"See out here? This was all winos -- dead and dying alcoholics," says George Schmidt, animatedly gesturing at the now-genteel block of Julia Street where his studio/gallery is located. "Right down there, where Kinko's is now, was one of the most notorious wino bars in town. I once saw a guy kicked nearly to death outside of there. That was back in 1976."
Schmidt, 58, is reminiscing, describing how Julia Street was in the days when he was the first artist to have a studio there. Now, it is filled with art galleries and condos instead of wino bars and flophouses. Times have changed, but Schmidt has not, at least not much; he still lives and works right next door to the building where his original studio was located in the 1970s. Since then he has become known for "history paintings," in general, and for works based on the history of New Orleans and its culture, such as his History of Jazz murals at the Intercontinental Hotel, in particular.
When the New Orleans Arts District Association launched White Linen Night during the steamy August of 1991 as a way of bringing crowds back to the galleries in the dog days of summer, little did they know they were treading on Schmidt's turf. Never one to curry favor with the contemporary art world, he had always stood apart, but now White Linen Night had come to him. For Schmidt, it couldn't have been more ironic, for he is a self-styled "reactionary" who spent most of his life celebrating the white linen-suited past and rebelling against things modern -- especially contemporary art. For him, white linen was not an event but a lifestyle.
"I never wore one as a child," he says, "but I used to hear a lot about them when I was growing up." It seems his father, Henry, at the tender age of 20, had found himself advising Gov. Huey P. Long on his wardrobe. "He was working at Stevens' Clothiers and that's where Long shopped because it was near the Roosevelt Hotel, where he stayed. He was a hick, so he let my father pick out his clothes for him, including his white linen suits." It was a legacy that served Schmidt well in his first major canvas. Painted while a senior at De LaSalle High School, it was a big, dramatically violent work called The Assassination of Huey Long.
"I was supposed to do a project for my political science class, but I got them to let me do a painting," Schmidt recalls. In it, it was not Long but the gunman, Dr. Carl Weiss, who wore white linen. (Weiss became the white knight of those who hated Long for his raw power and socialist leanings.)
Later, it was the white linen suits Schmidt wore as vocalist and banjoist for the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra that sealed his image. Inspired by the "oriental foxtrots" performed by the orchestra of the S.S. Leviathan passenger liner in the 1920s, the New Leviathan has remained as obscure as its namesake since its inception in 1972. Like the orchestra he co-founded, Schmidt's work appeals to a select audience of history buffs and eccentric local socialites, among others. Utterly unique, he is a phenomenon -- an obscure and eccentric phenomenon, but a phenomenon nonetheless.
Perhaps growing up on St. Charles Avenue affected his outlook. "I was fortunate to live on a parade and streetcar route -- but I also grew up in a house full of strangers at the Lauralee Guest House," he says, referring to the boarding house his mother ran. "There was a lady, a Mrs. Lee, who painted and would let me watch. Sometimes my family went to dinner in the Quarter, and there was this artist who did caricatures out on the sidewalk. Afterwards I'd go home and do caricatures of all the guests," he says, noting that it all started with a set of oil paints his mother bought for him at Woolworth's in 1950. So began one of this city's more unusual art careers.
But why reactionary? "Because I am," he responds. "It's like what Proust said: 'Men of imagination either live in the past or the future. They find their inspiration in either anticipation or regret.'"
And, indeed, his latest canvas, William Woodward Painting the French Quarter, depicts the early 20th century American impressionist and Newcomb instructor at work. "Woodward literally saved the French Quarter," he says. "People didn't really see it until he painted it. Now people appreciate it because it's still there, not because there's anything new about it."
Reactionary or no, Schmidt is dismissive of the pro-development political conservatives who run Washington these days, opining, "If it were up to real estate developers, there'd be nothing but parking lots between here and Canal Street."
Asked about his plans for the future, he sounds baffled. "Gee, I don't know, I don't really think about the future," he says, as if it were an alien concept. "I think about my next painting, maybe lunch or my next vacation.
"Beyond that, I draw a blank," he remarks, like a medieval map maker confronted with terra incognita. In many other people that might pass for a lack of imagination, but in Schmidt's case it only underscores a remarkable consistency of purpose.
- Donn Young
- "He was a hick, so he let my father pick out his clothes for him, including his white linen suits," George Schmidt says of his father's fashion connection to Gov. Huey P. Long.