Monday, November 9, 2009


One of the joys of coming home to Teche country is that of returning to an artist’s paradise. Years ago, I wrote that New Iberia bred more artists and writers per square foot than any place in the U.S. Perhaps it’s the lush scenery that provides an artistic backdrop, or perhaps it’s the diverse blend of people from European backgrounds that inspires the proliferation of art, but whatever inspires it, I’m a fan of all the artists in the region and try to visit the New Iberia Artwalk when I spend the winter here.

Friday evening, I attended the Artwalk that featured art work in metal, wood, paintings, pottery, jewelry, and furniture, starting with A&E Gallery on W. St. Peter Street, which features the work of 20 New Iberia artists. I was blown away by the latest work of my favorite New Iberia artist, Paul Schexnayder. Paul has done covers for several of my Young Adult books, and I love his whimsical studies that are rendered in bright blue, red, green, and yellow acrylics. His latest paintings of New Iberia scenes are as busy and colorful as his past work, and when I look at them, I feel as though I am participating in a festival or some kind of celebration of Cajun life. It’s hard for me to believe that Paul is color blind, but he is. I once wrote that his folk art is definitely “color bold.” His paintings tell stories that make connections between the people and landscape of south Louisiana.

People who leave Paul’s exhibits usually come away with either a painting or a feeling that they express as “uplifted” or “joyful.” His work is very electric and portrays Paul’s sense of fun. He says that his art was inspired by Matisse, Gaugin, and Rousseau, but the subjects come directly out of his love of Louisiana, the people and the place. Paul claims that he’s attracted to sunlight and is very visual -- after three days of gray winter he’s looking for light somewhere. He was also attracted to New Iberia, which is his home, after he attended LSU and traveled for a few years. He calls New Iberia his “blank canvas on which he was meant to paint.”

Paul attended LSU and graduated with a B.F.A., and he relates that his work began in Graphic Design but after preparing and presenting a portfolio to his professors, he was told he should be taking the Art curriculum. After he entered Art, he was told he should be in Graphic Design, so he explains his style as somewhere between those two. After graduation, Paul began painting contemporary Louisiana folk art while living in Boston. Once he began working in this genre, he knew he had to return to New Iberia and paint the scenes and people of his roots. In Boston, he also taught art to dyslexic children enrolled in the Landmark School.

During the 80’s, Paul spent two summers in Guatemala where he found inspiration in the simple lifestyle of the natives. During his stay there, he became inured to the vivid colors everywhere, and he credits this country of color with contributing to the joie de vivre reflected in his folk art. He now turns out a canvas daily and likes the feeling of having done stories that illustrate old aphorisms such as ‘When the sun is shining and it’s raining, the devil is beating his wife’ or ‘thunder means that the angels are bowling’, or ‘three birds on a wire means a thunderstorm is coming.’

His subjects range from a band of angels flying over the Bayou Teche keeping watch over the bayou city that inspired him to return home, to a life of Christ narrative he wrote and illustrated for his wife, Lee. He makes handmade wooden and metal crosses, having been inspired by Spanish crosses he collected while honeymooning in Santa Fe. On each cross, he includes a house painted on its surface. Many of his paintings are on pieces of wood and slate. I have always liked the panel of “Away With Their Whole Lives Before Them,” a painting on wood, 34 x 48, featuring a yellow-haired woman (his wife Lee) and a reddish-haired man (Paul). The woman is dressed in a lavender gown, and her arm encircles the black-cloaked man if she means to clasp him forever. The couple is guarded by a pair of white doves in a tree, and viewers know that it depicts Paul and Lee beginning their married lives. Sometimes Paul paints fish outlined in red to portray the catch of south Louisiana waters: redfish. The panel is supported by a row of piano keys painted beneath a red piano cover bearing hand prints.

Paul has exhibited his work all over the world, including Paris. Stateside, he has had exhibits in New Orleans, Houston, Texas, Massachusetts, and in other galleries and museums. Paul once told me that he gets excited thinking about the fact that when people buy his art, it’s going to become part of their family history and will be there for generations to enjoy. I have bought many of his prints and given them to relatives and friends for gifts, but I possess only one depiction of an old house on a small piece of slate that hangs in my Sewanee house. However, I’ll always have the covers he painted for my Young Adult books, and “Hay la bas,” I pass a good time looking at them!
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