The 3rd and Final "P" of My Louisiana Muse ... Poverty Point World Heritage site with photographer Jenny Ellerbe




I have to thank my friend, and past director of the Acadiana Center for the Arts Rose Courville, for suggesting to me a few great Louisiana artists for the My Louisiana Muse project. Rose told me about the photographer Jenny Ellerbe who was producing some great black and white documentary work of rural North Louisiana. After looking Jenny up and speaking with her about my project, we realized that her new photo essay documenting the Poverty Point World Heritage Site and the many Indian mounds of North Louisiana was the perfect addition to My Louisiana Muse.



I had heard of Poverty Point as a child growing up in Lafayette. I knew that it was some sort of Indian mound, and what I learned that day walking around the mounds really blew me away. The mounds were created by humans and little is known about them to this day. Where exactly did they come from? Why did they leave? But one fact is for certain: the mounds were built by American Indians and at one time were an ancient residential, trade and ceremonial center. Some nearby mounds even predate the Great Pyramids! We have this in Louisiana y'all!

At this point in my journey documenting these artists all around Louisiana, some major themes are beginning to drive my own inspiration and inquisitiveness. There exists a very strong and coherent connection to each artist I have spoken with where the land of Louisiana, in some way, is the powerful factor that inspires. With Adam Morales it was the driftwood and God showing him the way and with Melissa Bonin it was the swamp. Our surroundings and the land are our first teacher, as the poet Darrell Bourque would say, so we can assume we are continuing to learn from our 1st teacher as we explore the themes of our own calling and art.

Jenny Ellerbe has been documenting not only the Poverty Point mounds, but also the efforts of local preservationists to locate, preserve, and learn from the many existing mounds on private property in the area. Ellerbe’s latest gallery show – Shared Earth presents this ongoing struggle to save these gold mines of knowledge so that we can learn from civilizations past.

At the end of the sweltering summer day atop this large mound, I had a vision of these people as they lived and worked the land. The land gave them water to drink and food to eat, and using primitive tools they crafted individual rows of dirt for their living space. I began to see their connections to the land, and our connections to them. The My Louisiana Muse story began to come full circle at a blistering pace. It was time to head back to send all this film off … and photograph another day.

My Louisiana Muse Part 2 - Pilette, LA and the Michot Family



Part 2 – Pilette, LA and the Michots

“You don’t learn how to cook a Gumbo until you leave Louisiana…”

Photo ©Zack Smith 2015
Tommy Michot with his son, Louis

I took the back roads out of Pierre Part after leaving the home of Adam “The Driftwood Man” Morales, and entered Lafayette Parish via I-90 and directly into my own past. I was to meet two members of the Michot family that have been part of my family's life for some time. To make it more interesting, we were going to conduct the My Louisiana Muse interview and shoot across the street from the home where I was born. It was no coincidence we were also meeting at the home of “Papa Lou” Michot, a place that has a very special significance to the Michot family.

Little did I know that from birth to 7 years old I was part of a wonderful tight-knit community that existed at least 2 generations before me. It took me decades to become interested in the neighborhood I lived in from birth to 1982, mostly because I do not remember too much about it. I do remember the Michot's, and the Comeaux’s, and the Ragsdale's, family names and faces, but foggy recollections at best. In the late 90s I forged a friendship with a fellow musician, artist, and traveler Louis Michot. We knew our families went way back but didn’t realize how far until this day.



Louis Michot is currently the lead singer and fiddle player for the revered and evolving Lafayette, LA Cajun band, Lost Bayou Ramblers. Way back when I was taking my first stabs at band promotion photography I photographed the band in 2003 for their album "Pilette Breakdown", and I have been photographing them ever since.  I will save you the long story of how far our families go back almost 2 generations from business dealings to bringing the kids over on Sundays…there are some great stories in there. But what I want to focus on is the connections that were made on my visiting with father and son musicians, bandmates, and storytellers Tommy Michot and his son Louis.

The house and property has since been sold, but we were able to sit on the back porch of the Michot home and talk about the many connections and inspirations this family has been involved in for many generations. You can say music found both Tommy and his son Louis and not the other way around. We all sat down on the porch surrounded by Louis’ two kids and his wife, artist Ashlee Michot, as Tommy struck up a short tune on the accordion to usher in our lush surroundings. 

Photo by Ashlee Michot
Zack Smith, Tommy and Louis Michot on the back porch in Pilette, LA

Tommy Michot started playing accordion about 35 years ago and Louis began the fiddle almost 17 years ago, but their paths to those instruments came by the way of other instruments. Tommy started playing the harmonica and Louis the piano. Music has always been a part of the Michot family and has remained a strong connection of their family to their Louisiana and Cajun French roots. The father and son are leaders of their own bands in their own right, singing and playing the old and new message of their muse. Music has been in their family for generations. Tommy’s father, Louis, played the Hohner piano accordion (a la Clifton Chenier) and his father played the piano.  Although the elder Louis did not play Cajun music, there was always music around for young Tommy and his brothers Rick, David, Bobby and Mike. In the early 80s they started the group Les Freres Michot and still play traditional Cajun music to this day. Tommy’s son Louis began playing the guitar at an early age and even has played double bass for his father’s band with his brother, Andre. (Yes, all this family band intermingling does get confusing).

Louis and his brother Andre started the Lost Bayou Ramblers in 1999 and have evolved their version of Cajun music into many different forms using electric instruments and pounding drums but still singing in Cajun French. The musical journeys that this father and son have had are too many to name here, so we will concentrate on how their connectivity to Louisiana and their creative talents continue to shine.

Louis started to realize he wanted to follow his Cajun roots in a musical way during the first time he dropped out of college at 19. He brought his grandfather's German fiddle with him on a journey to learn Cajun French at Univerisité de Ste. Anne school in Nova Scotia, playing on the street for change and sometimes made some real money. He learned a few songs and started to develop an understanding of the fiddle, so much that he could play his way around Canada and the States. During this time he was learning to sing in French and play a whole new instrument at the same time. Upon returning home, he found out his brother Andre was learning the accordion unbeknownst to him and soon after they wrote their first song and the rest is history.

Louis with brother Andre performing at The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
photo ©Zack Smith 2014

Both father's and son’s path in life took them far from their homes so that they may find their place in the long line of music storytellers that they continue to pursue to this day.  Tommy Michot received his MS at Utah State University and it was while living out there that he started to feel the call back home. Sometimes you have to get outside your own world to look back on it and see the true simplistic beauty that existed right under your nose and in your blood. As Louis then said, "Sometimes you have to leave Louisiana to learn how to cook a gumbo"...true that.

Tommy Michot spent 30 years as a biologist with the U.S. Department of the Interior (Fish and Wildlife Service and USGS – National Wetlands Research Center). Now a Research Scientist with ICEE (Institute for Coastal Ecology and Engineering at Louisiana-Lafayette), Dr. Michot's research focus is on the ecology and management of coastal marshes, mangroves, and seagrass beds in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, and how wintering waterfowl and other birds use those habitats. The inspiration for the music he plays is also a direct result from what he does and the inspiration he gets from his profession. Tommy's day job is all about "Louisiana as a living being and how to protect that". Through his music he has intertwined the two to spread that message in songs such as "Valse de Meche Perdu" aka The Lost Marsh Waltz. A song which they played for me later that day.


All the while talking to the Michot's I began to see the strong currents and connections that ran through their lives, while at the same time those similar connections that strung together each My Louisiana Muse artist. I got this comfortable sense that the stories of Louisiana's joy, pain, sorrow, and triumph were being told time and time again through each generation of "those that feel and hear" the message of their surroundings. It reminded me of what the poet Darrell Bourque said in our interview, that "the land is our first teacher". I think that if Louisiana is our first teacher, all that comes after those lessons are new tools to help speak its message. It's as if she lives through us and I feel she has been for thousands of years...

Stay tuned for the final installment of the 3 P's of My Louisiana Muse when I visit photographer Jenny Ellerbe on the mounds of Poverty Point...








"Smoke on the Water" Photographing New Orleans photographer Michel Varisco on the banks of the rising Mississippi River



Michel Varisco is an artist in the true sense of the word. You cannot pigeonhole her medium and she is not limited by the tools she uses to create. Her photography is very well known in the area and her message has often been one to sing the praises of our fragile landscape and show the beauty of it as well. I chose Michel for the My Louisiana Muse project because her work always reminds me of why I love this state so much: Water and trees.

Any time I meet with an artist to do their portrait, I always learn something new about them and myself. We chose the banks of the Mississippi River to do Michel's portrait and the location could not have been more perfect. Michel had just won (a week earlier) a $25,000 grant in the Civic Design Pitch from Propeller and The Idea Village. "Turning" is an interactive sculpture designed to be spun by the viewer, sound bells gently and glow like phosphoresce at night through laser cut imagery of the Mississippi River at various stages in its history through Louisiana. Pretty amazing! Congrats to Michel....

The morning we met was a typical foggy one in New Orleans, as they usually happen when winter turns slowing to spring. We met near both of our favorite levee spots uptown near the parish border. I have always liked to shoot there, even once bringing out a generator, fog, and lasers for a Quintron and Pussycat photo shoot. Good times indeed...





As the river level was so high, there were only a few spots to be found where I could get here even with the river, but we ended up finding the perfect little nook. Behind Michel you could see nothing but fog, water, and an ominous industrial landscape emerging from the West Bank. 

Photo: Zack Smith - Michel Varisco on the Banks of the Mississippi River

 

'My Louisiana Muse' Artists Portraits Begins in Cajun Country


My drive into the Prairie of Louisiana feels just like coming home.  I am originally from Lafayette, but the simple drive north towards Opelousas, Sunset, Grand Coteau, and Arnaudville opens my mind like no other physical place on this earth. True, everything is bigger in Texas including the open roads and the Big Sky of Montana however, they do not even compare to the old soul and stories that permeate throughout The  Louisiana Prairie.  Just minutes off of I-49 and worlds away from the highway's moan and hustle is where you will find the beautiful city of Sunset, Louisiana, and more importantly the home of artist, Darrell Bourque. Out of the artists selected to participate in My Louisiana Muse, Darrell was the first artist I was able to sit down with to discuss more on his process, his connections, and his inspirations. Darrell wove stories of original 'La La' musician Amede Ardoin and musician Doug Kershaw in a photo booth. He spoke of family and tradition as well as the Cajun way of life. Needless to say, I felt at home. Due to his muddy lowland backyard, it took me longer than I thought to set up, but soon figured it out. I must extend a thank you to photographer, David Armentor, for lending me his much needed 90mm lens for the week. Without it, I would have never been able to capture the sweeping towers of bamboo!

 
In the backyard with Darrell Bourque, Sunset, LA
photo Zack Smith

My next artist stop had me crossing over I-49 and moving eastward in direction to the home of writer, photographer, blogger, musician, and mother Ashlee Michot. I have known Ashlee and her husband Louis for some years now and I will say, each year these two continue to grow creatively as a couple. It is inspiring. Aside from knowing Louis since almost birth and documenting his band, The Lost Bayou Ramblers, since ‘day one’, I was also the photographer for their wedding. They have created a beautiful home, beautiful children and a beautiful yet simple life in and around the fields of Arnaudville where Ashlee chases stories of Le Prairie Des Femmes - The Prairie of Women. Visit her Blog as it's worth the trip. The end of the day was spent behind her house photographing in a field of Mary statues - the original Femmes for holy people. But, in the field on that day, it seemed as if the Mary statues were watching and listening to Ashlee telling their story.

Ashlee Michot in her Prairie des Femmes in Arnaudville, LA
photo Zack Smith

On Thursday, the very next day, I was up an hour before sunrise and on the road again to Lake Martin to meet painter, Melissa Bonin. I had forgotten how great it feels to be up, moving, and creating before the sun rises.

Before sunrise in Lake Martin, LA
photo Zack Smith


I enjoyed photographing Melissa, but I enjoyed learning in more detail about this deeply inspired artist even more. Melissa visits an area and does not paint her scenes until she gets back to her studio. This way, she gives the story time to sink in and develop her thoughts, actions, and colors which then breathe inspiration. I found that very interesting. When the light became just right, we made our compositions as the sun started to creep into the new day (see below). As with all of the artists portraits included in this project, I am not so concerned with the use of digital photography as I am with using 4x5 black and white film for my artist portrait photographs. The digital photos I do shoot (and seen here) are all with the Petzval lens for my Canon which gives me the "swirly" bokeh you see in the images on the blog. The Bromoil process requires the use of film to secure rich quality images with enhanced effects and highlights which in the end captures the passion and beauty of your subject.


Melissa Bonin at Lake Martin. Thursday's 1st Golden Hour.
photo Zack Smith


My last portrait of the day was with artist, Bryan LaFaye. I met Bryan in Lafayette and we high tailed it south to Avery Island, home of the McIlhenny Tabasco facility that sits atop massive salt domes. It is a daunting task to speak or write of the majesty I saw that day, but I will try. Avery Island sits atop a huge salt dome and is home to a bird sanctuary, cypress swamps, a Buddha shrine, wild and free alligators, and the most beautiful old oak groves you will ever see. There were so many locations and backgrounds to choose from, but thankfully in the end our location chose us. Bryan talked about this open area in between the massive oaks where he taught his daughter how to ride a bike. This was our spot and we could feel its stories - his story. At once, Bryan became comfortable, moved slower, and reflected upon his art and life.

Bryan LaFaye in an oak grove at Avery Island, LA
photo by Zack Smith


This project has opened my eyes to a better understanding to what moves artists to do what they do on such a deeper level. My Louisiana Muse is becoming a key to unlocking the connections between Louisiana artists and what inspires them to create and continue living out their passions. I ask each of you reading this right now to join me on this journey as we discover the connections between these powerfully creative and important culture bearers from our great state. FOLLOW THIS BLOG!

Coming Up!......local New Orleans photographer Michel Varisco!

And West We Go! Photographing my first portraits of My Louisiana Muse - Lafayette - Arnaudville - Sunset - New Iberia



After many phone discussions with my gracious artists for the My Louisiana Muse project, I am happy to say that this week I begin photographing! I will be on the road from Tuesday through Thursday photographing all over Cajun country and I cannot be more excited. I do love going "home" to the place of my birth and reconnecting with the soil, the families, and my roots. The mere thought of just being able to spend One on One time with such talented artists such as Darrell Bourque, Ashlee Michot, Bryan LaFaye and Melissa Bonin makes any travel well worth it.

I truly do love speaking with artists and those that create for a living. Being able to follow one's passion and have that be your life is something I had always dreamed of as a young man and I am proud to say I am doing just that. I feel I need to connect with other artists of different mediums and just "check in" with them, you know? I am so interested in their process, their connection, and their inspirations. With my project, My Louisiana Muse, I hope to gain more knowledge and hear more stories about the many creative journeys these folks have.

I will travel to Arnaudville, Sunset, New Iberia and spend some time in Lake Martin photographing the artists. Needless to say, I am pumped!

Lache Pas!

Zack

My talk with New Orleans artist Dawn Dedeaux

I have said it before, but I learn so much from talking to all of the artists involved with the My Louisiana Muse project.  I spend about 25 minutes or more with each artist and am always left satisfied but wanting more! I feel one conversation is only scratching the surface with New Orleans artist Dawn Dedeaux. Looking through her website to get a feeling of her past work as it relates to her journey as an artist and where she is now, i got an overwhelming sense of panic. I did not know where to start our conversation. I remember first meeting Dawn when i lived on N. Gayoso St. near the Fairgrounds around 2003/2004. Dawn lived in the house next door and her house was like a backwoods cypress art museum. And that was just the front porch! Dawn's home and backyard were works of art themselves as she constantly surrounded herself with art and inspiration.

Dawn Dedeaux inside The Mothership - from NY Times Article photo: Paul Costello

Over the last 10 years i ran into Dawn here and there, mostly when I was more active as curator of the Canary Gallery on Julia St. Most recently I photographed Dawn and our mutual friend J. Poggi serving as wedding ministers. Through those moments Dawn has kept such a frantic pace of producing new art that it's hard to keep in touch with her, hence my panic. But our conversation was great. It was fluid and insightful, and I learned so much.

Dawn's work ranges from site specific installations in nature to Julia Street galleries and museums.  Dedeaux has mastered many artistic tools that are used to speak her message and is able to switch media to best deliver the idea. She loves the natural world and the assault of the natural world (it's potential peril) has been a passionate theme in her work, i.e. Katrina, BP Oil Spill. These many talents and attributes in an artist are rare and I am honored to have her in My Louisiana Muse.


Detail of Dawn Dedeaux's Mothership


Louisiana and it's environs have much to do with inspiring Dawn and her work. Dawn is happy at the "edge" of Louisiana..she loves the swamp, the bayou, and the water. She grew up near City Park and hopes City Park's administration allows it to remain a natural place. (as she tells me "you can print that!"). Dedeaux feels the new trails, toy sets for kids, and dog parks are taking away from it's "gorgeous natural vistas" (paraphrased from Dawn). I have to agree with her. At what point does serenity of green space seen on the abandoned North Course inherit some sort of "do not build" clause?

Her current project is an official PROSPECT 3 (P3) site that sits in a lot behind the corner of Elysian Fields and Rampart St. The current site for MotherShip II: Dreaming of a Future Past and MotherShip III: The StationInstallations, unused since the 60's, was cleared out by Dawn herself. She turned this unused space into a habitable park. You can still see her exhibit as there are many opportunities and closings on the horizon. I am so honored to have her in My Louisiana Muse.


My chat in the Way Back with New Orleans Photographer Frank Relle




Of all the selected artists participating in "My Louisiana Muse", New Orleans Photographer, Frank Relle , is one I am in touch with most often.  I moved to New Orleans in 2000 and not long afterwards, was introduced to Frank.  We became instant friends and remember the parallels and love for many common goals, ideals, and musings of the city and art.  I was very impressed by his thirst for knowledge and driving energy when it came to telling a story about photography, or just telling a story about whatever.  10+ years later, I am happy to have Frank Relle working with me as one of the selected artist for this project, "My Louisiana Muse".

I enjoyed talking to Frank about what inspires him about Louisiana and what it really comes down to is wanting to get YOU out there. Frank wants you to explore more, see the swamp, feel the water, the wind, and the moss.  We talked about how we are surrounded by so much water and swamps by living down here and how it is so accessible, but sadly under used.


Pailles - ©Frank Relle from "Until the Water"


When you see his current series of night swamp scenes  from "Until the Water", you really do feel a peace of place as you gaze upon his sodium vapor lit long exposures. You can say "Place" is a central theme to the work Frank produces...it all centers around a true understanding of the environment in which he was raised (SE LA). We talked about his first encounters with that environment.

"For me the visual views of the state came to life as a kid, sitting in the back row of our station wagon as we drove across town and Lake Pontchartrain, looking backwards. My muse was made through the car window as a child.." says Frank. I told Frank that i had a similar story riding in my mothers mid-70's station wagon, diesel fumes and all and high as a 4 year old can get, gazing upon the disappearing landscape. We all had viewfinders at some time in our lives before we started getting "learned" and "taught" how to stand up straight, be adults, and all that....

Vadia - ©Frank Relle from "Until the Water"

So that window was Franks first camera viewfinder and since then has been ever composing his view of his surroundings for us to see. It's a great story, but an even better one is the story he tells with his new series "Until the Water"  which can be seen in his gallery on Felicity Street in the Lower Garden District. Check his website/FB for more info on openings/viewings.

And how about that logo? Made by the super talented Tom Williams of Tomfoolery Design. Check him out soon...trust me, it'll do you good.