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Chris Holcombe: Landscape painter and Pirate's Alley artist

A selection of Holcombe's work. Photo by Bill Ives


Chris Holcombe moved to New Orleans via Virginia in 2014. After completing a degree in Latin American Studies, he "picked up" painting on the side and moved to New Orleans quickly after graduating. He has now found a home among the Jackson Square artists, and his choice spot is right around Pirate's Alley. For years he has found his niche in New Orleans, and what makes it feel like the place he's supposed to be?

"Well this [Jackson Square] and the swamps. I love to be in nature, so it's a change from being in the mountains to coming here. Lots of new plants to look at," Holcombe says.

Of painting, Chris explains, “It's the innermost part of my being. Before I'm anything else, I'm pretty much an artist. And that applies to anything I do. Whether I'm making breakfast or making a painting. And the painting allows me to...It's pretty much my way of studying the world."

He's Buddhist, he says. And painting is his way of practice, and meditation. “Something that pulls me out of the city.”

Just as selling art takes him outdoors to the French Quarter, his painting is done outdoors as well. Since Chris's work is mostly natural landscape painting, the swamps and bayous of South Louisiana offer a fresh source of material for him. He points out something most of us city dwellers don't think about that often. New Orleans is small, and much more proximate to these natural landscape havens than larger urban centers of the country such as New York, Chris says. “Here,” he says, “I can be out in the middle of nowhere in an hour.

The “everyday” is a common theme in his descriptions of his work. Landscape painting is "pretty much my way of studying the world," he says. "To try to realize that every moment is special. So when I'm painting...it's outside. I'm in the sunshine or its dark, and you have to put yourself in that place.”

This way of placing himself in the moment extends to his presentation. “I like to make it a pathway for each person to see themselves in that... see something that's very everyday. It's buildings. It's houses. It's not even people. It's roofs, but it's the everyday. And I like to make people appreciate that a little more.”

Chris seems to really seek out this connection between the audience and his work. He admits that one reason his work is unique in the Quarter is because oil painting is more expensive. Other artists in Jackson Square, he says, avoid this technique for its price to the customer. For this reason, Chris sells mostly smaller paintings. He maintains though, that the street is preferable to a gallery, where many people never visit. The “open-air” quality of selling art in the Quarter appeals to his intention to connect with the everyday crowd.

His everyday begins early, before dawn. To set up at the best spot around Pirate's Alley, which he says is on Royal, it's first come, first serve. Arriving early can make the difference in how the rest of the day goes. Despite this lack of coordination among permitted artists in the area, he says he really gets along with other vendors. "Once I did set up, it was very welcoming. Everyone was really nice...they introduced themselves to me." He and the other artists make Pirate's Alley their own. Some set up shop, as if in the studio. Others socialize, eat, and spend the larger part of their days at work.

Like many artists, success lies in grabbing the attention of the consumer. In the French Quarter, that's usually the tourist.

He laughs when thinking about who his customers are. “Well, they're all tourists,” he explains. “Well, one lady was from Slidell, so that's not really tourist. But yeah, mostly tourist...I guess there was an Uptown lady that bought one of my large paintings. So I guess that's a market I should look into [laughs], the rich Uptown ladies.

Chris's second job is in the Central Business District. He works in Jackson Square four days a week, and takes regular trips to the swamps and bayous to paint. This ability to pick up and work wherever is characteristic of his generation. And, the apparent job precarity and necessary flexibility that mark the Post-Fordist economy seem to be of little concern to Chris.

Like others who are freelancing and working multiple jobs, he's trying to make passion into work. Chris says being an artist is “easy to do here.” He'll stay here as long as he can. “All I really care about is painting,” he says with a smile.

For another glimpse at Chris' work, check out minute 1.25 of this youtube video on street performers by Bill Ives: 

This post was originally published on April 19, 2014 and for the full version, click here.

Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at kelley@nolavie.com.