Life Imitates Art:
The Greater N.O. Artists Mansion is a reality-TV show waiting to happen
By Doug MacCash, Art writer
I was watching Duff Goldman, the bald hipster on the Food Network's "Ace of Cakes," sculpt a birthday cake in the shape of a Scottish cow. To get in the Scottish cow spirit, he had dressed up in a kilt and hired a bagpipe player. To most viewers the scene probably seemed dizzily artistic. But to me it lacked a certain spark.
The problem was the profit motive. Cable-viewing couch potatoes -- and I proudly place myself among them -- can accept unbridled egotism, attention-getting fashions and eccentric behavior on the part of Goldman and the TV near-artists of "Miami Ink" and "American Chopper" because they are, in the end, just honest working folk with funny facial hair. Their bottom-line focus comforts us.
Real artists exist outside of that comfort zone. Most artists are wading in red ink, working odd jobs, and hoping for the big break that will plop them profitably on the cover of Art in America -- a prospect they know to be as astronomically improbable as landing a spot on an NBA roster.
Truth is, artists aren't like you and me. They're not in it for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They're like those Buddhist monks I saw on the Travel Channel begging in the streets because spirituality is a cosmic calling.
I say the television audience has been primed with enough near-artists like Duff Goldman. It's ready for a reality series featuring true artists, the kind who wouldn't know a spreadsheet if they were wiping their brushes on one.
The cast and location are ready and waiting. The Greater New Orleans Artists Mansion, a broken-down Esplanade Avenue antebellum house decorated with homemade banners and jack-o-lantern-like ceramic heads, is home to a changing cast of young artists, surviving against all odds in the broken city.
Georgia-born Jay Chaffin, 33, is a conceptualist, folk guitar builder, bartender and aspiring chef.
New York-born Greg Giegucz, 35, is a ceramic teacher and accomplished printmaker, who sometimes sells his work on Jackson Square and finds continued inspiration in Bruegel's "Triumph of Death."
When she's not applying faux finishes for clients, Chicago-born pop artist Kelly Mueller, 34, meticulously paints pastel ballroom dancers, thereby expressing her awareness of the "social conventions and etiquette" that guide our lives.
Fellow Chicagoan Reverend Mu, 35, does not seem to be governed by such conventions. Spanish-speaking Mu is a construction crew translator/costume-maker, who once climbed uninvited onto a Zulu float dressed as a rat. There's a photo to prove it in the front room, beside the big chicken-wire cage with rat costume inside.
These are real artists, whose motivations are much harder to get a handle on than any gaggle of high-end cake decorators.
Each artist has a tiny bedroom/studio, most with a hand-built loft just high enough for a mattress. They believe the house was once a brothel and that the long-ago owners raised chickens in the backyard. Their own chicken-raising experiment ended when neighborhood teenagers stole the birds. "Friday," the house dog, whose hair is still shaved into tiger stripes months after Mardi Gras, is just too old to chase chicken thieves.
Some suspect the house is haunted, of course, though Giegucz points out that the creepy sounds at night might be echoes from one studio to the next. Ironically, Mu built a barrier to keep the rats out of his room at night. Mueller replaced the bathroom door handle with a mannequin hand, to enhance the ambient absurdity.
During a recent group discussion in Mueller's cramped quarters, the artists agreed that a bond of friendship had grown among the residents. When Chaffin suggested the reason for their fellowship was their common goal, everyone nodded in agreement. But after a short pause, the Reverend Mu facetiously asked: "What is our goal?"
That's what I'm talking about. In my romantic worldview, there's a transcendently artistic tone at the mansion that television hasn't tapped. Like those Travel Channel monks, these people are living the pure life, pretty close to art nirvana. Some enterprising reality-TV producer ought to point a video camera in their direction.
Until then, you'll have to settle for a Times-Picayune video of the Greater New Orleans Artists Mansion by Danny Bourque. Check it out at www.nola.com/photos.
Art critic Doug MacCash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3481.