St. James Parish exhibit showcases local talent

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 11, 2002

By Amy Szpara

GRAMERCY – The 7-month-old St. James Parish Welcome Center, a renovated 1830s typical French-Creole house moved from Convent and now set just off Airline Highway in Gramercy, has opened its doors for an art exhibit honoring 28 Louisiana artists from the parish.

From pen drawings to plantation paintings to sculpture and even music, three rooms of the center will be dedicated to the pieces until March 15.

Though most of the artists are hobbyists, a few have been commissioned to do work. The art is all Louisiana or St. James related, and the exhibit is already drawing local residents and visitors alike. The artist preview was held Monday night, and over 60 people, including artists, their families and their spouses, met to view and hear the work. The exhibit opened for public viewing Wednesday and will continue Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. until the closing.

Scenes of swamps, plantations – including Laura and Oak Alley, Louisiana wildlife, old churches, Acadian homes, tobacco fields and magnolias fill the rooms.

Painted glass, a sculpture made from cypress and old bedposts covered in St. James prints are some of the less traditional pieces to see. At the touch of a ‘play’ button, the visitor can listen to Dustan Louque’s compact disc, a collection of Louisiana songs with titles like Perique (a St. James tobacco) and Whoa Now. The local artist, born among fields of tobacco, is also responsible for the bedpost art, tobacco scenes on a window shutter and a depiction of slave life framed with old tin.

“I grew up in St. James, just moved back after four years in New York, and this record is looking back on my heritage,” said Louque, who moved back to St. James after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks out of a need to be part of an easier life.

“I have dreams and thoughts of our culture all the time, and that is the basis of my art and music. This show is giving our parish a chance to make a step in the right direction,” he said.

The music, a very modern sound with elements of Louisiana, is inspired by the influences of Louisiana culture that Louque grew up with. The bedposts and shutter were pieces of junk that he turned into art by taking old photographs and using chalk to merge the pictures into the wood.

The tobacco farmers featured in the work are all still living in St. James, and their work in the fields is part of what inspires Louque.

“The detail that goes into what they do, I can apply it to my art,” said Louque. “I’m trying to create an awareness here, through the art and the music, and those are serious weapons.”

One well-known Louisiana artist will also be featured. Barbara Louque, known throughout the state for her sculptures and oil paintings, has created hundreds of pieces, four of which can be viewed at the welcome center. Newspaper clippings from the 1960s describing her talents rest on a table in the welcome center.

“I received a lot of requests from different people in the community asking us to have this exhibit,” said Director of Economic Development Edie Michel. “People were saying, ‘We’d love to display our art’ or ‘Why don’t you have an art show?'”

The welcome center has already had a Christmas tour of homes and a festive Christmas display inside during the holiday season. The art show comes at a time when Michel said the outside of the center is less scenic. The boardwalk behind the welcome center that leads through a stretch of Louisiana wetlands is usually a good place to see wildlife, but the winter months transform the area into a sleeping ground.

“We thought that now was a good time to have the show, to work on the inside, since there is really nothing to do outside. We have a couple of alligators and some snakes that aren’t out right now. And since a lot of artists don’t get a venue, they can do it this way,” said Michel.

According to Michel, St. James residents are proud of the welcome center and are popping in all the time, and she said they will surely be stopping by to see the art. She hopes that residents in neighboring parishes will visit as well.

“This place was also a sight for Christmas,” she said, adding that the pirogue serving as a flower bed was a festive centerpiece and the bonfire display on the fireplace mantle sparked much conversation. About 160 people showed up for the tour of homes, private homes that ranged in style in the parish.

Now the historical building, a work of art itself, is serving as a gallery/museum. For those who have not seen the inside of the cozy building, the doors and nails are all original and plexiglass on the wall allows a look at the brick and moss insulation inside the walls.

“Obviously this house was near a brickyard. People used what was nearby, and this old form of insulating – called Briquette entre Poteaux (Between the post) – was common,” she said.

The old home, donated to the parish by a St. James family, was expanded at least three times, said Michel.

The original stairs, which are on the porch-turned-room, are still in good condition.