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How’s Bayou? Breakin’ up is hard to do

Naomi Marshall and Doris Daigle at Dixie Art’s 1956 store opening. (Photo courtesy Keith Marshall)

Naomi Marshall and Doris Daigle at Dixie Art’s 1956 store opening. (Photo courtesy Keith Marshall)

I remember the narrow three-story building on Natchez Street, behind the tall Queen & Crescent Building on Camp Street, which was known in the 19th and early-20th centuries as Newspaper Row because of the preponderance of newspaper offices in its line of stolid commercial structures.

It was an unprepossessing building, one of about six identical small structures, most of which remain in various states of repair today — two rooms deep. You walked across a minuscule open space to reach the “facilities.” The top two floors were just for storage.

Some Saturdays, I’d be there doing keep-the-little-boy-occupied tasks like straightening shelves, or using a rubber stamp to print “Dixie Art Supplies” on colorful flyers produced by manufacturers to accompany bills sent out in the mail. I was just 7 years old in 1953, and thought this was fun. For the most part, the ensuing 60 years in the art supplies world have been stimulating, and educating — in oh-so-many ways.

After a lifetime in the retail art materials field, it’s time for me to hang up my beret, to pass the Kolinsky sable brush to two corporate principals, Don D’Aunoy and Reggie Condy. But the memories remain.

Few people know that my mother, Naomi Damonte Marshall, founded Dixie Art Supplies in a one-room office in the Queen & Crescent Building in 1934 — on the suggestion of her older sister, Edwina Fredricks, who was working in the advertising art department of The Times-Picayune and told her there was no place to find the supplies she needed in New Orleans.

Mother’s daily personal expenses totaled 25 cents: 7 cents for streetcar fare and 22 cents for a pint of milk and a pack of peanut butter crackers. She and all her siblings had to go to work, as the family had lost almost everything in the Great Depression. When Social Security was implemented the following year, she made her first payment into the system, $0.27.

Ten years later, that first small storefront opened around the corner at 518 Natchez St. Art supplies by Craftint, famous for its paint-by-numbers sets, were a feature. The basics of art supplies today were there, including copper enameling, gold-leafing, paints and brushes. The quarter-century rule of graphic art supplies — transfer lettering, color overlays and Pantone color-matching systems (all finally doomed by the advent of computer graphics) lay far ahead.

Henry Mansion, fresh out of the Army in 1944, joined the two-person Dixie Art staff, and retired only in 2010. He drove the company’s famous delivery van, with graphics by Steve Singer of Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso”s Demoiselles DAvignon and others in the back seat.

Mayor Chep Morrison cut the red ribbon at the 1956 opening of the big new store at 532 Poydras St., in the building from which the first flag of a free Cuba was flown in the late 19th-century. It featured the city’s first comprehensive display of airbrush equipment and supplies, and “Upstairs at Dixie” was the city’s first gallery showing works by commercial artists.

Comedienne Ellen Degeneres was a sales clerk at Dixie Art after finishing high school. Coolly-sophisticated artist Peter Halley maintained the inventory while a graduate student at UNO. Graphics salesman Bill Hamilton had been a famous jockey; and, in an earlier life, purchasing agent Stacey Lawrence was burlesque dancer “Stormy,” who, with her mentor, Blaze Starr, sprang Governor Earl K. Long from a state psychiatric facility in the 1950s.

My brother Don and I were the first to renovate a large commercial building in the Warehouse District, in 1982, for Dixie Art. A larger-than-life papier-mâché Angel Gabriel by Mardi-Gras artist Joe Barth welcomed customers into what was, I claim unabashedly, the most beautiful art supplies store in the world. The brand-new Louisiana Children’s Museum became our tenant on the second floor in the 1990s and currently owns the building.

I accepted the challenges of computer design by marketing hardware and software programs that were killing the most profitable, traditional part of the business. When Dixie Art entered the field of monument design software for the funeral industry, I felt positively Adams-family-like. I learned it was New Orleans’ own Alton Doody who revolutionized funeral homes and the display of caskets by introducing the concept of good, better, best: Top of the line, call it “The Bellevue.” Rename the cheap, plain wooden box “The Oswald,” to invoke memories of the demise of you-know-who and discourage sales of that model.

After Hurricane Katrina, when we occupied a gargantuan space on the wrong side of the tracks, we inaugurated Jefferson Parish’s first indoor art market, TrestleFest, in the shadows of the elevated railroad tracks of the Huey P. Long Bridge. Finally, we transitioned to a predominantly online presence.

I’ve learned so much, and now it’s time to bid farewell.

To everyone I’ve worked with, to the precious few who still may recall the genesis of this 80-year-old family business, thank you!

And don’t forget: it still exists — with new owners, as Dixie Art & Airbrush — just without me.

If readers have Dixie Art facts or stories they'd like to share, please send them to [email protected]

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.