“Art critic calls 2008 Jazzfest post ‘the best ever'”, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Art critic calls 2008 Jazzfest post ‘the best ever’


It's like a weird dream. Soul siren Irma Thomas, dressed in a golden Jackie Kennedy pantsuit, beckons us into a lush landscape of blue irises, python-like oak limbs, and red-winged black birds that sing along to old-fashioned phonograph records.

It’s sexy, that’s for sure, elegant but a little clumsy too, a touch obsessive, frighteningly fertile, somehow sad, and mildly forbidding.

It’s the 2008 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster. The best the Jazzfest has ever produced, in this critic’s opinion. The first in which the singular intensity of the artwork matches the singular intensity of the festival’s hometown.

Sure, there have been good posters before. James Michalopoulos’ Dr. John poster in 1998, for instance, and Francis X. Pavy’s Neville Brothers in 1997 were in touch with the odd allure of New Orleans culture. But the 2008 poster is even closer to the sultry soul of south Louisiana.

The reason this year’s offering resonates so deeply is that it was made differently from most past posters.

Douglas Bourgeois, 56, an artist living just southeast of Baton Rouge in the small town of St. Amant, has spent more than two decades painting odd portraits of pop stars from Elvis Presley to Marvin Gaye to Queen Latifah. He once painted a double portrait of rapper Rakim (of Eric B. and Rakim) with forlorn poet Emily Dickinson.

“He’s one of the very best artists in Louisiana, one of the best in the country,” said John Bullard, director of the New Orleans Museum of Art. “Since he lives in a little town in Louisiana and paints rather quirky subjects, he hasn’t gotten the national attention he deserves. He tells wonderful stories in his paintings, executed in an almost Old Masters style, with a surrealistic tinge.”

For years, Bourgeois has been on the short list of potential Jazzfest poster artists, but he has always presented problems. First of all, he doesn’t work fast. A major painting can take months, which is a bit slow for the typical Jazzfest poster process. And he doesn’t make artwork to order.

“I’m not very good with assignments,” he said in a phone interview this week. “It makes my hand turn into a claw.”

Those roadblocks were overcome this year, thanks to a happy coincidence.

While searching for potential poster artists in August, Jazzfest poster producer Bud Brimberg contacted Julia Street gallery owner Arthur Roger, who represented last year’s poster designer Francis X. Pavy. When Roger discovered that Thomas was this year’s poster subject, he told Brimberg that Bourgeois had done a painting of the soul singer in 2006. If Brimberg liked it, the problems with selecting Bourgeois as a Jazzfest artist had been solved.

“She’s great,” Bourgeois said of Thomas. “It was important to me in high school, hearing her on the radio, right up there with The Beatles.”

2006 painting by Bourgeois featuring the soul singer Irma Thomas

Bourgeois said she remained merely a voice on the radio until the mid-1970s when he moved to New Orleans for five years, and saw her perform live. They reconnected when her home in eastern New Orleans flooded after Hurricane Katrina, forcing her to take temporary refuge in the town of Gonzales, just down the road from St. Amant.

Bourgeois said that folks in the area hoped to run into the star at the grocery store. In a telephone call from a recording session in Los Angeles last week, Thomas said they probably did run into her and just didn’t know it, since she doesn’t get “glamorous” for the grocery store. She has since moved back to her repair New Orleans home.

For Bourgeois, the displaced “Soul Queen of New Orleans” became a symbol of the city’s struggle. In the painting that clinched the Jazzfest poster deal, he depicted her during her 1960s rise to fame, standing in a Louisiana swamp that recalls Ponchatoula, her rural birthplace, and the earthiness of her singing style.

The chimneys of crawfish tunnels sprout around her. A ruined refrigerator and rusted furniture — reminders of the flood — stand nearby. The hem of her pants is stained with muddy water.

He called the fanatically detailed portrait “American Address.”

In 2006 Douglas Bourgeois, an artist living St. Amant, painted a piece featuring soul singer Irma Thomas. His work inspired this year’s Jazzfest poster.

“I couldn’t do a direct comment on Katrina,” Bourgeois said. “I didn’t have the experience that the people in New Orleans had. So I did more of an allegorical thing.”

Brimberg loved the painting, though he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in New York that the image required some electronic pruning to fit the Jazzfest mold.

“It depicts something I can’t depict,” he said of the flood-oriented original. The Jazzfest, he said, tries to remain positive in every regard. “We don’t want to focus on the flood.”

In the process of making the print, the ruined refrigerator and most of the rest of the furniture was removed, and the water stain cleaned from Thomas’ pants leg to minimize the role of Katrina in the composition. An old-fashioned microphone was added. Bourgeois agreed to the revisions.

“I was happy with the results,” he said. “They kept the essence…. The painting was done after Katrina, it was a tribute to her, but also a little more serious in tone than was necessary.”

For her part, Thomas said she feels “honored to be chosen” as the poster subject and feels Bourgeois did her justice.

“It’s a very good likeness of me when I was younger,” she said. “That was me when I was 24 years old.”

She said that although Bourgeois “put his own take on” her situation after the flood, she approves of his symbolism.

“It has some connotations of rebirth, I dare say,” she said.

Thomas remembers that Roger sent her a photo of the original painting in 2007. Roger recalls that Thomas expressed some interest in buying it at the time, but it was already sold. Like all of Bourgeois’ works, it was snapped up by a collector the moment it was available — for $28,000.

Thomas said the pantsuit she wears in the painting is “hanging in some rock’n’roll museum.” The pants represent one of the few opportunities lost in the 2008 poster. Removing the flood stain was a mistake. Whether the Jazz and Heritage Festival likes it or not, the 2005 flood is now part of our heritage. To acknowledge it in that telling detail would have given the poster even more depth.

But that’s a small quarrel with an otherwise courageous offering.

Brimberg is taking a chance with this year’s poster. Bourgeois’ demanding style may not have the broad appeal of past prints. The Jazzfest poster, which represents a large portion of the festival’s income, always sells out, Brimberg said, so the measure of success isn’t the number of sales, but the speed of sales. Michalopoulos’ 2001 poster of Louis Armstrong set the record, with no prints left after the first day of the festival.

Bourgeois’ paintings take longer to make, they take longer to understand, and it is predictable that they will take longer to sell. So be it. In selecting a work by a great Louisiana artist and leaving the artist’s vision largely unchanged, Brimberg did the right thing. He may have opened the door for more genuinely artistic, less market-driven creations in the future.

And, who knows, the market may reward him for it.

Art critic Doug MacCash can be reached at dmaccash@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3481.


The posters are available now at www.art4now.com, but will not be shipped until after this year’s festival. A limited number of prints will be available at the festival. An edition of 10,000 16-by-34-inch numbered posters are $69 each; 3,000 artist-signed and numbered 18-by-36-inch prints are $239 each; 750 20-by-40-inch prints signed by artist Douglas Bourgeois and subject Irma Thomas are $595 each; and 350 26-by-40-inch double-signed prints on canvas are $895.