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Carmichaels' dream of an artist retreat becomes reality

The new Carmichaels Cottage at A Studio in the Woods

The new Stewards' Cottage at A Studio in the Woods

By 9 a.m., on Aug. 23, dozens of cars were already parked on the shoulder at the most remote part of the West Bank’s River Road, as visitors to A Studio in the Woods made their way on foot past an iron gate and down the narrow dirt road.

Moisture hung in the air in the lush bottomland, hardwood forest, birds chirped away and crows cawed overhead. The diverse audience gathered in a meadow by a newly constructed wooden cottage with a wide, covered porch as well as solar panels.

Former artist-in-residence Kathy Randels performed a song celebrating the Earth that she composed for the occasion. A silver-haired couple sat on the deck quietly and humbly behind a ribbon stretched across the staircase.

For decades, artists Lucianne and Joe Carmichael have worked to make this pristine woodland their home, as well as a retreat for fellow creative spirits. They’ve shared it with poets, musicians, composers, potters, painters and sculptors, frequently inviting the rest of us to visit their haven and witness the fruits of their artistic labor.

That morning, the Carmichaels were finally dedicating a home of their own -- the Stewards’ Cottage -- a simple structure that magically blends into the forest while taking full advantage of the natural beauty.

New Orleans City Council President Jacqueline Clarkson recalled how difficult it was years ago to make a zoning change allowing them to create an artist retreat.

“Who is going to fight a zoning change?” she had asked naively. Clarkson was thrilled by the proposal and never gave up when local opposition arose.

“I never had a better fight,” she said, calling Studio in the Woods a “treasure” and giving thanks to the Carmichaels for taking charge of the future of the woods.

When Cynthia Hedge-Morrell stepped to the podium, she recalled Lucianne Carmichael as a McDonogh 15 School art teacher.

“Lucianne was such an innovator,” said the former school administrator.

When school reform was introduced, Morrell was amazed that in almost every instance, Lucianne Carmichael had already instituted those programs. Carmichael had an edible garden and a food festival, Morrell said. “We had a non-graded school to allow children to compete against no one but themselves.”

“In 1976, I walked into this place that was so special. This was a vision she put together for children. They knew they were loved, valued, not judged – just be the best they can be. Art was an integral part of McDonogh 15. She shared her love of art with every student and teacher.”

Joe was the quiet force behind Lucianne.

“They are an awesome, powerful couple,” Morrell said.

The Carmichaels have filled their new home with an assortment of artworks. Its wide windows capture the pastoral beauty of this historic, sanctuary for creative expression.

Over the past 12 years, more than 50 local, national and international artists-in-residence have created work inspired by their surroundings. The construction of the Stewards’ Cottage allows the Carmichaels’ previous residence to be used for additional programming, engaging artists and scholars and allowing community rentals.

The non-profit Friends of A Studio in the Woods and Tulane University provided funding, guidance and direction to sustain the program – the only one of its kind in the Deep South.

“They finally found someone who would make it a trust, an environmental preserve in perpetuity,” Morrell said, referencing Tulane.

Luanne Dozier, vice president for development, constituency programs at Tulane University, summed it up: “They’re dreamers, but they’re more than that because they make their dreams reality.”

New Orleans journalist Mary Rickard submitted this article to NolaVie.

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]