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Nola Studiola dispatch: Steve Spehar

As part of a content partnership with Nola Studiola, a collaborative online platform where various artists -- visual and literary -- curate the site with their own content for month-long "residencies,” we will feature monthly “dispatches” from Nola Studiola's artists. This feature series focuses on the artists’ reflections of their curatorial work at Nola Studiola.

The site's latest guest curator was New Orleans-based photographer, actor, writer, director and musician Steve Spehar. Spehar studied creative writing and acting at San Francisco State University, co­founded a theatre company called Revolving Door Productions in southern California, and has had plays produced in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Austin. The multidisciplinary artist also studied photography at the International Center of Photography in New York and has exhibited both in that city and here in New Orleans.

What a long time ago it seems, that odd December. After a somewhat neurotic marathon of making daily invocations to random inspirations, I've allowed myself nearly two weeks of creative decompression.

Spehar's self-portrait with White Light and To-Do List  . (Photo: Steve Spehar)

Spehar's self-portrait with White Light and To-Do List . (Photo: Steve Spehar)

Not that I haven't been busy. I've been catching up on a lot of projects and personal stuff that I kind of let slide for a minute there. My residency at the Studiola was something of a remarkable journey for me, an intricate and complicated one. Ostensibly approached as a photographer, I was most daunted by the prospect of writing in a cohesive and meaningful way, a way that would interest others. Though my creative roots are as a playwright and journalist, writing as a process for me is an oft-repeated confrontation with the ogre that lives under the bridge. It's one of the dark and uncomfortable truths of my creative life, if I may confess that, and one of the primary reasons that I spend most of my energy playing around with pictures and not words. The images are there, in front of me, and yet the words I must fish from some dark subterranean spring.

In the spirit of confronting my phobia for deadlines, while also recognizing how much I need one in order to cross over that bridge, I decided right before the month started that I would do the shoot it, write it, post it thing, which included writing something and shooting something each and every day for the entire month. Theoretically, it's an exercise in discipline, or self-torture, however you want to look at it. I wanted each post to be relevant to a potential reader in some way, even if many of the days were spent mining the personal process of simply completing my mission. There was an overriding theme, from the beginning, of approaching the challenge as a kind of “day in the life” where the day was a month, and the life was the beating heart of creativity that reveals itself in unexpected corners and shades, from the people we encounter to the streets we wander. I hope I stayed somewhat focused on that theme. I had to repeat it to myself on more than several occasions.

In the end, I approached the process with an open mind and tried to set no expectations, other than learning from how the project unfolded in an arc. The joy of accomplishing the daily goal was a fantastic fix, but viewing the archive, in it's completion, as a small portrait in a brief journey, is kind of where I'm at with it. It was a really great, really odd December, and I'm glad to have made it over.

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Spehar's Studiola entry from December 6, 2014:

When I moved to New Orleans almost 8 years ago, there was a decided dearth of places to get a standard American breakfast in the downtown, Marigny/ Bywater neighborhood. I don’t know if the phrase “standard American” is a thing in regards to breakfast, or if I just made that up. What I mean by that is a place where you can get, at a minimum: eggs, sausage and/or bacon, hash browns (or some variation on the breakfast potato). Grits. Pancakes. Maybe even waffles, heaven be praised.

There are a lot more options since then, thankfully, because when it comes to 3 square a day, I really am a guy that leans on a big breakfast. (Never mind that, due to my work and sleep schedule, I often eat my breakfast at 2pm in the afternoon.) Elizabeth’s is one of the great little fixtures that has been around since back in the day. And even closer to home for me, Cake Cafe in the Marigny and Who Dat Coffee Cafe, right down the street, are two of my go-to breakfast spots that have emerged in the decade since Katrina.

Now, there’s a new presence in the neighborhood. Horn’s, situated on Dauphine Street in the Marigny triangle, was opened about 6 months ago by Kathleen Horn, who is the owner and founder of the uptown spot Slim Goodies Diner. Billed on it’s website as “a family owned, family run restaurant dedicated to New Orleans and all who love her,” the place definitely has an aura of comfiness and community, from the menu offerings to the kitschy decor to the friendly staff.

The photo on the right, of her brother, is one of Kathleen Horn’s favorites that her father Jack shot. (Photo: Steve Sespehar)

The photo on the right, of her brother, is one of Kathleen Horn’s favorites that her father Jack shot. (Photo: Steve Spehar)

Mark Robertson, the bartender who served me today, chatted with me about the family feeling of the place. “I was a friend of [Kathleen] and I left my previous job of 15 years” to come and work with her. Mark also happened to mention that he was involved in a non-profit called the Youth Empowerment Project in Central City, which “helps about a thousand at-risk youth and their families.” When he told me that it struck me as another reminder of how ties between business, family and community run concurrent and overlapping in this city. Just the other day on this blog I introduced you to Diana, who also works a non-profit in Central City for children, and who spends half of her time working for bread and passion, and the other half on just passion alone.

Mark Robertson, who works the bar at Horn’s, keeping on eye on the cafe tables outside.

These are the people and the stories that make New Orleans special, that make New Orleans a small town. This is the kind of vibe you’re supposed to get when you sit and have breakfast in your neighborhood joint.

Mark Robertson, who works the bar at Horn’s, keeping on eye on the cafe tables outside. (Photo: Steve Sespehar)

Mark Robertson, who works the bar at Horn’s, keeping on eye on the cafe tables outside. (Photo: Steve Spehar)

Though I’ve only been there for breakfast, they also serve lunch seven days a week, and dinner every Thursday through Sunday. The breakfast fare is hearty and cozy, yet still a little artful; grounded in a traditional approach of omelets, pancakes and waffles, with the addition of dishes featuring stuff like crawfish étouffée and plantains, and with cute punny names like the Crabby Wife and the Shroomer Omelet. Today, I tried the Waffle Couchon—one of the signature breakfast offerings—featuring a cornbread waffle covered in pulled pork, chimichurri sauce and pickled peppers. Pretty darn tasty.

There’s also a the simple item called the Doc Horn—two eggs any style, two pancakes, bacon or sausage—named after Kathleen’s father, who has clearly had a tremendous influence on both her and her restaurants.

“These are all my dad’s photos,” she told me of the colorful, nostalgic family snaps that adorn every wall. “He had a…just a naturally good eye. He was artistic, he was gonna be an engineer and then decided to become a doctor. But he just had a really good eye.”

Indeed he did. All of the photographs—which Kathleen has enlarged and framed with exhibition quality—are ostensibly snaps of the Horn family from Kathleen’s childhood, but are shot with an eclectic and deliberate eye towards composition, color and context. That unmistakable Kodachrome color and perfectly unsharp muted dynamic that only vintage film prints can have, they remind you of all the snapshots from your own childhood, if someone from your childhood had been really smart with a camera. “When he died…I finally got to see them all, because you know, when we were kids, you didn’t touch those photos.”

The Horn family in a vintage photo shot by Jack Horn. (Photo: Steve Sespehar)

The Horn family in a vintage photo shot by Jack Horn. (Photo: Steve Spehar)

Her father never got to see Horn’s, but his influence is unmistakable when you listen to Kathleen talk about him. “The propellers above the bar are his. The floors are cypress because it was his favorite wood. He would have loved this place.”

She revels in telling the story behind his inspiration on her first diner. “He went to Slim’s, he got to see Slim’s everyday. He was the inspiration for that logo. He told me, ‘Kathleen, if you’re ever gonna make any money, those eggs are gonna have to fly out that goddamn restaurant.'”

We both laughed. “That’s funny,” I said. “Yeah, because it’s a flying egg, right?”

“Yes. It’s a flying egg because of Jack Horn.

Read Spehar's series of entires in its entirety here