“I drew a series for the Audubon Insectarium called A Cockroach’s History of New Orleans. Someone told me after seeing it that I’M the roach. No matter where they go in New Orleans, they see cockroaches—and Bunny Matthews’ stuff,” says artist Bunny Matthews. So, just how did the northshore resident and creator of iconic Ninth Ward characters Vic and Nat’ly become as widespread in the New Orleans area landscape as the cockroach?
Bunny, who’s made Abita Springs his home since 1988, is inextricably connected with the culture of both New Orleans and the not-as-well-known northshore. One reason the family moved here was to take advantage of great public schools for Bunny’s two sons. He’s enjoyed the quirks of northshore living—the UCM Museum, participating in Abita’s Krewe of Pushmow and a semester teaching art at St. Scholastica, for example—although a one-time opossum invasion in his backyard caused some consternation. “It’s weird, being part of nature; it’s your house, but this wild animal has invaded,” he says.
A little-known fact is that Bunny was hired to be the first ranger on the Tammany Trace. “I thought I could do this job and just sit here and read every day and no one would bug me. It didn’t turn out like that. There were gates at every intersection, and part of the duty was to go lock those gates every night, late at night, freezing.” Despite the responsibilities and exposure to the elements, Bunny notes, “The Trace is fantastic, and I did that for a long time.” He was also involved with a short-lived Vic and Nat’ly-themed restaurant on Boston St. in Covington. He was paid a royalty for use of the characters, drew the menus and named some of the dishes. “I had a free place to eat and drink for a few years until the investors started losing money. It was unbelievable while it lasted, though. But it’s a tough business.”
To Yat or Not to Yat?
The characters that inhabit Vic and Nat’ly’s world, for the most part, are identifiable as that brand of New Orleans native with a distinct accent, best illustrated by the common greeting, “Where ya’ at?,” a phrase that means, “Hello, how are you?” rather than a request for someone’s geographic location. Although it’s become socially acceptable to be labeled a “Yat,” and his cartoons are thoroughly populated with “Yats,” Bunny has only recently moved towards being comfortable with the word.
“I’ve always refrained—I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘Yat’ in any of my cartoons,” he says. “I don’t feel that anyone that you would consider to be a ‘Yat’ would say the word ‘Yat’ and then brag about it. I’ve always really thought it was probably invented by Tulane students who came to New Orleans, and they’re making fun of people they encountered in the city.”
Nonetheless, Bunny’s become more accepting of the appellation, and he agreed to illustrate the letter “Y” for authors putting together a New Orleans alphabet book. “They were stumped for the ‘Y’ and wanted to do the word ‘Yat,’” he says. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘I am famous for doing these kinds of “Yatty” cartoons, so what am I going to do? I can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, right? The only way this is going to make any sense to anybody in the outside world will be drawing Vic, and he has to be saying, “Where ya’ at?”’ I guess it doesn’t have the same prejudice attached to it any more.”
Bunny’s ear for dialect is, he believes, a product of his childhood. “My mother was from North Louisiana and was always hearing people in New Orleans talk, and [then asking], ‘Did you hear what they said?’ When I was a little child, going to parades and things, she would always push into my head that people in New Orleans talk this unusual way. So I was very conscious of that.” Had he been the product of an old New Orleans family, he says, “I would just have thought that was how people talked.”
For those unfamiliar with the “Yat” dialect, Bunny says, “It’s basically a Sicilian/Italian thing, I think—the accent—more than anything, from what I’ve studied and learned over the years. The ‘dem,’ ‘dat,’ ‘dese,’ ‘dose.’ It’s virtually identical to the way people talk in Brooklyn, which is demographically identical to New Orleans.” Closer to what you’d expect to hear out of a stereotypical New York wiseguy. Bunny notes, “It’s funny that people always think about the French and Spanish influence in New Orleans, but I think the Italian influence is what makes it what it is.”
Bunny always showed artistic talent as a child, but had very little formal training. When he started college at UNO, which was then called LSUNO, he says, “I took a figure drawing class because my friends and I thought we’d be able to look at nekkid girls all day and draw pictures. But then we learned at LSUNO all the models had to wear bikinis or bathing suits. That was a big disappointment. But I didn’t have any real art studies; I learned by trial and error what worked.”
A stint with Jim Russell Records gave Bunny a baptism by fire into New Orleans back-of-town culture that stuck with him the rest of his life. “Mr. Russell was a grouchy guy, and he had this belief that I couldn’t go anywhere in New Orleans and not get back in 15 minutes. And that counted New Orleans East. My job would be to go all over town to the different projects, to the little sweet shops that sold candy—drugs, really—and records. These were definitely lower-scale capitalistic endeavors. These guys would buy 50 copies of the latest hit record, and then they’d sell out. I’d have to go back at noon and drop off more records. I was a kid from Metairie, so going to Ninth Ward was really hard-core New Orleans—it was strictly a cash business. How I never got shot, I don’t know. It taught me a lot of things about New Orleans.”
Earlier in life, Bunny’s passion for music had blossomed into writing about music, first for the East Jefferson High paper; then for Figaro, New Orleans’ weekly predecessor to Gambit; and then a weekly column for the Times-Picayune. “In 1967, I got to do my very first rock star interview. I got in my little Mustang, drove down to the Royal Orleans Hotel and interviewed Mark Lindsay, the lead singer of Paul Revere and the Raiders.”
Working with Figaro, Bunny dove deep into the New Orleans music scene. “I interviewed all the musicians; I was friends with Professor Longhair, James Booker and all the Neville brothers. New Orleans music is so special to me. I believe what Ernie K-Doe said about all music coming from New Orleans. When you start studying American music, at least, it all did come from this place, one way or the other. You can find obscure musicians all over the world who’ll have some link to New Orleans.”
Figaro also began publishing his cartoons. “One day, the editor said there was a guy in New York doing cartoons of actual dialogue overheard in New York, and that I should do this in New Orleans, because people in New Orleans are much funnier than people in New York. So that’s what I did. I called it F’Sure, Actual Dialogue Heard on the Streets of New Orleans. I would go out and eavesdrop on people’s conversations. So I’d hear stuff like, at Schwegmann’s, and that would be the cartoon.”
When Figaro went out of business, he went to work for the Times-Picayune. The paper was re-vamping its Sunday color supplement magazine, the Dixie Roto. The magazine’s new editor was a friend of Bunny’s who asked him to come on board with a weekly cartoon. “I had already done one book and it sold really well. The obvious place to set the new cartoon would be a po-boy shop/cocktail lounge, because then you could have all kinds of people coming and going, different economic groups and races. People being real New Orleans people—which was always my intent—not some fake, generic tourist’s version of New Orleans,” Bunny says. “The very first cartoon was Nat’ly handing Vic a bowl of used king cake babies telling him to go ‘Wrench dem off in da’ zinc’ because the bakery was recycling them.”
Vic and Nat’ly took off, and Bunny was asked to do a Vic and Nat’ly mural for the Historic New Orleans Collection pavilion. The theme was rain and how it affects New Orleans. Bunny’s mural included an explanation of A. Baldwin Wood’s screw pumps that were (and still are) responsible for draining the city. It was the first of what was to become several public art projects. Bunny’s art can be found in the Audubon Zoo and the Audubon Insectarium, where his A Cockroach’s History of New Orleans vignettes appear. He’s the only living visual artist with work in the Louisiana State Museum’s Baton Rouge facility, an achievement he’s particularly proud of.
“One of the murals depicts Vic and Nat’ly’s cocktail lounge and po-boy shop in the Ninth Ward. I have everything labeled in dialect; you can sit and look at it all day. Then I have a big mural of all these different heads, different races, different creeds and colors from New Orleans, and they’re all saying ‘New Orleans’ in all the different ways people say it,” Bunny says. There’s also a book in front of the murals that has “Yat” versions of words alongside proper English translations. “It’s really great. When I saw it, it made me almost cry. I said, ‘Man, what can I do now? I’m lucky to be in here.’”
Eventually, there were two books featuring the Ninth Ward couple, and lots of merchandise. Vic and Nat’ly also appeared in ads for Coca-Cola, Barq’s and Randazzo’s Bakery, and they famously traveled around town on the side of bread delivery trucks admonishing residents to “Sink ya’ teeth into a piece of New Orleans cultcha—a Leidenheimer po-boy!!” Bunny has also been drawing ads for Harkins the Florist on Magazine St. since 1981. (Example: Nat’ly-“Vic!! We gotta go uptown to Harkins da Florist’s—He’s got all da Christmas stuff—flowers, wreaths, purntsettas!” Vic-“Purntsettas? Nat’ly, Harkins don’t sell no huntin’ dogs!!”)
He also learned he’d earned a fan in Hollywood. “One day at dinner, the phone rings. I always tell my kids to take a message while we’re eating. One of the kids took a message; he said it was a Mrs. Loony. Then the phone rang back later and it was Mrs. Loony again. I was thinking, ‘Mrs. Loony?’” Bunny says, “Well, it was George Clooney’s mother. Some friends in New Orleans had sent her the cartoon I did when he left ER, where Nat’ly says ER without Clooney would be ‘…like soigery wit’ out no anesthetic.’ The framed original drawing was what Clooney got for Christmas from his mother that year. And after that, I’d like to point out, his career really took off.”
His experiences as a guy from the suburbs who got baptized at an early age into New Orleans back-of-town black culture, as a musician, as a journalist and later as an editor, helped to give his cartoons weight. Although printed weekly on newsprint, Bunny captured his audience by giving readers something more than a quick chuckle and a toss in a trashcan.
His drawings are visually and intellectually appealing. Part lyrical, part literature, part history lesson, part social commentary and, above all—the part that keeps us wanting more—comedy; but at times, poignant and sad, too. Vic’s post-Katrina depression is an example. There’s the one of Vic reflecting on all the bad things that happened to his neighbors, family and himself after the storm. Anywhere else in the world, it might end with someone hanging their head and saying, “But what can you do?” Vic, however, concludes, “So on Mardi Gras I’m dressin’ up like a Vegas showgoil an’ stayin’ drunk all day!” Nat’ly chides Vic for his response, but not for a lack of seriousness on his part. “As long as ya don’t go stretchin’ out none a my pantyhose!” she replies.
Bunny often posts a textual reference at the top of the cartoon to provide an introductory hypothesis for his characters to expound upon. He borrows from literature and poetry (Jane Austen, Thomas Jefferson, Faulkner, Dante, Shelley and Oscar Wilde); song lyrics (Bob Marley, Robert Johnson, Lil’ Wayne); and the occasional bible verse. In 2010, Bunny’s art was the subject of an exhibition at Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans. Opening on White Linen Night, the annual Warehouse District art walk in August, the show was titled Black and White. The centerpiece of the exhibit was an 8-by-14-foot mural Bunny painted called Nin’t Wardica.
Bunny explains how it came about. “Arthur came over and said, ‘I want you to do the mural on Tyvek.’ I’m like, ‘What’s Tyvek? I don’t even know what that is.’ Arthur explained it was this industrial material they use to wrap houses with, that it was real strong but thin as paper, and you see it a lot in the reconstruction of New Orleans.” Roger had a seamstress sew together panels of the material, incorporating plastic grommets along its length to hang the large “canvas.”
About that time, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster occurred. “So I thought I’d do my own version of Picasso’s Guernica. Then I see the oil spill cleanup workers on television, working in the hot sun, and they’re wearing suits made of Tyvek, the stuff I’m painting on! And, without petroleum, there wouldn’t be Tyvek in the first place, or the acrylic paints I was using, or plastic grommets. There were many ironies involved in doing it,” he observes.
“Picasso did Guernica in response to the Nazis and Fascists bombing this little peasant village, Guernica, in Spain. He had a big, giant canvas made that hardly fit in his studio.” Bunny hung the Tyvek on a wall in his house. It extended past the doorway and had to be folded out of the way to get to the bathroom. Picasso’s girlfriend at the time, Dora Marr, had photographed his progress every day while he worked. Bunny took a modern approach: posting pictures of his progress on Nin’t Wardica and the other pictures he was making for the exhibit onto his Facebook page. “I would draw stuff for the show, put it on Facebook in the afternoon and get all these comments from people. That’s just magical. No artist ever had that before, instant feedback,” Bunny says, but, he adds, he’s not terribly technologically advanced—he doesn’t own a cell phone.
“Nin’t Wardica hangs in the lobby of the Renaissance Arts Hotel on Tchoupitoulas. [note: it’s now at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art] The elements of Picasso’s masterpiece are replaced one-by-one with iconography of the oil spill and New Orleans—a crab and pelican dripping oil, a man lying dead, a victim of urban violence, the rig on fire and, of course, Vic and Nat’ly are in there. “I’m happy it’s in a public place rather than someone’s house,” Bunny says. A video taken of him explaining the piece as he worked on it can be viewed on his website, BunnyMatthews.com.
Black and white as the overall theme of the exhibit came about, in part, from a misperception some members of the public have about Bunny: that he’s African-American. He’s heard it first-hand. While eating in Domilise’s (definitely a place that inspired him when he created Vic and Nat’ly’s po-boy shop), he overheard someone telling some out-of-towners as they viewed one of Bunny’s posters on the wall, “That’s by Bunny Matthews, one of our local African-American artists!”
An “only in New Orleans” incident at the corner of Napoleon and Magazine further cemented the idea. “Only in New Orleans would some woman cross the street jaywalking, twirling batons—and dressed in green spandex.” It was so unbelievable he did something he rarely does; he found a piece of paper and made a quick sketch of the girl. A picture of the African-American vision (with some embellishment—the batons in Bunny’s picture are on fire) titled 13th Ward Majorette was the result. He decided to continue with the theme; the exhibit would examine the mixture of black and white cultures in the city. “Since I’m an African-American artist, I should draw some African-American pictures, right?”