Monica Rose Kelly was first drawn to New Orleans when she was asked to curate an exhibit on the effects of Hurricane Katrina three years after the storm — in New Jersey.
“We solicited 180 artworks for the show, got an outpouring of help, and raised enough money to send down 30 volunteers,” Monica says. “I thought, I have to go there, too. And as soon as I stepped off the plane and breathed the air, I knew it was right.”
Monica still produces art about New Orleans, but she does it on location here. Monica Kelly Studio specializes in signage, murals, art direction and face and body painting. And her latest work captures not only the feel of the city, but its characters as well.
The sprawling wall mural at the new Dat Dog on Frenchmen Street incorporates local street performers, architecture and cultural icons. Monica created it with help from her sister, Madeleine Grace Kelly, another passionate lover of the city who came to visit last August and never left.
When Dat Dog owner Constantine Georges asked the two women to create a wall-sized panorama, he gave them a directive based on his heritage.
“In the ancient world there was a minotaur in a labyrinth in Crete,” he said. “Theseus went to kill it, and the king’s daughter, Ariadne, wove thread for him to unspool as we went in, so that he could find his way back out. The point of the story is that, no matter how far you go in life, if you don’t keep your links to the past, you’re lost. I think there’s a lot of history here.”
Constantine himself has been coming to this corner of Frenchmen and Chartres since the 1970s, when the hip bar Cord’s Underground stood here. Later, he frequented Café Brasil on the same Marigny spot. When he bought the plot of land for his newest restaurant, it was a roped-off parking lot – a space frequented by many of the area’s musicians and street performers.
“Constantine wanted to pay homage to the performers at this spot, so we have fire dancers, hula hoopers, acrobats,” says Monica. “We also put Café Brasil in.”
The figures in the painting are actual people – the artists sought out street performers to ask their permission to use their likenesses.
“We have Noel, who fire hooped here, and Anna Karina, a local hula hooper,” Monica says. The mural also has a flying pig, an alligator with piano key teeth and a musical score taken from Saint James Infirmary Blues. “We knew someone would ask,” says Monica with a laugh.
Artist Ashlee Arceneaux, who created many of the images at the first two Dat Dog locations, brainstormed the piece with the sisters.
“I started a drop box folder with Ashley, and we just started putting images into it,” Monica says. When the time came to start drawing, “I just went for it.”
The mural is rendered mostly in house paint, applied over loose outlines made with markers. Many of the hues reflect the Caribbean blue and terracottas and mustard yellow found elsewhere in the restaurant, while the imagery has the whimsical feel of other Dat Dog locales.
The idea, says Constantine, was to offer a light, fun feel, as represented in such Dat Dog icons as “Embrace Your Bliss.”
“When we first opened up on Freret, the art was done by Simone,” says Constantine. “Skip and I thought about what we wanted Dat Dog to be, and we came up with fun and funky. There are a lot of protoypes of logos on my bathroom wall, but we ultimately picked a smile on your face. Whenever I asked people if they liked hot dogs, there would be a smile on at least one face.”
The mural, he says, continues the theme. “It absolutely speaks to the street life of the area. It makes you feel less serious about things.”
The entire mural was coated with two layers of protective varnish – the top one can be removed to clean or remove graffiti, while the bottom one is permanent. Or as permanent as a wall mural can be.
Madeleine likes the message in that transience. “Impermanent work involves letting go to attachment, to the permanence of things.”
A second large painting in the Dat Dog upstairs dining room captures the environment with a different feel. Artist Sarah Nelson painted a landscape of the location in a triptych that hangs behind the bar. Done in softer colors with an impressionistic feel, it looks upward at the brand new corner restaurant (it was built just two months ago, though you’d never know it by looking.)
“It came about as I walking down the street at night,” Sarah explains. “I was absorbing the heat, the smells, the sounds, everything that keeps me here. It’s that moment, when you’re hearing the music and you look up and you think, wow, it is so great to be here.”
The warm glow of sunset infuses Sarah’s painting – New Orleans, she says, has very site-specific light. “There’s a rosy tinge to it around 5 o’clock that totally changed my way of painting. I threw out all the blues.”
The angle of the scene is taken from Mona’s, down Frenchmen Street on the left, looking up the street toward Dat Dog. The oil on canvas work took two months to complete, working both on and off site.
“I like the fact that both paintings promote the arts,” says Madeleine. “It keeps art in front of you.”
“I can’t take credit for any of it,” says Constantine with a smile. “I’m just putting young artists out there to develop my vision.”