How's Bayou? The stamp of greatness
How long can the U.S. Postal Service survive without New Orleans artist Michael Deas, whose one-man exhibition, spanning almost 40 years of relentless artistic activity, has been extended to February 28 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art?
No, he's not quitting a sub-rosa job as a postman that supported his life as an artist; he's the guy who created 21 images of American heroes that have graced our country's postage stamps -- from James Dean to Tennessee Williams and just about every notable in between.
These days we settle for Forever stamps with generic images of the Liberty Bell, Statue of Liberty, Old Glory or a fearsome eagle, with only the occasional commemorative stamp to make us smile, take pride in our country or salute a fellow citizen. But a Deas stamp had the wow factor, a magic that expressed in the space of a square inch the essence of a person.
It was centuries before anyone thought to mount a major exhibition of masterpieces by Leonardo or Rembrandt. Deas has made it in just over half a century. (For more on Deas and his art, visit www.michaeldeas.com, nola.com, and bestofneworleans.com.)
A trip to the Ogden will prove to you that fine art influences our daily lives in the most intimate fashion, the way people who claim not to understand classical music whistle a musical tidbit -- that just happens to be Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries or Carl Orff's Carmina Burana -- that they heard in a TV ad, while in the shower.
You may not know Michael Deas, but you've no doubt seen his image of the elegantly- draped woman holding aloft a shining torch at the beginning of every Colombia Pictures film. The original painting is in this exhibition, which is reason enough in itself to head to the Ogden before the end of the month.
The intensity of Deas's artistic id -- he's too modest and self-effacing for me to call it ego -- is obvious in a glass case to the left as you enter the dimly-lit room that makes his paintings glow like icons in a dark church. What appears to be a small printed work by Edgar Allan Poe, a favorite of Deas throughout his life, was actually hand-lettered by Deas at the tender age of 19, with a Rapidograph pen, featuring his first, tiny etching, and dedicated "to Elizabeth," his first girlfriend, who loaned the youthful little tour de force to the show.
Though he remains a bachelor, Deas has never lost his love for beautiful women; illustrations in this show will bowl you over with the radiance that Deas's females project.
The man is relentless in his pursuit of perfection, something I witnessed over a six-month period as he tirelessly, at all hours of night and day, repainted a single branch over and over again in a mural-size painting, Blind Man's Bluff, featuring a mysterious, searching woman, that is one of four impressive works sold from this exhibition.
"I have trouble leaving things alone -- I frequently overwork my paintings," Deas confesses.
During a recent lighthearted walk-through of the exhibition, Deas portrayed himself as a Marx's Brothers' version of Puccini's loft-dwelling artists in La Boheme. He only paints on panels, he declared, because as a poor, struggling artist, he carelessly put his foot through a painting he was doing on a stretched bed sheet, as he couldn't afford canvas.
Standing in front of an ethereal panel of an evanescent female who seems to hover, as her figure ends at the knees, the artist detours into the perks of painting on a wooden panel instead of canvas.
"One of the advantages of working on a panel is that you can just take a hand saw and whack off any part of it you don't like. Originally, there was a landscape with buildings at the bottom of this painting; but I wanted it to look more supernatural, so I cut all that off, including the dress below the knees, and now she floats."
But that didn't satisfy the relentless artist.
"This model's face wasn't spooky enough, so I substituted the face of another model," a frequent modus operandus in Deas's work. This genial Dr. Frankenstein of the brush will use one model for the body, another for the hands, and, in the case of his Time magazine cover illustration of Benjamin Franklin, himself for the face.
"A friend of mine noticed that my hairline was similar to Franklin's, so I put on a funny wig, took a photo of myself and then visually stretched Franklin's features over my facial structure," Deas told his delighted audience.
It's this legerdemain, almost in the realm of the classic magician, that infuses Deas's portraits with vitality and a mystery that often is missing in iconic images of legends. It shines through in his engaging Time magazine portrait of a young Abraham Lincoln, clad in a recycled white linen jacket that Deas bought at a local shop for $40 -- and later wrapped around Tennessee Williams in that postage stamp.
Deas realized that WWNO's Jack Hopke was the image of Thomas Jefferson; but it's artist Robert Guthrie's physique that supports the face in another Time image. When that magazine called Deas and asked if he could have an image of the just-deceased Princess Diana ready in 48 hours, Deas went out and bought a six pack of Dr. Pepper, convinced by a friend that it packed more caffeine than a Starbuck's warehouse; but Time called back and said they'd decided to run a photo instead, leaving the disappointed artist hyperactive for days
Although comfortable now, the "largely self-taught" artist who studied unhappily at the Pratt Institute when realistic painting was on the outs, still sports the worried brow of the starving artist he was in his twenties, even though his works now command significant-artist prices. His audience gasped when he told them the post office only paid $3,500 for a painting for a stamp -- artists can make substantially more by individually signing the first-day editions of the stamps -- and that the market for illustrations seems to be drying up, which ironically has led him back to "true" painting, which he loved before rent-paying illustration commissions led him to newsstand and USPS fame.
"It seems like a photo of Anne Hathaway is on every cover these days," he said, standing in front of his image of a stunning woman that appeared on a book cover. "Don't get me wrong. I love her. She's beautiful."
She's just not the Columbia lady.
How's Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.