Jazz Fest artist James Michalopoulos lives, breathes and paints New Orleans
James Michalopoulos is from the Northeast, but his interests and rhythm fit his adopted city perfectly. He is best known for his colorful paintings of New Orleans’ distinctive shotgun houses. To New Orleanians and Louisiana music fans in general, he is also loved for the vibrant Jazz Festival posters he designed in 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2006. This year, he’s designed the poster for the fifth time. In addition to painting, Michalopoulos is also a sculptor, a restaurateur and the owner of a rum distillery and a wine store. During our interview, I asked him if there was anything I was leaving out. “I just had a baby,” he replied. “She’s 1-year-old, and her name is Tallulah. . . . It’s something noteworthy in my life that maybe people don’t know, a little more info about my background.”
When did you come to New Orleans?
I came for a vacation in 1978, and I settled here in 1980.
What brought you to New Orleans?
The allure of New Orleans first is its eccentricity. It’s a very unusual and mysterious city, an aged city. You can feel the presence of many generations of people who’ve passed through here. It’s also a place of great sensual quality—lush and verdant. It’s a place of great birth and decay, like any swamplike environment.
Architecturally, it is probably the most interesting environment in America. It’s got a unique scale. It was largely configured before the presence of the automobile. Often, a place has interests or qualities because of the natural environment. New Orleans has a stunning built environment that offers a terrific feel and mood.
On the cultural level, anything goes in New Orleans. You can be who you are, and you will suffer less opprobrium than anywhere else. There’s a bohemian culture here stronger than anywhere else in the country. New Orleans, it seems to me, is the last surviving remnant of hippie bohemian culture.
How has New Orleans music influenced your art?
New Orleans is surrounded in sound. It is kind of like the air that we breathe here. This is a city that was born with the radio on and rocks itself to sleep at night and eats to live music at lunch. It’s a 24-hour-a-day experience here, probably next to bathing and eating, the most common human endeavor there is. For me, everything I do here is influenced by music. The whole place is rhythmic.
How did you get involved in doing your Jazz Festival artwork?
Jazz Fest approached me, and asked if I would be interested in doing the poster. That was many years ago when I did the first one, which was Dr. John. Subsequently, on occasion, they show up at my door . . . and the conversation begins once again.
What did it mean to you to do the first Jazz Fest poster after Hurricane Katrina [Fats Domino, in 2006]?
It meant a lot to me. It was an opportunity for me to engage myself in the celebration of life that is the city of New Orleans. Celebration is a fundamental aspect of New Orleans; it’s the pair of pants that the city wears. It gave me the chance to get back to that spirit of celebration and to move away from lament, regret and upset. I saw it as an opportunity to balance out some of the natural upset that people felt.
In one interview you were asked if your art had been influenced by the storm. You responded that your artwork isn’t directly influenced, but remains a celebration of the city. That’s how you contribute to the recovery, too, I think.
Exactly. I don’t think any storm in history has been so well documented visually as Katrina. I suppose I had lots of opportunities to work in some visual representation of the storm, but I really did not see it as an important aspect for me to do. There have been some marvelous photographic essays done, as well as paintings of the devastation. For me, the opportunity was clear, and it was to think fast and get on with the rocking.
What can you tell me about the 2009 poster?
Allen Toussaint, who is the artist, is a backbone of the New Orleans musical scene and history. I’ve known Allen for many years and seen him play many, many times. It was a real pleasure to have a chance to portray this fine gentleman.
He never seems to even break a sweat, he’s so cool.
Yeah, he’s very, very gentlemanly. When I’m looking at him performing, I can see him whiling away the hours in his banana leaf–covered patio and enjoying a nice mojito in the late afternoon, with his piano out in the backyard, writing his poetry to the breeze.
You spend your summers in France. How long have you been doing that and what kind of work do you do while you are there?
Ten years. I paint typically French landscapes and a lot of figurative work. I do a lot more sculpting when I am in France, also.
And you own a rum company?
Yes, it’s called Celebration Distillation (www.neworleansrum.com), and we manufacture Old New Orleans Rum. We’re the last rum distillery in Louisiana. We won a gold medal for our Amber rum in North America last year. The Crystal rum won a gold in the second-largest rum competition in the world. And the Cajun Spice rum is the only spiced rum ever cited by the Beverage Tasting Institute.
You own a restaurant also.
Yes, I do. It’s called Etoile, on the North Shore, and it’s got a bar and a wine shop there called Louisiana Star.
How do you juggle it all?
Oh, it’s a pain in the neck. Really, though, it’s all art for me. There are aspects of it that are all art. It gives me an opportunity to play in another arena.