The brilliant, famous and fiery painter Joan Mitchell, one of the few female artists in what is called the Second Generation of Abstract Expressionists, was born in Chicago in 1925. After graduating from Smith College, she went back to the Windy City to attend the art school of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Manhattan. In 1959, she moved to Paris and died there in 1992 at the age of 67.
In the year following her death, a foundation was created in her name in New York to award grants and stipends to painters, sculptors and artist collectives. Probably no one in New Orleans at that time thought Joan Mitchell would be a name associated with this city. But in 2007, in a generous effort to sustain artists in the immediate post-Katrina period, The Joan Mitchell Foundation committed itself to the Crescent City.
By 2010, the foundation created the Joan Mitchell Center, in what was formerly a bed and breakfast in a historic building situated on a rare two-acre site on Bayou Road. This extraordinary and — for New Orleans — huge piece of property was perfect for the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s needs: to create an artists’ residency program, create cultural equitability and diversity, and put contemporary arts into the community.
Its Director, New Orleans-born Gia Hamilton, is in charge of one of the most exciting and visionary arts projects in the South. Like many around her age (she’s 37), Gia left New Orleans as soon as she could. Moving to the Big Apple, she spent 15 years there, first obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from New York University and then a Master’s in applied anthropology from the City University of New York.
Although there were many things about her hometown that Gia missed, she says she really did not think about coming back. Still, over time, those things dear to most Orleanians: family, food, the unique kind of closeness to friends and neighbors — things that hardly exist in so many American cities — made Gia wonder about continuing her life in New York.
So in 2008, when Prospect One offered the opportunity to re-visit her hometown, Hamilton took it as a time to, as she says, test the waters here, having no idea what she might do.
“But I felt that if I worked hard, I could create for myself a little niche,” Gia recalls. “So in 2009, I came back full time.”
Gia opened a live/work space in Central City. She called it the Gris Gris Lab
“It was this sort of funny, magical play on words; the city being this place of mysticism,” she says. “Things happen here in a sort of magical way. But at the same time I was loving the idea of sort of analyzing things, breaking them down to understand them.”
So Gris Gris Lab became a place of cultural exchange, where urban planners and artists could get together. It became, as Gia describes it, “a thinkers’ community center in the middle of Central City”.
Hired first as a consultant to the Joan Mitchell Center, Gia became the director in 2013. Now she is heading up a $12 million development that is building the center into a major location for artist residencies. A new 8,000 square-feet building is being constructed containing 10 studios, ranging in size from 350 to 800 square feet. Artists chosen to come to the Center will have the opportunity of spending from one to five months in residence.
Joan Mitchell was a tough and demanding lady. But chances are, she would be happy with what is going on in her name, pleased that her legacy is ensuring the Crescent City’s place on the national and international art scene.
For more information about the Joan Mitchell Center, a program of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, visit www.joanmitchellcenter.org.