How's Bayou? From Carrara to Hammond
Self-effacing Russian emigre sculptor Alexei Kazantsev held out, in a Garden-of-Eden gesture, a large, dappled apple as we walked across the front porch of Northshore beauty-products titan Edwin Neill in the summer of 1999.
"You want to go back to town and get something to bite?" he asked when I declined the apple while intently scribbling notes for a profile in The Times-Picayune.
"Town" is Hammond, where Kazantsev had recently completed a series of monumental marble sculptures, "The Energies: Earth, Fire, Water and Air," that rise in a spiral to a height of 13 feet in a grassy sculpture garden adjacent to The Neill Corporation's education campus.
Swedish immigrant Peter Hammond arrived in the area in the 1820s, and bought up large tracts of pine forests, reaping a fortune from the kegs, barrels and turpentine crafted and drawn from the trees. A marker on East Charles Street honors the town's namesake, near the towering oak that shades his grave.
Kazantsev arrived in the area 175 years later, and by 1996 was settling into Hammond to create masterpieces for Neill and his burgeoning health and beauty empire, at the time the largest distributor of Aveda products in the country.
Kazantsev, now 47, was born in Alexandrov, 100 kilometers from Moscow. Between the ages of 7 and 10, he spent his days strapped to a bed in a Russian clinic to correct a rare medical condition that had resulted in irregular bone growth.
"The spots on the walls," he recalled in the 1999 interview, "they start to make patterns. So I draw them," his first artistic effort.
As his skills progressed, his mother suggested he study with his uncle, a noted Soviet-era Moscow sculptor. But soon he tired of sculpting monuments of soldiers and workers, moved on to naturalistic designs, and promptly found himself in trouble with authorities.
"Before I know it, I'm in the Russian artistic underground," he recalled.
When he had the chance to visit America in 1993 as a tourist, he took it, met Neill in the fall of 1996, and by the following spring was creating outdoor sculpture for his new patron's home and offices.
An off-the-cuff perfectionist, Kazantsev specified for "The Elements" only marble from the same quarry that had yielded the raw material of Michelangelo's St. Peter's Pieta. Among more than 500 Italian quarries, he ferreted out the same Carrara marble the Renaissance master had used, at the Polvaccio Quarries.
"Yes, this is Michelangelo's," Kazantsev recalls the owner informing him, the successful conclusion of the chase still vivid in the sculptor's vivid imagination.
From Hammond, Kanzantsev moved to Washington State, then Coloradro, where his wife and two children remain these days while he leads the gypsy life, his tools in a van, traveling from Covington, to Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. Currently, he is working on monumental sculptures for a Mobile, Alabama, patron who has a strong interest in Asian religion and mythology. (As a lifelong Babar fan, my favorite is his statue of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god.)
In San Francisco, Kazantsev's Parthenon-inspired frieze of Greek mythological figures playing baseball covers the facade of a security firm, across from the stadium, that has commissioned numerous pieces from the sculptor. A Centaur wields a bat, while a Siren waits with a catcher's mitt under the watchful eye of the Minotaur umpire. And that's just for starters.
"It's completely wild," the sculptor advised in a phone interview this week from Mobile. As wild as the photos of the artist at an uninhibited Moscow sauna bacchanale a decade ago?
"You remember those pictures?" he asks incredulously. "Yes, like that."
It's worth a day trip to Hammond to see "The Elements," as well as the sculptor's baptismal font, bronze crucifix and marble statues of Mary and Joseph at the Catholic Church of the Holy Ghost, a modernist structure that overlooks the town's iconic railroad station. The expansive sculpture garden at the Neil's nearby Springfield home can be visited by appointment.
Hammond sports several fine dining spots, including the legendary Jacmel Inn, and you can pamper yourself at the downtown Paris Parker Salon or purchase beauty products at the nearby Aveda Retail Experience Center. The renovated Columbia Theater features performances from popular music to performances by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and shops offer everything from bric-a-brac to antiques.
At Madewood, a small Kazantsev sculpture, "The Dreamer," enhances the oak-shaded patio and invites contemplation on mercury-busting summer days. In Mobile, chisels breathe life into hard, cold stone; and, in Hammond, the legacy of creation that began in Soviet oppression continues to offer inspiration to visitors at a small, peaceful park.
The photo gallery below features the artist and some of his work:
If you go: The Neill Corporation Sculpture Garden, 303 South Pine Street, Hammond. The second location, at 32872 Cullom Road in Springfield, can be visited by appointment. Both open 9 a.m. to 6p.m. Call for directions: (504) 345 1085 and to schedule a visit to the second site.
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.
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.