Eat, Paint, Garden
This post could very well be called “From The Garden Of …” or “From The Kitchen Of …” (on the horizon; watch this space). Tucker is annoyingly talented in all these spheres. But he’s so sweet that you just have to admire him.
True, he’s a total blueblood. Except for the Bermuda shorts he’s wearing, he brings to mind a character from Downton Abbey: wavy, honey-colored hair and lovely manners. He sits in his jewel-box of a home, keeper of the flame of a family that has lived in the Garden District longer than any other family in history, our long and interesting history. Tucker comes from a family of do-ers and makers. His great-great grandfather was the founding member of The New Orleans Cotton Exchange. His great grandmother started the Garden Study Club of New Orleans and went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris, so she could instruct her cook. Tucker and his mother worked for 12 years on a garden in the country that was Ground Zero upriver of the flood caused by Hurricane Katrina. Then they created it all over again.
If you think it was all handed to him on a silver platter ... well, it could have been, but he left for New York to cook -- not an option for a FitzHugh man.
When he made the decision to go his own way, he had to make his own way.
On his own financially in NYC, he worked his magic in the arts, the floral arts, and the food arts. Then he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and in Napa. Now he caters fantastic, elaborate dinners complete with floral and table decorations. See the photo of his gorgeous arrangements under a glass dome, a mass of small, exquisite flowers made of sugar that will last forever. When I arrived, he was making a cake for the McIlHennys (Tabasco family), a tiered affair with sugared swamp grasses and an alligator climbing up the sides. Tucker earned his way back into the Garden District.
From his studio in the garden, Tucker teaches painting, one student at a time, focusing on that individual’s preferences. They work in oil; some want to do portraits, others want to paint fruits and flowers. There’s a thread of giving and flexibility in Tucker’s many callings. His blood may run blue, but it’s service that makes him happy. To prepare and serve a great meal that’s as beautifully composed as it is delicious, to help another painter find her way, to love on his precious schnauzer Streudel -- there’s no swagger, only sweetness. “My greatest joy is in pleasing people, giving them information, that’s what makes me happy... to a fault.”
I forgot to ask why it is that he paints so many pigs, but he also paints lovely bayou scenes, the latest of which graces the walls of the renovated Broussard’s Restaurant. He’s been working on a huge mysterious hunting scene; who is shooting that rifle from the bottom right at the high-flying duck? You feel yourself down in the duck blind; it’s either early evening or early morning. Sometimes he’ll set up a still life and then shoot photos to work from. Maybe it’s freshly shucked oysters or freshly hunted duck, soon to be cooked, but first arranging its wings and head just so, taking reference photos to paint later. Tucker works pretty much by eye now, but teaches his students the traditional method for transferring and enlarging an image to canvas. First you draw grid lines on the photo breaking the it into quarters; then you draw grid lines on your canvas breaking it up into quarters. The grid helps artists plot the points from little photo to big canvas.
Tucker works strictly in oils and uses a medium of equal parts Damar varnish, linseed oil, and turpentine. Add more Damar varnish and the painting dries faster; more linseed oil, it dries more slowly. He’s VERY persnickety about the final coating of pure Damar varnish over a completed painting. Paint and medium dry at different rates because of the differences in the pigments, so after six months he’ll come back to your home and check to see if it’s ready for another coat of varnish. Then he’ll come back in another year to check again. “Damar varnish is like moisturizing cream.” Tucker wants his creations to keep their perfect complexions forever.
He paints thinly, so no big glass table-top for mixing paints; rather, an ingenious palette simply an oval serving platter draped in aluminum foil, making for easy cleanup.
Tucker trained at the knee of his mother’s good friend and founder of the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art, Auseklis Ozols, so his training is classical. Texture is created by illusion, not from a thick application of paint. First there’s a coat of color, the imprimatura, that takes away the white of the canvas and helps define light, medium, and dark values. Next comes the drawing, done with a small round brush, often in an earth tone like umber. He starts each new painting with fresh brushes. If the canvas ever gets stretched out, he will spray the back with water and it’ll tighten up again.
There is a magnificent mural that curls along the curved wall of his dining room, painted by Auseklis, assisted by Tucker. A huge mossy oak tree grows from a natural levee (a chenier). Beneath it a table is set for guests, a platter of boiled crawfish, wine, flowers. But important guests have arrived at the house, so everyone has left to greet them, leaving the scene to the dogs, birds, even a Martini-drinking monkey. There is Jack’s whippet, Rebecca’s horse, grandmother’s poodle, Mr. Coleman’s monkey. The painting is filled with personal symbols of loves and lovers and children, hidden stories.
In Tucker’s garden, Spanish Moss hangs from tree limbs next to a huge papaya and tree orchids. He spreads the filaments of the moss to show me the organic scaffolding that hides beneath. “You have to include a bit of that scaffolding, hang it on another tree, for it to grow”... maybe. If you’ve got a magic green thumb and generations of gardening in your DNA, it certainly will grow. Tucker tells me that even though we live in a Zone 9 climate, according to the books, New Orleans has a very specific microclimate from living under Lake Pontchartrain, different from anyplace else in Zone 9. He swears by two gardening books: Gardening in the Gulf South, by Charlotte Seidenberg, and Gardening in New Orleans, by Helen Oser and Mary Stewart.
Tucker is a gem, another one of those totally unique New Orleans characters who blooms in our crazy rich soil.
The Fitzhugh family history goes back to the 11th century. This is the painting that would not die. It dates from around 1690. The lead ship carrying it to the New World caught fire and sank and the painting was rescued from the water by the ship that followed behind it. Then it survived another fire in their house in Virginia. I almost asked for Tucker’s autograph, as I’ve never been in the presence of a relative of both Jenny Randolph Churchill and Martha Washington (although I did once stand in line at the grocery store behind Troy Donahue).
Carol Pulitzer is an award-winning writer and illustrator. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Food & Wine Magazine, and Country Living among others. She writes and illustrates super short stories at her Little Theatre blog ( littletheatre1.com ) and can be contacted at [email protected]