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From moving earth to making art

In the continuing occasional series of interview with iconic New Orleanians, Sharon Litwin talks with artist George Dunbar.

George Dunbar

Artist George Dunbar with one of his works.

The artist as entrepreneur is not that unusual. After all, there are numerous artists with self-named galleries selling lots of their own works. And there are many others who’ve parlayed their creations into in-demand, commercially viable objects. But, it’s safe to say, there aren’t many successful and nationally-regarded fine contemporary artists who have made their marks in the hard-nosed business world of land development. It takes a highly developed left and right brain to do that.

New Orleans artist George Dunbar, 86, has that kind of brain. He is a courtly gentle man whose abstract expressionist art, much elegantly constructed of gold leaf over compositions of clay, hangs in numerous private and museum collections.

Beginning when he was around 7 years old, he would accompany his mother on trips to New York. When she had other things to do, she would park the young Dunbar in the Metropolitan Museum for a couple of hours, where he would visit his favorite paintings. He must have been quite well-behaved because, evidently, he was never kicked out.

“What happens is you start making choices as to where you want to be in the museum,” he recalls. “You might go to look at the medieval armor; those people weren’t any bigger than I was. Or you might visit the Elgin Marbles. I think this is terribly important in life: to determine what you like and why you like it. You know, if you are going to be in a museum like that for a couple of hours, you start making decisions about where you want to go.”

Dunbar was 17 when he graduated from Metairie Park Country Day School. He immediately joined the Navy and went off to serve in World War II. When the war ended he did not really want to return to New Orleans. All that museum-going had left its mark, and New Orleans seemed oh-so-parochial. So he decided to go to art school in Philadelphia and then travel through Europe, thinking he would live in New York when he come back to the United States. But family illness required his return to New Orleans.

Coming home, Dunbar discovered, to his surprise, that there was a serious group of artists working and living in the city. Soon they formed the Orleans Gallery, one of the first contemporary art spaces in the Crescent City. Then, along with friend and artist Bob Hellmer, Dunbar opened a private art school.

“He was married and I wasn’t,” Dunbar says with a smile. “So my job was to go over to Rampart Street and find a model.”

But soon, with a family of his own, George Dunbar realized that as much fun as all that was, teaching alone was never going to pay the bills. Looking around, he could see that a certain kind of business activity was beginning to happen on Lake Pontchartrain’s North Shore.

Both sides of his brain clicked in when he recognized there was a great opportunity to get in on the new-to-New Orleans suburban growth. It was a time, he says, when buying land and selling lots had way less zoning regulation to deal with. With his artist’s eye, he could build roads following a tree line, or in any other way he thought would make a development attractive.

As Dunbar got more and more into that business, he had to figure out how to marry making money selling land with making art for art’s sake. That’s when the absolute business-side of his brain decided he need to create a series of corporations to handle the different land deals. Staff was hired to run the administrative side of the business. But while all those necessary details were taken care of, it was Dunbar who showed up on the work site every day. He started each day very early. But he also finished each day very early. It was something the construction crew grew to accept.

“They knew that at 3 o’clock I was going to leave and that I did something else, and they were very understanding about that,” he says.

But how in the world did he shift his brain from acreage to art?

“Well it was waiting to shift,” Dunbar says with a grin, explaining that he would often make art late into the night. It helped to have a small apartment in New Orleans as well as his home on the North Shore.

Now retired from other diversions, George Dunbar gets up every day and walks down a path from his elegant contemporary Slidell home on the edge of a bayou to his studio. There he continues to make art that is distinctly his, something he feels is essential for any artist.

“The single most important thing – and I tell students this – is for you to get your thumb print on your work so that across the room someone knows that work is yours.”

The latest exhibition of George Dunbar’s work Earth and Element: The Art of George Dunbar is on view now at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard Museum in Lafayette, LA. For information, visit www.museum.louisiana.edu or call 337-482-1370.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]