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My Favorite Artist: Musings about New Orleans and My Dad

 

DadCollage

Photos provided by Folwell Dunbar

The arts in New Orleans are - and always have been - something that people look at with quizzical brows. The viewer takes a step closer to the piece and may even ask, "Is that made of all beer tops?" The answer is: yes.

Train track debris, doll heads stapled into stomachs, paintings sprayed down with a hose before drying can occur--it's all here, and it was also all part of my childhood. In a way, I was living in New Orleans in many different ways because of my dad.

My dad “painted” with string, envelopes, metal leaf, egg emulsion and rabbit-skin glue. He used augers, belt sanders and even birdshot to “mine the surface” of his sculptures. He tore strips of cloth and dropped them haphazardly from a second floor balcony, waiting for what he called “an accidental triumph” to occur.

 

As a young art critic in training, I thought his work looked like stuff that anyone, even I, could do. But, of course, it didn’t and I couldn’t.

I did try. I took drawing classes in high school. I remember this one time when my dad offered to help me with my homework.

In that teenage way I looked at him and said, “No, you wouldn’t understand. We’re studying human anatomy; your work is all abstract.”

In that wonderfully father way, he took out a pencil and sketched a figure that could have easily passed for the work of a Renaissance master.

He then said to me, “Of course I can capture reality son,” he said. “I just choose not to. I’m after something different…”

That's what New Orleans is and that's what it endorses--"something different."

The Orleans Gallery on Royal Street set the stage, or better yet, stretched the canvas for the Arts District, the CAC and even the recent revival of St. Claude Avenue. Every second Saturday of the month St. Claude opens its gallery doors for passerbys to see creatures made of rusting parts, surrealist photographs of staged events,  puppet shows, and pieces that make you think, "Could I do that?" and then quickly realize, "No, I couldn't."

In this way, the city is like my dad. My dad is part of this city.

I remember that in 2006, there was an exhibit at the Newcomb Gallery called “Capturing Southern Bohemia.” It featured images from New Orleans in the 1950’s taken by the famous fashion photographer, Jack Robinson.

To my surprise, my dad and some of his friends (Enrique Alférez, Bob Helmer, Shearly Grode, Lynn Emery, Jean Seidenberg, Ida Kohlmeyer and George Dureau), who I always thought were weird like him - talking about the evolution of action painting post Jackson Pollock and the influence of Mexican and Southern regionalism on the new abstract expressionism - were the stars of the show. I discovered that these “bohemians” had established the first gallery for contemporary art in the city of New Orleans.

That was my dad. My dad, who developed more than sixty subdivision by building roads, digging canals and ditches, clearing and planting tree, negotiating loans, and selling residential lots. My dad, who would watch me at little league practice and then play Mr. Mom by "making" us dinner. To be fair, it was usually take-out Chinese or Popeyes fried chicken, but it gave use the energy to watch football or classic movies together.

Then when we all went to bed, he'd paint. He kept a cot in his studio just in case.

I see that everywhere in this city. People having more jobs than they do facial features and ending their nights with their passion. Frenchmen, St. Claude, Royal Street, and many others give their labor during the day and when nighttime hits...well, it's time for painting (relatively speaking).

My dad could have been a designer. He has the perfect eye for it. Or, he could have been a pretty decent farmer--to this day he keeps chickens and guineafowl and grows beautiful eggplants and figs. But it was painting that has kept him company throughout his life.

New Orleans could be like any other city, but it's not. Neither it nor my dad settle for just being anything.

 

The other day I came across a beautiful drawing tucked away in my dad’s studio. It was from the 1970’s. When I asked him why he had never shown it in a gallery, he said, “It looks too much like a Twombly. It’s derivative. You need to get your own unique thumbprint on your work. People should be able to recognize it as yours from across the room.” As for my dad’s work, it is unmistakably his own. It is “a Dunbar.”

They say creativity is for the young. Try telling that to my Old Man. At 88, he’s more creative than ever. He just had a show with more than 25 original works. After the opening, he jumped on a plane to New York City. “That’s where the action is,” he said. “I want to see the Stella show at the new Whitney, check out Picasso’s sculptures, and see what’s going on in Chelsea. I need to find a little inspiration for my next show…”

“I’m an old dude,” my dad recently confessed. “I’ve been around a long time. I’ve learned a few things. And now, more than ever, I’ve got urgency. Let’s go make some art!”

Whenever you ask my dad how he’s doing, he always answers the same way: “I’m doing the best I can.” For as long as I’ve known my dad – my entire life – “the best he can,” in both art and life, is nothing short of extraordinary.

So, yes, my dad is my favorite artist. More importantly, he’s my favorite person. He’s my hero.

Of course, I am a bit biased…

Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him [email protected].