Artist George Schmidt left New Orleans, learned his lesson and came home: ‘I love the tension’ | art

George Schmidt left New Orleans two years ago. To the city’s culturati, the news of his departure was like hearing that Lake Pontchartrain had frozen over. It was unthinkable. After all, Schmidt was a New Orleanian’s New Orleanian, a mustachioed eminence of the art and music scenes.

Schmidt is now back. Saturday night, he holds duty at his new gallery at 612 Julia St., not far from his old gallery, which was on the same block. It will be as if nothing has ever changed. Hallelujah. When it comes to losing leading artists, change is bad.

Artist George Schmidt in his gallery on Julia Street on Friday, July 29, 2022. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

In 2019, Schmidt and his life partner, avid architectural conservationist Patty Gay, left for Highlands, North Carolina, an idyllic town “to the left of the Atlantic,” he said.

Schmidt, who is 77, explained, “I went there because I was getting old.”

The food was actually good, he said, and there were mountains. Schmidt said he painted beautiful landscapes. But rather than settle in Tar Heel state for their golden years, he and Gay soon fled back home.

Just kidding, and not

‘I’ll tell you something,’ said Schmidt, ‘I’m glad I’m back. I missed the gunfire and screams in the middle of the night. I like the tension. I’m not ready to give up.”

In the picturesque mountains of North Carolina, he said, “you had bears farting in the woods and that was it.”

Schmidt said he recently saw a barefoot, presumably drunken gentleman napping in broad daylight on the sidewalk by his gallery. “I thought, ‘Isn’t that beautiful,'” he said.

He’s kidding, not kidding. Schmidt is always kidding and not kidding.


‘Writing tickets’ by George Schmidt

New Orleans in a nutshell

The first thing visitors to Schmidt’s gallery will see on Saturday evenings is a brush-like oil painting at the entrance that illustrates its visually opulent, yet dry-humorous aesthetic. The image shows a once magnificent 19th-century neoclassical house, now boarded up and crumbling. The sinister silhouettes of modern cars line the curb. A municipal meter owner issues someone a receipt.

The painting is an illustration of the honey-colored romanticism we apply to the past, overlaid with details of ordinary, contemporary life. It’s New Orleans in a nutshell, a continuous wrestling match between the necessities of the present and the stubborn history.

Schmidt said he has always been drawn to the past. Maybe because he was never really young. “You get inspiration from anticipation or regret,” he said. “My whole life is based on regret.”

“I was brought up old,” he said. “I didn’t really have any playmates.”

Schmidt grew up in the Lauralee Guest House on St. Charles Avenue, a sort of bed-and-breakfast-cum-retirement home run by his parents. When he was 8, his mother bought him a book on drawing caricatures, which was his first step towards his future as an artist.

Schmidt said he meandered between the tables in the Lauralee dining room, sketching the guests for tips. Of course he wore a beret. Naturally, he went to Mardi Gras dressed as Toulouse-Lautrec. He learned watercolor painting during his years at the Sam Barthe School for Boys in City Park. He was talented.

Pure squares and diagonals

After attending De La Salle High School, he attended Tulane University, where he studied architecture. It was a tough school and “you stayed up all night,” he said, but you also stayed out of the Vietnam War draft. He didn’t graduate.

He eventually returned to Tulane to study painting with Professor Pat Trivigno. Artistically this was important, as Trivigno taught him that under every successful painting, no matter how realistic, there had to be a rock-solid abstract foundation.

One of Schmidt’s masterpieces, a ten-foot, richly detailed depiction of the Battle of New Orleans began as a cross of tall, triangular, violet, and yellow shapes, as sharp and stark as anything by Ellsworth Kelly. His painting of a curvaceous nude dance taking place in the famous Mahogany Hall brothel in 1910 began with pure squares and diagonals.

Chick Corea unleashed genius piano and dance band at New Orleans Jazz Fest 2014

The New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra performs in the Peoples Health Economy Hall Tent during New Orleans Jazz Fest 2014, Sunday, May 4, 2014. (Photo by Ted Jackson, | The Times-Picayune)

Strummin’ on the old banjo

Steel architectural geometry underlies all of Schmidt’s visual works of art. And the steel twang of the banjo underlies his musical career. When he was 12, his mother – a traditional jazz enthusiast – insisted that he take up the instrument.

A rage for ragtime music took the country by storm in the 1970s (remember Marvin Hamlisch and “The Sting”?). Schmidt and his friends Jack Stewart, Rick Mackie and others caught up in the moment and formed a band to revive a long-forgotten, antique sub-style called Orientalism. Imagine tunes like “Lena, the Queen of Palesteena.”

“We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a revival group for music that’s not worth reviving?'” Schmidt recalls. One of The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra’s earliest appearances was at the still-unrenovated Saenger Theater, playing along to silent, antique girls’ movies. Schmidt calls the films “true light pornography.”

“Some of it was ironic,” Schmidt said of the 18-piece band that has been an eccentric staple of the New Orleans music scene ever since. “That’s the thing with art,” he said, “it’s serious and not serious at the same time.”

Schmidt said the New Leviathan rehearsed on Julia Street, and had a studio there, when the neighborhood was a flop, long before there was a Tony gallery scene. He opened his own gallery at 626 Julia in 2000. He is exuberant to be back in the mix.

Perhaps the pits have deepened?

Recently, two young French women stopped by the gallery and hung out to talk about art. “They were delicious,” said Schmidt. “It makes life worth living.”

Part of the problem with North Carolina, he said, was being “lonely” for people to chat with. “I like to talk,” he said modestly.

Not only that, it wasn’t a good place to sell art either. “Sales are in my blood,” he said, but Highlands “was a resort, not a marketplace.”

“I’ve learned my lesson,” he said of his relatively short self-imposed exile. With one blow he breaks into ‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans’.

According to Schmidt, New Orleans hasn’t changed much in his absence. “Maybe the holes got deeper,” he snorted. “Otherwise this place isn’t going anywhere.” And that’s just the way he likes it.

Art graces the walls at the George Schmidt Gallery on Julia Street on Friday, July 29, 2022. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Visit George Schmidt Gallery on Julia St. 612, Saturday from 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM during White Linen Night. Masks required.

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