by John R. Kemp, via myneworleans.com
On April 30, 1812, Louisiana became the 18th state in the Union. So far this year, the Bicentennial of Louisiana Statehood appears to be passing with little fanfare – no grand proclamations, parades or re-enactments, which seems a bit strange considering how Louisianians love to have parties and festivals. Whatever the reasons might be, this historic event is fading mostly unnoticed – except by one Lafayette artist.
Francis Xavier Pavy, long known for his vibrant and whimsical paintings of Louisiana’s Cajun and zydeco music, is telling the story of the state’s history the best way he knows how – through his art. In his new work, 200: Art Inspired by 200 Years of Louisiana Statehood, he has created an ambitious series of paintings that explores the history of Louisiana from colonial times to the present. This tribute to Louisiana, however, is not a chronological narrative of the state’s 200-year history but paintings filled with symbols representing events, people and aspects of Louisiana’s past and present.
“I knew it was the 200th anniversary of Louisiana statehood,” says Pavy, explaining why he undertook such a metaphysical project. “So I thought it would be fun to do a series inspired by the history of the state, not historical events but images relative to the state’s history. Louisiana is the center of my universe. You paint what you know. History is about conflict resolution. I was also thinking about what is important to me. There’s a lot of melding of cultures and ethnicities in Louisiana. For instance, everybody thinks of Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square. I started thinking of others who supported Jackson.”
The common thread that connects all of these 30 or more paintings is the Mississippi River. Louisiana has always gone with or against the currents of history. “The story of Louisiana is the story of the Mississippi,” says Pavy as his eyes move from one painting to another. “It was our road. I am fascinated by water, how it moves and how it looks.” In the eddies and currents that swirl though each painting, Pavy explores themes such as the cultivation of indigo in colonial Louisiana, Irish immigration, John James Audubon, the Battle of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte, the Civil War, Captain Henry Miller Shreve and the Red River raft, the fragility of Louisiana’s coastline, Cajun and zydeco music, jazz, the 1927 Flood, General Claire Chennault and World War II, the near-extinction and revival of the brown pelican, cotton and sugarcane, perique tobacco, the Waterford nuclear power plant, the assassination of Huey P. Long and a number of other visual allusions that make Louisiana the place it is today.
Pavy has a story for each painting. “Red Raft,” for example, is about Captain Henry Miller Shreve, who prior to the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 brought munitions down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and General Jackson aboard the steamboat Enterprise. He later went to jail for breaking the steamboat monopoly that was then held by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. “This was the first image to come to me after I was reading about Captain Shreve,” Pavy recalls. “He opened up steamboat traffic on the Mississippi and cleared the Red Raft, a 150-mile log jam clogging the Red River, with his invention, the ‘snag boat.’ After returning to New Orleans with a new double-decked, shallow-draft steamboat in 1816 (after Robert Fulton’s death) he broke the Fulton-Livingston monopoly and opened up the Lower Mississippi to more steamboat traffic, with all the myriad opportunities for trade, commerce, entertainment and even steamboat racing.” The city of Shreveport bears his name.
Pavy’s painting, “Birds of North America,” is a tribute to John James Audubon. “He is loved by our state,” says Pavy, “and he contributed to the life of who we are as a state. Audubon claimed he was Cajun by choice, not by birth. He was born in Haiti. He painted his Birds of America series while here at Oakley Plantation [1821 in West Feliciana Parish]. He did 32 paintings at Oakley in four months. I know how hard that is to do. He had the passion at that point to do his book.”
In the painting “Irish 6000,” Pavy remembers the 6,000 or so destitute Irish immigrants who perished to yellow fever while digging the New Basin Canal in New Orleans in the 1830s. “Irish workers were cheaper than slave labor,” Pavy says. “So many died building the canal. The Irish have paid their debt and have contributed so much to the state. They are tough.”
Pavy also plans to paint the assassination of Huey P. Long and the subsequent shooting of Pavy’s relative and alleged assassin, Dr. Carl Weiss. Pavy’s great-uncle Judge Benjamin Pavy of St. Landry Parish was the father-in-law of Long’s alleged and enigmatic assassin, Dr. Carl Weiss. The family, however, denies Weiss had anything to do with Long’s death, pointing instead to one of the governor’s bodyguards as the accidental triggerman. Pavy is contemplating including crime-scene images of the slain Weiss in the painting. “I might try to finish it, but I might not,” he explains. “It’s been hard to do. My dad and uncle were alive then. It still has a lot of emotional charge for me. I do want to finish it but I haven’t been able to do it.” As Pavy continues to expand his Louisiana history series, new images rise like specters in his imagination in a steady stream of consciousness. “One images leads to another,” he says.
Born in Lafayette on Mardi Gras day in 1954, Pavy is best-known for his intensely colorful and iconic paintings, sculpture and constructions filled with the fanciful imagery of South Louisiana’s culture and music. It’s an art style he once described as “mystic zydeco expressionism.” Rolling Stone magazine once dubbed him the “Picasso of Zydeco,” and in the 1990s a Houston reporter described Pavy’s paintings as a “pure optical, sensual rush … and funky bayou surrealism.” His paintings are raw fantasy.
Pavy’s interest in art began early in life. As a child, he took painting lessons from the famed southwest Louisiana landscape artist Elemore Morgan Jr. Later at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he studied music, ceramics, animation, painting, printmaking and sculpture. He graduated in 1976 with a degree in fine arts in sculpture. After a year dishing up meals as a cook on workboats and tugboats hauling supplies, workers and equipment to offshore oil platforms, he went to work with a friend who made leaded and stained-glass windows.
In 1981, Pavy opened his own studio, where he went on to create a painting style that has made his iconic work popular among collectors, such as singer‑songwriter Paul Simon, television producer Lorne Michaels, producer-actor Ron Howard, Jimmy Buffett, chef John Besh, swamp rock king Zachary Richard, Bob Dylan, Louisiana novelist-metaphysician Walker Percy, New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga. Now, thanks to Pavy, we have one artist’s interpretation of Louisiana’s flamboyant history over the last 200 years.
Pavy is represented in Louisiana by Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans. For additional information, visit www.pavy.com.