“One thing I love about New Orleans is that assumptions about race and ethnicity get really shattered here,” says Aaron Collier, artist and art professor at Tulane University. “People come down here and are shocked by the immense integration within a Southern city.”
Collier, who is originally from North Carolina, lives in the Ninth Ward along with people of many different races. It is the precisely ethnic integration of his neighborhood and the unique culture of New Orleans that fuels the fire for much of his art.
“Because my paintings are abstract, there is no blunt answer as to what they are about. The pieces don’t state ‘this is about ethnicity.’ But because every part of my day and life experiences go into each of my creations, it definitely plays a part.”
Collier has been making art since high school. He started drawing using paper and drawing utensils his grandfather brought to church. In college, he realized he couldn’t let his infatuation with art go, and decided to double major, one of his majors being studio art.
Today, Collier teaches painting and drawing at Tulane. He also works as a professional artist and is represented by Cole Pratt Gallery, on Magazine Street.
“A lot of the imagery that I start with for inspiration is, a lot of the time, from Southern documentary photography or publications from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s,” Collier explains of his work, which are predominantly large abstracts, created with loose brush strokes of colors.
“The local culture,” Collier says, “inspires his art. In this city, it is difficult to culturally isolate yourself unless you put in effort. You can find racial divides in this city; to say they don’t exist is naïve. But everyone bonds over a shared New Orleans culture, and traditions mingle to create a completely unique society.”
Nowhere else can you hear jazz echoing through the streets and then turn a corner and hear a classic zydeco tune. Both types of music come from different cultures, and yet have found a way to represent New Orleans flare. It is the simultaneous ethnic hybridity and common ‘New Orleans bond’ that influence Collier.
Collier isn’t the only local artist inspired by the New Orleans culture and lifestyle. Many of the two hundred or so street artists in Jackson Square draw inspiration from the city and its people.
Rickey Charles, a Jackson Square painter and owner of Charles Fine Art Gallery, primarily paints saxophone players, trumpet players, and trombone players, all instruments that fall within the local brass band family. He wants his buyers, he says, to understand what New Orleans is all about.
“People and music are who inspire me to paint,” says Charles. “I was a young boy looking at all the Creole/Cajun musicians … and just started painting them.”
Born in Lafayette, Charles has been painting since age fourteen, but his only real training was an art class he took in the ninth grade, when he took a keen interest in facial expressions. As for his artistic concentration on musicians? Again regional inspirations: his parents and grandparents are French Cajun speakers, who religiously listened to locally-sourced New Orleans music.
Yep, Collier was on to something: New Orleans is an inspirational place, like nowhere else in America.
This article is by Emily Rodkin, a student at Tulane University, as a part of a service learning program in conjunction with NolaVie. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.