Eliza Poitevent Nicholson, the Daily Picayune, and what New Orleans wants from its newspaper

When I began volunteering at The Historic New Orleans Collection in November, my station was directly in front of the cherrywood desk used by Eliza Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson when she was publisher of the Daily Picayune, from 1876 to 1896.

My proximity to this piece of New Orleans history was striking to me because I had lost my job at The Times-Picayune, successor to the Daily Picayune, just a month earlier, when The T-P cut back publication from seven days a week to three. What would Nicholson have thought about the “digital-first” strategy at the paper, which her family continued to own until 1962?

Eliza Jane Nicholson was publisher of the Daily Picayune in New Orleans from 1876 to 1896. Photo courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Eliza Jane Nicholson was publisher of the Daily Picayune in New Orleans from 1876 to 1896. Photo courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

She would have considered the strategy carefully. She was deeply concerned with the financial sustainability of the Daily Picayune, which was at least $80,000 in debt when she inherited it from her husband, former publisher Col. Alva Morris Holbrook, upon his death on Jan. 6, 1876.

Nicholson took a personal interest in the broad distribution of the newspaper. This is reflected in a passage from a letter sent to her by business manager Thomas G. Rapier on Nov. 10, 1886, apparently dealing with a problem with distribution to Hot Springs, Ark. This letter was probably sent to her at her second home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where she raised her sons Leonard, born in 1881, and Yorke, born in 1883.

“I will attend to the Hot Springs business at once,” Rapier wrote. “We have the paper on sale at almost all (points?), but in such far away places there are generally very few sold. It makes one feel bad to be getting back nearly all that are sent. Sometimes the dealers, after having received two or three a day for a month, and only selling 8 or 10, order them stopped. However, we try to keep a paper within the reach of everyone in this section of the U.S.”

Nicholson presided over tripling of the Daily Picayune’s circulation, from 6,000 daily and 6,000 Sunday in 1878 to 19,000 daily and 30,000 Sunday in 1891. In 1893, she opened the newspaper’s first out-of-state news bureau at Jackson, Miss., giving her newspaper stronger ties to its sizable readership in Mississippi.

In evaluating the digital-first strategy, Nicholson would have proved to be no Luddite. The Daily Picayune was one of the first 100 New Orleans telephone subscribers when the office at 66 Camp St. was connected in 1879; Alexander Graham Bell had patented the device in 1876.

A Jan. 25, 1887, special edition celebrating the “semi-centennial” of the Picayune noted, “In November, 1886, the entire Picayune establishment was lighted by electricity, employing 170 incandescent lamps of the Brush-Swan system.” Charles Brush had invented brilliant electric arc lights that were almost all used for street lighting. Brush-Swan incandescent bulbs were manufactured from 1885 to 1895.

Linotype, invented in 1884, was introduced in the Picayune’s plant in 1892, as were typewriters, although Nicholson did not use them.

“I have never used a typewriter or dictated to a stenographer in transferring my thoughts to paper,” Nicholson was quoted as saying in the July 1889 issue of Phonographic World, a magazine devoted to the interests of shorthand and typewriting.

“In the actual course of composition, at those moments when the overpowering desire to speak out the thoughts that burn within comes over me, ideas come trooping through my mind much more rapidly than my pen can keep pace,” Nicholson was quoted as saying. “I seldom transcribe a full word, jobbing a half-finished one as my pen runs along in the attempt to express as quickly as I can think all that I would fain commit to paper. I am therefore compelled to re-write all my compositions myself, as it must be evident to you from my method of composing it would be impossible for an amanuensis, however willing, to do it for me.”

Eliza Jane Nicholson at her cherrywood desk at the Daily Picayune offices on Camp Street in New Orleans. Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Eliza Jane Nicholson at her cherrywood desk at the Daily Picayune offices on Camp Street in New Orleans. Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Faced with a recommendation to alter the fundamental nature of her business, Nicholson would have proved to be unafraid to make tough decisions in support of what she believed in. After Holbrook’s death in 1876, friends and family urged her to cut her losses and move on.

“With good intentions, friends in New Orleans and in Pearlington (Miss.) urged her to go into bankruptcy, take the thousand dollars she would be allotted by law, and retire gracefully,” Tulane University journalism professor James Henry Harrison wrote in 1932, upon the occasion of the dedication of the Pearl Rivers Memorial in City Park.

“Torn by sorrow and anxiety as she was, Mrs. Holbrook did not want to do that.” Harrison wrote. “She desired to clear away the shadow of debt from her husband’s name. Moreover, she had come to like the newspaper atmosphere and the varied contacts of the business world. The thought of a return to unalloyed domesticity was not pleasing.”

Although she later spoke of her fears about the undertaking, she forged ahead with an inspiring show of confidence.

This Arents Cigarette Card from the late 1880s features Eliza Poitevent Nicholson of The Daily Picayune. This image is from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

This Arents Cigarette Card from the late 1880s features Eliza Poitevent Nicholson of The Daily Picayune. This image is from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

“The tale is often told of how Mrs. Holbrook, sitting in her husband’s place, called the whole body of Picayune employees into a conference the first day of her administration,” Harrison wrote. “With Mr. Nicholson (Picayune managing editor George Nicholson, whom she married two years later) and Don (Jose) Quintero at her side, she faced the little crowd of men and boys and told them what she meant to do. She said that any one who preferred not to work for a woman was welcome to resign with full recommendations. Several took her at her word before the rest promised to be faithful and efficient under the new regime.”

“I never felt so little, so weak, so inadequate, as in the first days when I realized the task I had before me,” Nicholson told Eliza Putnam Heaton in an interview on Oct. 8, 1887. “The decisions that I had to make, the sight of so many men looking to me for orders, the queries that came up continually on which side of this question and that the paper should declare itself, these things taught me while I taught myself how to answer them.”

The support of her staff was a great help to Nicholson as she faced the challenges of her new position. In the faces of questions about Nicholson’s leadership, Quintero, the chief editorial writer, “quickly made up his own mind as to how quarrels might be handled,” Harrison wrote. “He put his dueling pistols in order and let it be known that he would gladly meet any detractors of the Picayune or its new publisher. His offer seems to have served the newspaper well. Sneers and gibes that hinted at various things and called the Picayune an ‘old woman’ disappeared.”

Catherine Cole told the story this way in the April 1888 issue of Godey’s Lady’s  Book: “When a rival paper so far forgot the amenities of journalism as to sneer at the Picayune for having a woman editor, the personalities suddenly ceased, and she learned long afterwards that a member of her staff had made the rounds of the newspaper offices declaring that he would resent all flings at the lady who was at the head of the paper, and as he had already quite a reputation as a duelist who was a dead shot and an expert swordsman, his hints were accepted.”

So, faced with trends in the news industry that threatened the Picayune’s sustainability as a business enterprise, Nicholson would have found much to appreciate in the “digital-first” strategy. She would have relished the opportunity to communicate with readers in far-flung places, and would not have rejected the idea on the basis of social or technological conservatism.

The most important factor in her decision, however, would have been the effect on the content of her product and its service to readers and advertisers.

Nicholson was first published as a poet. Poems under her pseudonym of “Pearl Rivers” began to appear with frequency in the Daily Picayune in the summer of 1870. Two years later, she became literary editor of the Picayune and brought the works of great writers such as Mark Twain and Brett Harte to its pages.

Nicholson’s central innovation as publisher of the Daily Picayune was establishing features with particular appeal to women, who had a growing role in the New Orleans market in the wake of the Civil War.

The front page of The Daily Picayune for Sunday, Dec. 22, 1878, shows a profusion of advertising. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The front page of The Daily Picayune for Sunday, Dec. 22, 1878, shows a profusion of advertising. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

“She helped to develop the Sunday newspaper as a medium of entertainment for the entire family,” Harrison wrote. “Before the Civil War, a ‘family newspaper’ had been merely a journal which strove to be understandable to all, and fit for a whole family to read. Toward the end of the century, forward-looking editors and publishers began to conceive a new ‘family’ paper—a newspaper with features specially adapted to the interests of women and children as well as men.

“Their idea was the outgrowth to some extent of the struggle for increased circulation; it evolved gradually, as more and more newspapers entered the competition for advertising and as advertising became recognized as the all-important source of revenue.

“Previously, newspapers, although read to a considerable extent by women, had been regarded as primarily for men. Now the day was dawning when the housewife would be acclaimed perhaps the main buyer for the family. The extent of her influence was just beginning to be comprehended.”

“The Civil War had shattered the Southern antebellum ‘woman’s sphere’ of home, family, church, and second place to the male,” Lamar Whitlow Bridges wrote in 1974 in his Southern Illlinois University Ph.D. thesis on Nicholson and the Daily Picayune. “The Civil War had thrust Southern women into new public and private responsibilities.”

Nicholson was particularly concerned with the plight of women who found themselves poorly educated to handle these new challenges. Bridges wrote: “She received numerous letters, she said, from countless young girls ‘who have been gently reared, who have been given the ordinary useless education women get, and who are thrown on their own resources without one solitary qualification for earning a living.’ Such cases she labeled ‘the most helpless and the most pathetic class of people in the world.’”

By 1896, Harrison wrote, the Picayune, “with its columns and departments, its illustrated feature stories, its profuse use of popular fiction, had most of the elements one finds in a modern syndicate-served journal, in an era when many of its contemporaries contained little besides illustrations to redeem them from the stodginess of the Civil War era.”

In 1879, Nicholson introduced the first society column in a New Orleans newspaper, much to the dismay of the reticent upper classes of the city, who did not feel “their exclusive affairs and private recreations were … material to be displayed in a newspaper for everyone’s reading and everyone’s comment,” Harrison wrote.

However, Harrison continued, “Some of the Northern papers were carrying notes on New Orleans social affairs, when they could get them. This was an invasion of her field to which a live editor could not tamely submit. Moreover, it gave her the excuse of presenting such news more accurately and with greater personal insight. The opposition, she felt, would gradually melt away as people became accustomed to the innovation, and as the almost universal human pleasure in seeing one’s name in print took effect.”

Nicholson also introduced a children’s fiction section, “In Lilliput Land.” Stories in this section on Feb. 9, 1896, included “The Learned Pig’s Story,” “Lula’s Birthday Guest,” and “Davy,” the tale of a little boy inclined to naughtiness, who repented and grew to be a fine man.

Nicholson was also behind the whimsical weather frog, an illustration so popular that it wound up in advertisements, cartoons, and Carnival parades.

Nicholson took a detailed interest in the content of the Daily Picayune. “Each day’s issue was read painstakingly and sent back to the office marked with commendations and reproofs,” Heaton wrote in 1887. “She never failed to compliment what she believed to be good work, in any part of the paper.”

A letter to Nicholson from T.G. Rapier on Nov. 10, 1886, suggests her interest in illustration of the newspaper. “As you want to go into the pictorial business,” Rapier wrote, “suppose we give this concern a trial and place an order with them to send us three or four cuts regularly each week, all cuts of people who suddenly become famous, as soon as they are ready. We could also get at once, and keep for future use, the cuts of people like Queen Victoria, Emperor William etc. Just think the matter over and let me know your wishes at your convenience. Of course you will bear well in mind that the same cuts will not look near as well when printed by a fast stereotype press, on ordinary newspaper, with ordinary ink, as they do on this sample sheet.”

In the same letter, Rapier appears to discuss the selection of a freelance writer to cover “that Jackson RRd business.”

“Evans is a better solicitor than writer but writes well enough for that kind of business,” Rapier wrote. “I am not sure that he knows much about (fruit?) culture or agriculture generally, & he may possibly make some blunders. But these things we will have to risk + the good that will result from having something in about each place will be of service.”

In keeping with her branding of the Daily Picayune as a family paper, Nicholson avoided sensationalism. “Divorces, love triangles, scandals, even pregnancies could not be mentioned,” Bridges wrote. Crime news was common, but it was not displayed garishly.

Historian John Smith Kendall noted that the paper had “an extensive series of rules, reservations and prohibitions for the government of its employees,” that deviations from the norm by prominent individuals were ignored, and that crimes were reported “with regard for the feelings of persons.”

An 1892 Picayune editorial referred to prostitution as a “social evil … that cannot be fully discussed in a newspaper made for reading in pure homes.”

Although the extent of Nicholson’s avoidance of sensationalism is archaic now, the point stands that she was willing to lose some readership in the interests of providing the product best-suited to the needs of her readers and advertisers.

The health of the New Orleans economy was a central concern for Nicholson. She celebrated the success of Capt. James B. Eads in enlarging the shipping channel of the Mississippi River so larger ships could enter, and unsuccessfully promoted a five-mill tax for construction of a railroad line to the west. When voters rejected the tax in a special referendum, she promoted a private subscription drive for the project.

In coverage of yellow fever outbreaks, Bridges wrote, “the Nicholsons’ publication was quick to denounce any Northern newspaper which it felt had exaggerated the severity or the extent of the spread of yellow fever.

“What the newspaper feared, of course, was the slowdown in commercial activity that quarantines and ‘scare’ stories produced,” Bridges wrote. “As for the citizenry, the newspaper itself admitted that the people had a rather passive attitude about the fever, which many residents considered inevitable and a yearly visitor. Protection of domestic trade, after a while, took precedence, and the Daily Picayune often seemed more concerned with economic self-interest than with human lives.”

In the end, it is likely that Nicholson’s decision on the “digital-first” strategy would have been guided by the wishes of her advertisers.

Advertisers have not flocked to the “digital-first” approach, according to David Carr, media reporter for The New York Times. “The industry tried chasing clicks for a while to win back fleeing advertisers, decided it was a fool’s errand and is now turning to customers for revenue,” Carr wrote in May. “But in order to charge people for news, you have to prosecute journalism.”

Nicholson probably would have pursued digital strategies for the Picayune that would provide the product best-suited to the needs of her readers and advertisers. She would create Internet products that are straightforward and easy to navigate; promote understanding of complicated topics such as school reform, crime reduction, and flood protection; and cover emotionally difficult topics in a way that nurtures the intimate, trusting relationship between the medium and its readers.

Based on her track record, she would have been successful. The newspaper that was $80,000 in the hole when she inherited it was worth a reported $147,000 upon her death of influenza on Feb. 15, 1896.

‘Alternative Imprints’ for the ‘Bohemian fugitives’ of the French Quarter in the 1960s

Around here, everyone has something on the side.

The drug counselor is a photographer, and the taxi driver is a bluesman. The newspaper editor is an actor, and the actor owns a bar. The history teacher, the webmistress and the grant-writer all created Carnival krewes, The nurse is a burlesque dancer.

It Catches My Heart in Its Hands: New and Selected Poems 1955–1963; by Charles Bukowski; New Orleans: Loujon Press, 1963; proof copy; The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of Edwin J. Blair, 2011.0326. Photograph courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

It Catches My Heart in Its Hands: New and Selected Poems 1955–1963; by Charles Bukowski; New Orleans: Loujon Press, 1963; proof copy; The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of Edwin J. Blair, 2011.0326. Photograph courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Such is the participatory nature of life in New Orleans, where creativity does not require financial viability to gain a foothold.

A particularly rich time in the city’s creative life is evoked in “Alternative Imprints,” an exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection Williams Research Center celebrating the work of the Loujon Press.

The Loujon Press was the work of Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb. In the 1960s, thousands would have recognized Gypsy Lou Webb as a painter hawking her work at Pirate’s Alley. She also was known as the woman collecting admission fees at the entrance to Preservation Hall, according to Edwin J. Blair, who befriended the Webbs in the 1960s and came to assemble a rich collection of Loujon Press memorabilia.

“She knew all the musicians,” Blair said, and had an enduring ambition to write songs that millions would hear. When Jon Webb died in June 1971, the couple was living in Nashville, where Gypsy Lou had hoped to move up in music publishing. In the end, however, her only composition to be recorded was “Long Distance Blues,” performed by Punch Miller.

The publishing that the Webbs are remembered for, however, is the literary production of the Loujon Press.

Loujon’s first product was a literary magazine, The Outsider, with the title reflecting the Webb’s self-anointed status as “Bohemian fugitives.”

The Outsider was produced with a hand-operated printing press at the Webbs’ apartment at 1109 Royal St.; the HNOC exhibit includes a photograph of them at work there in 1965. Although only four issues of The Outsider were published, the magazine was critically respected and featured written works by Gregory Corso and William Burroughs.

Tenants Anyone? [Gypsy Lou Webb and Noel Rockmore]; photograph by Johnny Donnels; ca. 1980; The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of Joan T. Donnels, 2010.0068.1.2. Photograph courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Tenants Anyone? [Gypsy Lou Webb and Noel Rockmore]; photograph by Johnny Donnels; ca. 1980; The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of Joan T. Donnels, 2010.0068.1.2. Photograph courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

The art of bookmaking is expressed in several limited editions of works by Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller that Loujon published between 1963 and 1966. Each of the books was a unique labor of love, typeset by Gypsy Lou, printed by Jon, and assembled by both.

Henry Miller’s “Insomnia, or the Devil at Large” is encased in a handmade wooden box, in which the book itself is nestled under a dozen of the author’s watercolors. Loujon books are known for their use of deckle-edged papers in many colors.

Loujon’s second Bukowski book “Crucifix in a Deathhand,” featured illustrations by New Orleans-based artist Noel Rockmore. A focal point of the HNOC exhibit is Rockmore’s “Homage to the French Quarter,” which features a crowd of 65 faces, including those of the Webbs.

“Homage to the French Quarter” is owned by JoAnne Clevenger, owner of the Upperline Restaurant. Clevenger recently regaled visitors to the HNOC by identifying dozens of those in the painting. “… Ziggy, we were never sure what he did, but we think he was a bookie. … This man used to ride a bicycle around the Quarter all the time singing opera. …”

Bar Fight; oil on canvas by Noel Rockmore; 1974; courtesy of the Myles and Anne Robichaux Collection, LI-000163.1. Photograph courtesy of the Myles and Anne Robichaux Collection.

Bar Fight; oil on canvas by Noel Rockmore; 1974; courtesy of the Myles and Anne Robichaux Collection, LI-000163.1. Photograph courtesy of the Myles and Anne Robichaux Collection.

Clevenger and Blair are among those who will speak Saturday, Sept. 7, during a presentation on “Alternative Imprints” at the Williams Research Center of The Historic New Orleans Collection. Also speaking will be Neeli Cherkovski, a poet and Charles Bukowski scholar who will mark the 50th annivrsary of “It Catches My Heart in Its Hands” with a reading.

The presentation Saturday will run from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at 410 Chartres St. Reservations are encouraged, as seating is limited.

“Alternative Imprints” will remain on display at the Williams Research Center through Saturday, Nov. 16. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and admission is free.

To learn  more:

Streaming video of “Til the Butcher Cuts Him Down,” a 1971 documentary on Punch Miller by Philip Spalding.

NOLA Defender report on “Alternative Imprints.”

Doug MacCash report on “Alternative Imprints” on NOLA.com.

Mark Lorando of NOLA.com interviews Gypsy Lou Webb in 2008.

‘The Art of Music’ at NOCCA

Music is an integral part of the New Orleans experience. In older parts of the city, jazz is the right soundtrack to accompany the sight of ironwork and the soulful aroma of gumbo. In newer parts of the city, bounce is the right sound for getting down with life-affirming booties and grilled hot sausage. In more suburban areas, R&B is the right sound for an afternoon by the lake with a take-out shrimp po-boy, dressed.

The confluence of music and other arts was highlighted Thursday during “The Art of Music,” a special program presented by the Faubourg Quartet at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

The Faubourg Quartet with Michel Varisco's "Currents" at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013.

The Faubourg Quartet with Michel Varisco’s “Currents” at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013.

The idea of looking at multiple arts as one is far from new. In the 1800s, the concept of “correspondences” emerged, referring to the relationships among the senses and between the senses and the arts. “Harmony, value, theme, motif” are “employed equally by musicians and painters,” the critic Camille Mauclair wrote in 1902.

The NOCCA program opened with a performance of the first movement of Claude Debussy’s sole string quartet, “Anime et tres decide,” which premiered in 1893 and reflects the Impressionistic outlook of the time with tonal shifts in place of rigid structure.

The quartet fast-forwarded about a century to its next piece, String Quartet No. 4 (Buczak) by Philip Glass, which had its premiere in 1989. “Currents,” a video by Michel Varisco, played as a backdrop to the musicians, with watery images reflecting the floating, interweaving passages of the music.

Next up was “Hellbound Highball,” the fifth movement of “At the Octoroon Balls” by Wynton Marsalis. The music evokes the forward motion of a train, and the energy was reflected in an Alphonse Smith video depicting the creation of the painting “Motive” by Ayo Scott.

Dance and drawing were incorporated into the performance of “Lento doloroso, sempre cantabile (‘to my father’),” the second movement of Four Pieces for Violoncello by Tania Leon. In front of Ron Bechet’s large charcoal drawing “For my Fathers,” six dancers floated and bowed with the sounds of Jee Yeoun Ko’s cello, joined by Luther Grey’s drumming.

Finally, pianist Ellis Marsalis was joined by Ko for a rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” dedicated to his friend John T. Scott, an artist best known for his large woodcut prints and for his African-Caribbean-New Orleans-inspired kinetic sculptures.

After the performance, Ko coaxed Marsalis back on the stage to share some remembrances of Scott. He told of a time when the two gave a presentation on improvisation for teachers from the New Orleans Recreation Department. Scott illustrated how cabinets full of materials are not required to create art, bending a wire coat hanger into the shape of a horse as he talked to the teachers.

Similarly, Marsalis handed each of the teachers a stick of scrap wood and told each to strike a beat in turn, keeping a steady rhythm. Then, with the same rhythm in mind, he invited each one to skip a beat at will. Soon enough, musical patterns emerged, with teachers able to anticipate what those before them would do. With only the most basic materials, he taught them to make artistic use of space, of silence, of the space between beats.

A NOCCA alumni exhibit will open Sept. 12 at the Kirschman Art Space at the school, 2800 Chartres St.

Hurricane Katrina plus eight: Glimpsing the new normal

Eight is an odd number for an anniversary, neither a few years nor a lot. We glimpse the new normal, but the changes are incomplete. 

 The pace of change is different for different people. Do any evacuees still consider their sojourns in Houston or Atlanta to be temporary? Answers to such questions will not appear in governmental statistics on the rate of recovery.

 Image

I observed Hurricane Katrina through the windows of The Times-Picayune offices on Howard Avenue, and evacuated to Baton Rouge in the back of a newspaper delivery truck, with the waters of Lake Pontchartrain splashing between the wooden floor boards on which I sat cross-legged. 

 When the Katrina diaspora was in full swing, the Internet was the best way for The Times-Picayune to deliver news to its readers. I got on board with that trend, but was washed to sea just the same last year, when the newspaper adopted a digital-first strategy and cut publication from seven days a week to three.

 As the newspaper crafts its new image, it has cast its net nationwide for employees with fresh, new voices, in sync with the image of a New New Orleans that is progressive and open to change, rather than tradition-bound. And yet recent promotions for NOLA.com/Times-Picayune have a nostalgic theme. We glimpse the new normal, but the changes are incomplete.

 When I was 16, my parents died, and it seemed that everything started over. It was, and is, hard to remember life before those funerals.

 When I was 45, Hurricane Katrina hit, and it seemed that everything started over. It was, and is, hard to remember life before that first, unauthorized, trip back into the city, when I was greeted by the cries of my severely dehydrated cat, Magic (who went on to live until January 2013), and found myself directing my 16-year-old son to kick in our swollen front door. (The photo above shows my home on Oct. 20, 2005.)

 The bookshelves had tumbled, and in the stinking pulp was a book by Alexandra Stoddard, “Living a Beautiful Life: 500 Ways to Add Elegance, Order, Beauty and Joy to Every Day of Your Life.” Who was I when I read that book? 

Making a fresh start is harder at 45 than at 16. When you are 16, you are supposed to be just starting out, with the mistakes of youth dismissed as kid stuff. Starting over at 45 demands assessing your shortcomings as well as your potential. I have more assets, but also more responsibilities. I glimpse the new normal, but the changes are incomplete. 

 August 29, 2013

Currents of meaning in Mardi Gras masking

Somehow, my first Mardi Gras costume survived its drenching from the floodwaters of the federal levee failure of 2005.

Cathy Hughes communicated her experience of Mardi Gras in 2001 through her Mardi Gras Virgin costume.

Cathy Hughes communicated her experience of Mardi Gras in 2001 through her Mardi Gras Virgin costume.

Mardi Gras 2001 was my first, so I wore a white veil, attached to a velvety headband, and took to the St. Charles Avenue parade route as a Mardi Gras Virgin. The costume expressed not only my experience of Mardi Gras that year, but also the journalistic nature of my creativity, which focuses on expression of my experience of reality rather than invention of new realities.

It’s just who I am. I’m not an alien or a mermaid, and neither am I a person who spends much time imagining the lives of aliens or mermaids.

The role of masking and identity was at the heart of an ArtSpeak discussion Tuesday night at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, associated with the exhibit “Brilliant Disguise: Masks and Other Transformations,” which will run through June 16, 2013.

Proud of the Pulitzer Prize she shared with the rest of The Times-Picayune staff in 2006, Cathy Hughes dressed as The Times-Picayune tower while marching with the Krewe of Red Beans and Rice in 2011.

Proud of the Pulitzer Prize she shared with the rest of The Times-Picayune staff in 2006, Cathy Hughes dressed as The Times-Picayune tower while marching with the Krewe of Red Beans and Rice in 2011.

Wayne Phillips, curator of costumes and textiles and curator of Carnival collections at the Louisiana State Museum, focused on the European masking traditions behind the display we see in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, the day set aside for Christians to cut loose before the penitential season of Lent.

“We all have masks in our closets, we all have costumes in our closet, but sometimes we don’t understand the meaning behind it,” Phillips said.

Adventuresome spring fertility and purification rites from ancient Greece and Rome were “cleaned up” and Christianized by the 5th or 6th century, Phillips said, but naughty associations lingered. “If you are trying to get away with mischief on this last day before you have to give it up, you might want to conceal your identity,” he said.

Masks can be not only a shield against the social consequences of intoxication, sexual display, and disrespectful mockery of authority, “but you can also think of masking as a revelation of your personality,” Phillips said, quoting Oscar Wilde, who wrote in his book “Intentions,” “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

“Masking is a disguise, but masking also is freedom,” Phillips said.

For the inaugural march of the Dames de Perlage in 2013, Cathy Hughes created an image of the tarot card The Fool, symbolizing her moving forward into an uncertain future with an open mind and an open heart.

For the inaugural march of the Dames de Perlage in 2013, Cathy Hughes created an image of the tarot card The Fool, symbolizing her moving forward into an uncertain future with an open mind and an open heart.

A contrasting approach to masking was described by William Fagaly, curator of African art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. In Africa, Fagaly said, masks “are all utilitarian. They all have a function in one way or another.”

One of the primary functions of masking in Africa is initiation, Fagaly said. Masks can play several roles in these rituals symbolizing the transition from childhood to adulthood. Elders may wear a mask while demonstrating a certain principle of the society, he said, or initiates may receive a mask as a symbol of their accomplishment.

Masks are also used in African funerals, sometimes called “cry-dies,” and as symbols of power and authority, Fagaly said. Since African art is utilitarian, displaying pieces on a pedestal in a gallery  is “an artificial way of showing or demonstrating African art,” he said. “It doesn’t do justice to the aesthetics of the African sensibility.”

For me, Mardi Gras masking is a pleasurable challenge. As I have experimented with more techniques, and studied more brilliant examples of the art form, I have been increasingly satisfied with my efforts, which I now see as a costume diary of what was happening in my life each Mardi Gras.

Cathy Hughes was with the tinsel-wigged Krewe of Brid in 2011 when it marched on Harrison Avenue in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans as the Pothole Patrol, while recovery from Hurricane Katrina was still under way.

Cathy Hughes was with the tinsel-wigged Krewe of Brid in 2011 when it marched on Harrison Avenue in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans as the Pothole Patrol, while recovery from Hurricane Katrina was still under way.

In 2011, I was The Times-Picayune tower as I marched with the Krewe of Red Beans and Rice. This year, I marched with the Dames de Perlage wearing a beaded image of the tarot card The Fool; I was embarking on an uncertain future with an open mind and an open heart after being laid off when the newspaper restructured in 2012.

As for next year? I’m keeping the details under my tiara for now, but Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox caught the spirit of the thing when they sang, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves, standin’ on their own two feet and ringin’ on their own bells.”

See you on the avenue!

Further reading:

Web page for “Brilliant Disguise: Masks and Other Transformations” at the Contemporary Arts Center

Louisiana State Museum Mardi Gras exhibit

Sharon Litwin blog post on “Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art,” edited by William Fagaly

Images by Caroline Thomas of a “cry die” wake in the small town of Tombel in Cameroon

Images by Hartmut Assmann of a “cry die” wake in Baleng, Cameroon.

A closer look at Congo Square’s role in New Orleans history

New Orleans music fans have heard time and again about how, in the 1800s, the African rhythms of the slaves who gathered in Congo Square on Sunday afternoons combined with the European instrumentation of military marching bands to, eventually, create jazz.

Freddi Williams Evans signs copies of "Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans" at Xavier University on March 11, 2013.

Freddi Williams Evans signs copies of “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans” at Xavier University on March 11, 2013.

At Xavier University on Monday, the narrative went far deeper, discussing specific songs whose sounds linger in present-day second-line parades, highlighting the diverse contributions of various cohorts within the African influx, examining the evolution of traditional sounds in a modern context, and appreciating the dance moves that invite everyone to be part of the experience.

Dr. Michael White, a Xavier professor of Spanish and African-American music, was the host of “Congo Square: The African Roots of New Orleans Music.”

Freddi Williams Evans, director of education at the Contemporary Arts Center, presented some of the extensive research that went into her 2011 book, “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans.” She taught the audience to clap the rhythm of “Quan’ Patate La Cuite,” a Creole folk song with roots in Haiti, and then percussionist Luther Gray joined in to highlight the connections between that rhythm and the second-line beat.

Luther Gray and Bamboula 2000 performed modern interpretations of the traditional sounds, including “Bamboula Love Call” and a song based on the funga (or fanga) rhythm that segued seamlessly into “Lil Liza Jane.”

Djembe, World percussion instrument, Fanga rhythm performance by Rik Hambra from ricardo hambra on Vimeo.

Finally, Seguenon Kone and his troupe presented a storytelling performance of dance and music, relating the initiation of a simple hunter into the rhythms and traditions of the jegele, a type of balafon, or xylophone, played by the Senufo people of Mali and the Ivory Coast, where Kone is from.

Aboubacar "Amo" Soumah performs with Seguenon Kone at Xavier University on March 11, 2013.

Aboubacar “Amo” Soumah performs with Seguenon Kone at Xavier University on March 11, 2013.

I left the presentation excited about the beautiful things I have yet to learn about the rich history of New Orleans and her music.

Helen Gillet and James Singleton create music amid the ruins

The last service at Holy Trinity Catholic Church was held on March 22, 1997, eight years before Hurricane Katrina. Its neighborhood did not flood in 2005, but the interior nonetheless evokes memories of the storm.

Marigny Opera House interior. Photo courtesy of Dave Hurlbert, executive director of the Marigny Opera House.

Marigny Opera House interior. Photo courtesy of Dave Hurlbert, executive director of the Marigny Opera House.

Gutted of its altars, statues and pews, its colorful floor tiles are scuffed and dimmed by a film of dust. Ghostly water marks and smaller stormclouds of black mold mar the walls, and laths are exposed by fallen plaster. A vine creeps into the 1853 building through a 10-foot arched window.

Helen Gillet and James Singleton chose this space, now operating as the Marigny Opera House, for live recording of a cello-bass duo project that seized their imaginations before Hurricane Katrina, but had been put on hold.

The recording process is taking place in two sessions, one of which was March 5. The second will be Tuesday, March 12, at 4 p.m. Admission to the private event is by invitation only, but invitations are easy to come by. A $20 donation is suggested to support the project.

About 40 people were present for the March 5 performance, silencing their cell phones and squelching coughs as the music played. Bows brought forth moans of sorrow, and fingertips added infusions of pluck. The room’s echo was consciously incorporated into the sound. The musical passages seemed fairly brief; I wonder whether some of them will be expanded in the studio.

Gillet said that the March 12 performance would take shape based on listening to the recording obtained March 5. She said the second go-round might add electronic loops, but she was leaning against it.

Gillet and Singleton both place a premium on improvisation in their performances, and the setting will be an important element of the sound in the eventual recording, so the audience for the March 12 session can expect a rewarding experience.

The Marigny Opera House is at 725 St. Ferdinand St. in New Orleans, between Royal and Dauphine. An invitation to the March 12 performance can be obtained by contacting Helen Gillet or James Singleton on Facebook. There is also a Facebook event page for the performance.