hand in its day-to-day operation. She’s also a frequent rider through the backroads of South Louisiana with her husband – short day trips without a written-in-ink plan or destination. Together they search for what’s left (structurally, anywhere) of a unique slice of Americana indigenous only to this part of the country.
“As an artist, this area just gives you so much to work with,” Bertrand says. “I’ve found inspiration — places and people to paint — for years and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to paint everything, because there’s that much out there. There is a historical element to it, a preservation or a time capsule element.
“But, yes, it does require a little more effort to find interesting houses or buildings or even landscapes to paint. You have to drive a little further, or look a little harder. But it’s still there if you’re willing to find it.”
“I think a lot of people notice the colors I use,” Bertrand says. “They grab your attention, and I think they make you want to take a longer look or a closer look at the painting.”