Living Artfully: Cover Artist James Michalopoulos
by Leah Draffen
“YEARS FLY BY, but sometimes days are endlessly long, and weeks are moments.”
James Michalopoulos stated as we chatted the week before Hurricane Ida’s landfall. We were talking about his 35 years in New Orleans, but oh, how we can relate to this statement during hurricane recovery. A lot of our conversation was about the pandemic, the climate crisis, and how the two have affected the arts.
He says, “Living artfully in a lot of ways is about being authentic with the challenges we have. And it’s a deepening experience to do that. Now is a challenging moment in humanity. I would love to see us rise to the occasion of responsible action so that the arts can continue to support our celebration as a community.
“We grow when we take a deep breath and face a difficulty. If we stand before it, we suddenly find out that we have the reserves to deal with it. And you don’t know that until you do.” In terms of the pandemic, James’ work is conveniently performed in isolation which posed no inhibitions for him to paint. Yet, he missed sharing his work with people. “It has been very unfortunate not having the ability to meet people in public. My life has turned toward isolation. I miss dining out, visiting with friends, all the things that come with an ordinary world. That said, it has been a rich year and a half of exploration in the world of painting, sculpture, and personal philosophical study.”
Much of James’ painting this past year came in the form of musical interpretation even in a time when New Orleans’ music scene was closed. Just as a crowd moves to the sounds of a jazz quartet, James’ painted houses and buildings dance right off the canvas giving a soul to objects that are otherwise inanimate. His music paintings, however, are naturally overflowing with soul.
With James’ broad strokes and full-of-motion perspective, you can hear Satchmo’s warm raspy voice and sonorous trumpet. Currently, the second-floor gallery of the New Orleans Jazz Museum is home to James’ exhibit, From the Fat Mat to Mahalia. The retrospective spans recent scenes of street musicians to rare paintings loaned from private collections. The original painting of Louis Armstrong used for the 2001 Jazz Fest poster, which hasn’t been in Louisiana in over 20 years, is also featured.
“We have been excited to work with James Michalopoulos on this exhibition. James brings a unique perspective that is quintessentially New Orleans,” says Greg Lambousy, Director of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
“The exhibition pairs his music-themed paintings with instruments and other objects from our collections, exploring connections between the visual arts and music and illuminating the vibrant music scene in the lower French Quarter, a vibrancy that will return brilliant in time.”
Preparing for the exhibit, James plunged into musical archives to listen. “For me, it was a real deep dip into our local musical history and the work of these various artists,” James says. “I would spend five or six days working on somebody. I was totally immersed in their music and discovered so much about them and how they lived their lives. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t necessarily do unless you were obsessed or passionately driven. It was a chance for me to broaden my own understanding.”
And a favorite? He can’t name one. “I just have so many favorites. There were some things that were exciting to me and distinctive. For instance, I was able to spend time looking at Big Al Carson, Ernie K-Doe, Little Queenie; and those who were not headliners, but were just as much a part of New Orleans music history. I had a chance to look at their work, which was one of the richest parts about the whole experience— getting in touch with things I’ve never known about.”
Described as impassioned and expressionistic, James’ paintings of Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, and Aaron Neville, among many others, are recognizable with just a dash of abstraction and magic. He shares, “There’s a lot in my work that’s oriented toward seeking the essential in my subject matter. I present the heart of the matter so there’s often an almost mystical quality about it. For me, it is a mystical unfolding. I think that ‘expressionistic’ is the closest to my style because I don’t really have something that easily falls into a stylistic corner. It’s colorful, expressive, figurative, and there’s a strong level of abstraction in all of it.”
Inspiration for James’ subjects ebbs and flows day-to-day. He allows his passions to take him in different directions. “I ask myself, ‘what is exciting to me today?’ It’s a great way to orient myself. I don’t bring a lot more to it than that. I’m just totally taken by whatever I’m working on.” And when the light begins to dim, he moves on to his next subject.
“So, I’ll have a period with the sky, or blue, or architecture, or a figure, and I am totally engrossed, happy with my immersion, and my interest is piqued. And new things unfold as I get into it. Thankfully, the winds of passion shift a little slower until one day, you decide that while beans and rice has been wonderful for the last two weeks, suddenly crawfish étouffée is more exciting. Then I move on, I start looking for my next victim,” he laughs.
Over time, James’ work has loosened, and his subjects have broadened. He spends a lot more time with landscapes and figures that he once did. Color has emerged as a primary focus as well as remembering to have fun. “I am trying to remember to have fun with what I’m doing. A lot of what this art is about is celebration. It’s kind of like an expression of gratitude to the city of New Orleans.”
Further expressing his gratitude, James has been working on several projects for the community. For instance he is painting the Milky Way along with other scientific matters at Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy. He’s also sculpting a heart for the street front that represents the school’s compassion and commitment to people’s health and wellbeing. On the same wave, James has been working on a sculpture that explores mathematical concepts and another that’s looking at wave structure.
In addition to his sculptures and commissions, he has been concentrating on a series of paintings of the Supreme Court Building. “It’s a really beautiful building. Of course, I’m taking my liberties, but it’s an interesting challenge. It’s the Supreme Court, right? Alone, it’s such a classical building. It’s a straight-forward structure so it’s challenging to bring movement to it. I’m having a lot of fun with it.”
And for local architecture, when he isn’t painting it, he has been working philanthropically through his Michalopoulos Foundation. The Orleania project on St. Ferdinand, which currently provides studio workspace for 65 artists, is in the planning stages to build homes for artists. “Our mission is to create housing and support work that honors our historic architecture and to create new projects that are respectful and contribute to our local environment. I have a concern for the loss of our identity architecturally; of us becoming ‘anywhere’.
“We have fabulously rich historical architecture. And we’re in danger of losing it to generic and out-of-scale architecture. You know what? If you lose the preciousness
of this town, you will lose the vigilance. We’ve been protected by poverty more
than anything. Now it is time to be ever mindful of the importance of maintaining the fabric and integrity of our historic neighborhoods.”
In conclusion he says, “Let’s be responsive to our circumstance. I come from a life of gratitude for my city, my landscape, and the people around me. I want to preserve that. It’s so important for us as a society to rise to our challenges so that the arts can continue, thrive, and contribute all that they can.”
Visit Michalopoulos Gallery at 617 Bienville St. (504) 558-0505. michalopoulos.com. You can meet James and view From the Fat Man to Mahalia on Oct. 28, from 6-8pm, at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, 400 Esplanade Ave.