Letter From New Orleans

March 22nd, 2016  |  Published in March 2016

New Orleans is a state of mind, and in its own individual way, a state of art. There’s no question but that New Orleans residents care about how things look. Where else are you likely to find a museum called “The House of Dance & Feathers” installed in a small-ish building once a barber shop, located  behind a residence? Art and collections are part of the local culture.

I spent an early spring week in New Orleans this year, in the company of others, in a rented guest apartment in the uptown district close to Audubon Park and in sight of Magazine Street (interesting retail on Magazine). The city’s domestic architecture was a particular pleasure this time, as I hadn’t before known the immediate area in which we stayed, and we saw more of the city as a whole than on previous visits. Our place was first floor of one of those narrow houses that stretch back, back and back, a front door on either side of the porch, where rocking chairs are often in place. One front door goes to the major apartment, the other to a much smaller one and, for the two-story houses, accommodations upstairs. Sitting in one of our rocking chairs, I could look down the block at porches diminishing in the distance and recognize that each one has distinctive columns and trim, none repeats another. Very different from comparable London establishments, where each is dignified and exactly the same and no one sits on porches.

Certainly there are large establishments, often white, multi-storied, set among trees and adding considerable class to the blocks they happen to be part of, but what were originally middle class dwellings neighboring these mansions are now (assuredly expensive) and pleasurably inviting as well. So it was a particular treat to pass (sort of) as a native for a week. We were in easy reach of the St. Charles street car line. Local transportation is a traveler’s test – can you do it?  And get home without hiring a taxi?  Some of us did.

But of course we went off to look at art, starting with the New Orleans Museum of Art. On the blissful spring-filled day we were there, looking at art out of doors beat looking at it inside and I think perhaps that’s true any day at this museum, except those when the weather has absolutely nixed wandering through the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. It winds around a watercourse that expands into a pond, sculpture and nature mixing without a tremor. The sculptures are primarily 20th or 21st century (George Rickey, William Zorach, Auguste Rodin, Jacques Lipschitz, a host of others), fitting admirably into their outdoor setting, providing surprises around every turn. Inside the Museum itself, a hasty look around found strengths in 19th century French and American paintings, everything loosening up, but for us the greatest pleasure was in the splendid sculpture garden.

New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center, like Cincinnati’s identically named CAC, has no permanent collection to speak of and is housed in an arts district building that has been altered and re-shaped to accommodate the sometimes surprising needs of today’s artists. The two single-artist exhibitions we saw there (Jacqueline Humphries and James Hoff, each besotted by color) closed at the end of the month, but an ambitious presentation of myriad works produced by an artist I’m unfamiliar with, Adam Pendleton, (“Adam Pendleton: Becoming Imperceptible”) opens April 1 to run through June 16.

Bountiful art galleries of greater and lesser interest fill out the official visual arts itinerary, but on this visit we did fewer of them.  Food, however, is an art in New Orleans. Dinner is leisurely, dinner is classy, dinner is given the attention it deserves in restaurants throughout the city. The thing that struck me was – in simple or in sumptuous surroundings – food is prepared with true thought and respect for ingredients. It is hard to eat unfortunately in New Orleans.  We didn’t try.

But the House of Dance & Feathers; you’re wondering, what’s there?  Ronald W. Lewis is there, director and curator and resident authority on the Mardi Gras Indian Social and Pleasure Club Cultural Education Center, located behind his house at 1317 Tupelo Street, in the Lower Ninth Ward. Founded in 2003, Katrina nearly wrecked it in 2005 – “We were in exile in Lafourche Parish,” he says – but the disaster inspired him to truly make a museum reflecting Mardi Gras and what he refers to as the second line of parades. The city’s street cultures shine here, linking descendents of slaves to another group treated as inferior, the American Indian, and celebrating both in costumes often lavishly feathered but meant to dance in. This is a slice of Mardi Gras festivity not widely known but passionately enjoyed by participants and I’m sure by observers as well.  Much of the original House of Dance and Feathers collection was lost to Katrina, but Ronald Lewis is not a man to be defeated by a hurricane.  A plethora of extravagant costumes, photographs and memorabilia was gathered again and may be seen by visitors who call first (504-957-2678), as the museum is open by appointment only.

It is sobering to see the Lower Ninth Ward, empty lots dotted here and there with houses and inhabitants, but a visit to the House of Dance and Feathers (www.houseofdanceandfeathers.org) can only lift the spirits. The human desire to celebrate life is splendidly on view.

–Jane Durrell


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