by Leah Draffen
FRESH OUT OF LSU in 2005, Alex Harvie insisted that he did not paint people. Over 15 years later, he’s now laughing at that insistence. Capturing and connecting with people is exactly what has turned his live painting career into what it is today.
“When I first started painting live in 2006, the only other artist I could find that did it was Frenchy,” says Alex. “Now, there’s probably 40 wedding artists in the area
to whom I can refer couples to when I’m booked. An industry has been created. Not just here, but all over the country.”
Alex’s first live wedding “people” were silhouettes, except for the bride and groom. “If you don’t paint people and then you start, there’s this certain intimidation factor,” Alex reflects. “Is it going to look like them? Is it not? Will it do them justice?”
Throughout college, Alex had a job catering weddings. Unknown to him at the time, that job prepared Alex for his future work atmosphere. “Before my first wedding painting, I had already worked at least 2,000 weddings.” So, needless to say, the festive and celebratory environment felt just right as more wedding live paintings began to fill his schedule.
Alex thrives on that comfort in his surroundings as he prepares for guests to arrive. “The most important part of my process is being comfortable in where I paint. I like to get there, set up, do some sketches of the venue and have time to soak it in. I always set up my paint kit the same way.
“My routine is very systematic, but when I start painting, I almost blank out and come to when it’s done. Occasionally, I will be in the middle of a painting and have a sobering moment where I realize ‘oh wow, this is happening right now. What am I doing?’ then I can flip that right back of again to get in the zone.”
Alex doesn’t touch the canvas until guests start to arrive. “I like to have at least a couple of guests see the first yellow lines. Yellow ochre is always my starting color.” Yellow ochre has been his starting color while painting live at every music venue and at every event venue (at least once) in New Orleans.
It’s safe to say that Alex’s people painting skills have evolved. Over 2,500 paintings later, Alex now paints 60 to 80 people on his canvas that can easily be identified by their hair or clothing. Also recognizable is Alex’s attire for live painting.
His painted tuxedos have become a staple in his closet. “I’ve always been a sloppy painter, so the painted tuxedos are just a side effect of me wiping my hands or brushes. The further away I get from New Orleans, the weirder people look at me. I can walk down any street in New Orleans in my tuxedo and not even get glanced at, but out of the city, or out of the state, it’s a whole different ballgame.
“I probably have over 30 something tuxedos that I have now retired because they’re so caked with paint that I can’t even bend in them! They’re like armor,” he laughs.
Similar to armor, Alex has donned an M-6000 fiberglass mask for painting during the pandemic. For a touch of humor and happiness, he cuts out a big smiley face to stick on the front of his mask.
“I just want people to know that I’m smiling underneath the mask because I always am anyway. My biggest fear is that I won’t be able to connect with the audience and that’s the thing that keeps me going— connecting with people. Once I put you in the painting, and you see me painting you, there’s this connection that we have. That’s what I really treasure. That’s what I love and what motivates me.”
Although COVID-19 cleared Alex’s schedule for quite a while in 2020, he managed to stay safe and perform for several weddings later in the year. “If I don’t paint for a month, I really miss it. I’m addicted to it. My favorite is when someone’s jaw drops when they realize it’s them. That, ‘Oh my god, that’s us. He’s putting us in there, honey! Do you see that?’ I just love that so much.”
From Drew Brees’ 40th birthday party to the Louisiana Senate in session, Alex paints the faces of many notables throughout the city and beyond. He has painted several works for Gayle Benson including a large 14-by-8.5-foot painting of the Benson’s horses. For the past seven New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals, Alex has broken in a new tuxedo each year while on stage with Flow Tribe (whom he has painted 51 times). “Half-way through their set, I’ll grab my two biggest brushes to paint all over the clean tuxedo I’m wearing in front of the crowd!” When life was normal, he painted regularly at Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, BUKU Music + Art Project, Wednesday in the Square, French Quarter Festival, and Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. As Alex likes to say, “If I can’t have fun, I’m not going!”
Fun is definitely what Alex has had as he’s painted Mardi Gras floats street side (many times collaborating with TJ Black), a 25-foot mural at the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit for The Walls Project with over 100 hidden fauna and animals that kids love to discover with a worksheet, and the 2020 Crescent City Classic Poster.
Amidst the excitement, Alex has continued to give back. Over the course of his career, he has cumulatively raised over $100,000 by selling his work for fundraisers. His beloved painted tuxedos are on deck for fundraising measures in the near future. “I have been framing some of them in shadowboxes with a pair of sunglasses and phrases that I plan to donate for charity events,” Alex explains. “In a normal year, I probably paint live at about 50 charity events.”
This year, Alex is looking forward to connecting with his audience masks and all. “Getting acceptance from the crowd is two to three times more rewarding now with COVID and masks. It’s so much more rewarding, but there’s a lot more pressure that comes with that.”
He adds, “Even after 2,500 paintings, I’m still nervous before starting every single one of them. It seems silly, but at the same time I feel like if I don’t put that pressure on myself, I’m not going to create the best product that I’m capable of, and that’s what I want to deliver every time. I want to make the next painting better than all of the other ones I’ve already done.”