A recent transplant to New Orleans, Carla Williams spends her days surrounded by fine and decorative arts, books, vintage magazines and memorabilia, photographs, housewares, accessories, wall hangings, whimsical and hand-carved dolls. All are created by black artists, designers and artists from all over the world whose work highlights black culture. Last May she opened a store in a Craftsman-style house on St. Claude Avenue, built to be a firehouse, bringing upscale retail to the Lower Ninth Ward.
“I like things. That’s the name of the store (Material Life). I’m a collector. I’m a keeper. That’s our culture,” Carla says.
Though she’s lived in many metropolitan areas, New Orleans is Williams’ favorite. Because her mother is a native born New Orleanian, she visited frequently. One day, Carla wondered:
“Why did I live there when I love it here?”
She picked up and moved.
“I love this city. I wake up every day joyous. The possibilities in this city are inspiring.”
A photojournalist and photo historian, Carla had worked in the arts for 30 years. For her final chapter, she desired a more direct relationship with artists, which she now has with her store. She gets to talk and meet with all the creative people who contribute to her collection. Material Life has more than 1,000 items on display, many of which are “museum quality.”
One of the store’s standout items is a 80” X 64” wool and cotton blanket designed by internationally renowned artist Mickalene Thomas, produced in collaboration with Pendleton Mills. (Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane will feature 40 works created by Thomas in an exhibition Jan. 18-April 9, 2017.)
Williams believes that “stuff” has intrinsic and sentimental value, emphasizing that the cost of things is not the value of things. She wants customers to identify with the merchandise in the same personal way they do special objects in their homes. Affordability was also a prime consideration because she believes art should be accessible.
Residents of the Lower Nine have been so welcoming to her, including one close neighbor who offered his Mardi Gras Indian suit (and wore only once) to decorate the store.
“There is so much talent in this city! It has been a complete pleasure,” she says.
Material Life is located at 6038 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans