It’s been almost 10 years since IN last featured James Michalopoulos’ work on our cover. The iconic New Orleans artist and entrepreneur is celebrating his long relationship with the northshore by participating in this year’s Harvest Cup Polo Classic fundraising effort of the Junior League of Greater Covington. As he does with many causes (he particularly supports Habitat for Humanity), Michalopoulos is assisting the JLGC by donating a hand-embellished giclée entitled Scene for 10:15, which will be auctioned off at the polo event on Oct. 21.
IN caught up with Michalopoulos this summer via Skype for our first-ever international interview. As we both sipped coffee, he on his porch overlooking the sunny vineyards of Burgundy on a French afternoon while it rained cats and dogs for us on a Mandeville morning, we talked about his journey toward becoming one of the area’s most respected—and popular—artists.
“I came on a lark, and fell in love with the city,” he says. It’s a love that’s lasted; and, as New Orleans is wont to do with its new acquaintances, the city worked her way deep into his soul. Michalopoulos was born in Pittsburgh and lived in the northeast before coming to New Orleans after graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine.
“Being from New England, it was such a different world, and it was very, very attractive to me,” he recalls. “I was totally taken by its uniqueness and its beauty, how different and original a city it was. I thought it would be best to stay; I went back and forth for a year or two and then finally settled in.”
Michalopoulos spent a lot of time getting to know the city that he’d decided to adopt and would come to represent so well through his art. The great effort he made—and continues to make—to become engaged with New Orleans’ people, music, art and architecture shows in his work. He’s also involved with a couple of other things New Orleans is famous for—food and drink—as a restaurateur and creator of Celebration Distillation and its brand of Old New Orleans Rum.
People who don’t know his name probably know his art. Maybe they’ve seen his paintings; he’s well-known for his large, colorful and playful renderings of New Orleans buildings. Perhaps they know him for his Jazz and Heritage Festival Posters—he’s been chosen as the fest’s poster artist five times, more than any other artist. Or, maybe they’re among the thousands of commuters and shoppers who view the very large manifestation of his exploration into abstract sculpture with his first public installation on Veterans Memorial Boulevard near Lakeside Shopping Center. His paintings are part of numerous private collections and museums, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
Street-Side Portraits to Dancing Houses
Michalopoulos is basically, as he notes, a self-taught artist who has never stopped learning. He also learned from being in the company of other artists. “I started studying people’s work at Jackson Square. At some point, I decided to take courses at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. I studied figure drawing there, as well as at the University of New Orleans. I also studied on my own—and I still do so today.”
His start came as a street artist, making quick sketches of captive audiences. “I couldn’t get a license to set up in Jackson Square; they were all taken up. I would hustle people for portraits while they were waiting for taxis at Schwegmann’s, sometimes on the trolley line on Canal Street, too. Two or three dollars would get you a little sketch,” Michalopoulos says. “I’d stand down at St. Charles and Canal because people always had a long wait there and they made for pretty accessible ‘victims.’”
Working with the public at these two different sides of the city, the Schwegmann’s supermarket at St. Claude and Elysian Fields and at the CBD streetcar stop, must have provided a crash-course in New Orleans culture. After a time, though, Michalopoulos decided to really take it on the road.
“I’d been painting a lot of portraits. At one point, I was kind of tired of it and wanted to move on. I’ve always been a fan of the architecture, so it was a natural choice for me,” he says.
He roamed throughout the city, scouting out architectural subjects in the Ninth Ward, Bywater, Marigny, Mid City, Central City, the Garden District and even the Westbank. “For a long time, I used to travel around on a Vespa scooter with a fold-up easel on the back. I had enough food and wine to keep me going for a night. I’d roll out and set up, and sometimes I’d work all night long—it’s too hot to work in the day.”
Michalopoulos has fond memories of these journeys. “I loved doing that. Working late and staying on the spot with my wonderful little scooter.” He never knew in advance exactly what he was looking for and just let the city carry him along, saying, “I feel like I’m lost in a mystery. I move along until something says ‘stop’ and I do it.”
It was a prolific time for Michalopoulos, and his work was being shown in different venues throughout town. One early aficionado was the owner of the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen restaurant, which was then located on Esplanade. Diners could enjoy Michalopoulos’ work hanging on the walls, and it was available for purchase—at prices that might have anyone who remembers those days at the restaurant kicking themselves.
“I had a lot of fun there, and what I liked about it was that there were always artists there eating. It wasn’t too expensive, it was always fresh and you could get great comments on your work. It was a great place to get criticized, and it was very encouraging and supportive.”
Michalopoulos eventually got a license to sell his work in Pirates Alley and sold art on Bourbon Street as well. He says there was a house on Chartres in the area around Dumaine and St. Phillip streets that he passed all the time on his way towards Jackson Square. “It’s in a great area a block or two off the square. I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood. I have great recollections of that lovely building and all of its high-arched windows.”
On the same block was a French Quarter hang-out, he recalls, a Chartres Street coffee house named Until Waiting Fills. In those days before PJ’s and CC’s and Starbucks, it was a relatively rare establishment that served up espresso and cappuccino. Michalopoulos remembered the somewhat-Bohemian haunt when talking about the work he’s donated for auction at this year’s Harvest Cup Classic. Scene for 10:15 is a classic Michalopoulos painting of a building on a French Quarter corner, set at night time yet glowing in the moonlight.
“Back in the day when artists used to live in the Quarter, that was kind of a down-and-out little area. In the ’80s, Until Waiting Fills was a great coffee house, right across from Irene’s. I spent a lot of time there because they were open all night. Artists hung out; it was a great spot where you could go, grab a cup of coffee, open up your notebook and spend three or four hours reading philosophy, playing chess or debating somebody—it was that kind of old-school coffee house.”
Michalopoulos’ paintings are instantly recognizable: vibrant with lots of color, textural with lots of paint and often on a grand scale. A great example is this issue’s cover, Colour Swim, which stands 5 feet 6 inches tall. Colour Swim is an example of a shift in subject matter that comes with his time spent in France. He maintains a full studio there and in New Orleans, as well as a metal shop in both locations, so he can continue creating without interruption. His pictorial subject matter shifts while in France, however, with landscapes and animals, such as the cow in Amazing Graze, providing inspiration.
Visitors to Michalopoulos’ gallery and website can get a better idea of his scope, as his portraits, nudes and cemetery-scapes make for very pleasing subjects for his palette. For many, though, his vibrant architectural paintings are most familiar. He talks about how his style developed.
“I can remember feeling that I wanted to include the spirit as well as the look of the city. So, for me to do that, I needed to step out of the ordinary. Probably because I was influenced by music, especially listening to music a lot while I worked, I ended up doing a musical interpretation of the buildings. In a sense, people often say my buildings move and dance, and I think that’s where I took my inspiration.” His houses have also been described as “swaying” and “melting,” which, when one thinks about it, is quite the visual accomplishment to achieve when what he’s made “move” on canvas has been, in real life, standing still for two hundred years. It’s almost like the cartoons where the lights go out, the people leave the room and every inanimate object springs to life.
Jazz Fest Favorite
For many people in the New Orleans area, the first artwork they collected may have been one of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s limited edition posters, five of which were done by Michalopoulos. “I love music, first of all,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for an artist to contribute something to the city and the festival; it’s a big production effort and it’s a great thing to get engaged in.”
Michalopoulos’ first poster, for the 1998 festival, featured Dr. John. “I went to visit with Dr. John in New York, to spend some time with him, take some photographs and talk about life a bit. Then I set about doing studies of him; I did about 10 or 12,” he says of the production process. “Then I made three or four alternatives. We chose the one that was coming along the best, and I stayed on that one until I brought it home.”
He followed up the Dr. John poster with a poster of Louis Armstrong in 2001; in 2003, Mahalia Jackson; Fats Domino (titled Fats Domino Rockin’ to New Orleans) in 2006; and Tousanctified, Michalopoulos’ 2009 poster featuring Allen Toussaint playing the keyboard in the French Quarter.
Mother Cluster is the title of the latest edition to the public sculpture garden the Veterans Memorial Boulevard neutral ground in Metairie has become in recent years. Large in scale (best for the 35-mph viewing experience, noted Times-Picayune art critic Doug McCash in a review of earlier installations), Michalopoulos’ Mother Cluster is a grouping of three abstract pieces, the tallest coming in at around 40 feet, which joins George Rodrigue’s 16-foot-tall Blue Dog at Severn. Collector Henry Shane financed the Michalopoulos sculpture, as well as the Blue Dog and Hunt Slonem’s toucans at Clearview Parkway.
Michalopoulos says he began dabbling in sculpture about eight years ago, working a little with glass and cast concrete but, for the most part, with wood. “I had issues with permanence, though,” he says. “Wood sculpture is great for interiors, but if you’re going to paint it, to have any color on it, it’s very tough to do for exteriors because there is a certain elastic quality to wood. It’s very temperature sensitive, and the finishes are really difficult to keep together and make last.”
He decided to take the leap into working with metal and invested in all of the equipment needed to shape steel into his vision. It’s also taken a few years to learn all the skills—cutting, welding and finishing—needed to create a finished product that will last. “It’s fascinating work, and I’m adding new equipment all the time. I’m very much enjoying the work, to be in three dimensions is a great change,” he observes.
Mother Cluster is a good demonstration of the sculptural style Michalopoulos has developed. Far from what Shane thought he would create for Veterans—a grand metallic version of one of his swaying houses, as McCash reported—Michalopoulos describes his three-dimensional work as “basically free-form expression. They’re colorful and lively and in a way, a celebration of energy and nature. I think in some kind of way they’re elemental, if you will—abstract. They’re boiled down, and they express the energy and movement in life, which is an interesting irony, considering they’re made out of solid steel and finished with automotive paint.”
Being out and about making art for so many years in a very eclectic city and producing hundreds of paintings doesn’t mean Michalopoulos takes it all for granted. When he talks about painting, it’s almost surprising to hear all of the cares and concerns that accompany the creative process coming from a very seasoned and very successful artist. In the end, for Michalopoulos, however, perseverance pays off.
“As a painter, it’s not as poignant as it used to be. I used to always feel that every one was a piece of crap and that I didn’t have any talent and it would never work out. But at some point, you just go, ‘Well, the hell with it. I’m going to continue away and just do it.’
“And somehow, you manage by virtue of your willingness to stay with it, to come out with something that is hopefully worth looking at. It’s a very interesting game of trust, a delicate balance of allowing expression as opposed to controlling it. You rein herd on it a little bit, you guide it; guide the energy. Somehow, by staying with it, you get into a flow and you get lost in the work toward a relatively free-flowing expression.” He concludes, “Then you’ve got something.”
Michalopoulos will complete a painting in two or three days, but lets his work sit in the studio for a few weeks while he continues to evaluate it. Over that period of time, he may re-work it substantially or just touch it up before it goes off to the gallery. To the discomfort of many a gallery owner, he says he’s been known to bring in his palette before a show and correct what he thinks needs correction.
It’s all over for Michalopoulos when someone takes a painting home, though. And that, as they say, is a good thing. “It makes me feel happy. First of all, because it pleases someone. I’m thrilled that someone takes pleasure in it. I’m also happy because it will help me eat, help buy a new motorcycle, all of those things. But the bottom line is really that you make it so that it contributes something to the world.”
It shouldn’t be a mystery, then, how Michalopoulos keeps mastering new subject matter and new media after so many years and so many paintings while keeping it all fresh and interesting to buyers. It’s his remaining so emotionally invested in and caring so deeply about creating each piece of his art.
In the end, though, the adventure is not all in zipping around New Orleans or in exploring France or feeding people or making rum. For Michalopoulos, “Every day is an adventure in painting. It’s like a triumph every day—of integrity, of engagement and, in a sense, what shows up.”
The Michalopoulos Gallery is located at 617 Bienville St. in New Orleans; also visit michalopoulos.com.