It was a bittersweet moment, taking down the project that stood so close to me since October 2014. It is funny how fast one year can go by and how so many important and yet trivial life experiences are thrown at you side by side. It seems alot to handle - but I never felt that My Louisiana Muse ever was out of control or hard to handle at any times. Traveling over 1400 miles, to Monroe twice (!), managing the relearning of the darkroom and bromoil process by books and Youtube, and playing the press release shuffle...i felt that I was always in control. I was in control because this project involved 14 talented artists and so many people behind the scenes that I was both indebted to, and who had my back. I am so grateful to have been afforded this experience.
So as the show came down this week, I am very excited at what the near future holds. Never one to count the chickens, stay tuned here until we can celebrate another hatch.
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.
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
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
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...
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
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!
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.
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?