George Schmidt moved away from New Orleans two years ago. To the culture of the city, 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 has now returned. On Saturday night he’ll be holding court in his new gallery at 612 Julia Street, not far from his old gallery, which was on the same block. It’ll be as if nothing ever changed. Hallelujah. When it comes to losing leading artists, change is bad.
In 2019, Schmidt and his life partner, ardent architectural preservationist Patty Gay, decamped to Highlands, North Carolina, an idyllic small town near the Georgia border, “to the left of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.
Schmidt, who is 77, explained that “I went there because I was getting old.”
The food was good, actually, he said, and there were mountains. Schmidt said he painted some nice landscapes. But instead of settling in the Tar Heel State for their golden years, he and Gay soon fled back home.
Kidding, and not
“I’ll tell you what,” Schmidt said, “I’m glad to be back. I missed the gunfire and the shrieking in the middle of the night. I love 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’s it.”
Schmidt said he recently saw a barefoot, presumably inebriated gentleman snoozing on the pavement near his gallery in broad daylight. “I thought, ‘Isn’t that lovely,'” he said.
He’s kidding, and not kidding. Schmidt’s always kidding and not kidding.
New Orleans in a nutshell
The first thing visitors to Schmidt’s gallery on Saturday night will see will be a brushy oil painting near the entrance that exemplifies his visually lush, yet dryly humorous aesthetic. The image includes a once-splendid, 19th-century neoclassical house, now boarded up and crumbling. The sinister silhouettes of modern cars line the curb. A municipal meter maid writes someone a ticket.
The painting is an illustration of the honey-toned 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 stubborn history.
Schmidt said he’s always been drawn to the past. Maybe because he’s never really been young. “You get inspiration from anticipation or regret,” he said. “My whole life has been based on regret.”
“I was raised old,” he said. “I didn’t really have playmates.”
Schmidt grew up in the Lauralee Guest House on St. Charles Avenue, a sort of bed-and-breakfast cum old-folks home, run by his parents. When he was 8, his mother bought him a book on drawing caricatures, which was his first stepping stone to his future as an artist.
Schmidt said he used to saunter among the tables in the Lauralee dining room, sketching the guests for tips. Naturally he wore a beret. Naturally he went to Mardi Gras dressed as Toulouse-Lautrec. He learned to paint watercolors during his years at the Sam Barthe School for Boys in City Park. He had talent.
Pure squares and diagonals
After attending De La Salle High School, he headed to Tulane University, where he set out to study architecture. It was a tough school and “you stayed up all night,” he said, but you also stayed out of the Vietnam War-era draft. He didn’t graduate.
He eventually returned to Tulane to study painting with professor Pat Trivigno. Artistically speaking, this was important, because Trivigno taught him that beneath any successful painting, regardless of how realistic, there needed to be a rock solid abstract foundation.
One of Schmidt’s masterpieces, a 10-foot-long, lavishly detailed depiction of the Battle of New Orleans, began as an intersection of long, triangular, violet and yellow shapes, as sharp and stark as anything by Ellsworth Kelly. His painting of a curvaceous naked dance taking place in the famous Mahogany Hall brothel in 1910 began with pure squares and diagonals.
Strummin’ on the old banjo
Steely architectural geometry underlies all of Schmidt’s visual art works. And the steely twang of the banjo underlies his musical career. When he was 12, his mother — a traditional jazz aficionado — insisted he take up the instrument.
A fad for ragtime music seized the country in the 1970s (remember Marvin Hamlisch and “The Sting”?). Swept up in the moment, Schmidt and buddies Jack Stewart, Rick Mackie and others formed a band to revive a long-forgotten, antique sub-style called Orientalism. Imagine ditties such as “Lena, the Queen of Palesteena.”
“We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have a revival group for music that isn’t worth reviving?'” Schmidt recalled. One of The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra’s earliest gigs was at the not-yet-renovated Saenger Theater , playing along with silent, antique girlie movies. Schmidt calls the films “real light pornography.”
“Part of it was tongue in cheek,” 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 about art,” he said, “it’s serious and not serious at the same time.”
Schmidt said the New Leviathan used to rehearse on Julia Street, and he had a studio there, back when the neighborhood was a skid row, way before there was a tony gallery scene. He opened his own gallery at 626 Julia in 2000. He’s ebullient to be back in the mix.
Maybe the potholes got deeper
The other day, two young French women dropped by the gallery and hung around to talk about art. “They were delightful,” Schmidt said. “It makes life worthwhile.”
Part of the problem with North Carolina, he said, was that he was “lonely” for people to chat with. “I enjoy talking,” he understated.
Not only that, it wasn’t a good place to sell art. “Sales are in my blood,” he said, but Highlands “was a resort, not a marketplace.”
“I learned my lesson,” he said of his relatively brief self-imposed exile. At the drop of a hat, he’ll break into “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans.”
In Schmidt’s view, New Orleans hasn’t changed much in his absence. “Maybe the potholes got deeper,” he snorted. “Otherwise, this place ain’t going no place.” And that’s just the way he likes it.
Visit George Schmidt gallery at 612 Julia Street, from 5 to 10 pm during White Linen Night, Saturday, Aug. 6. Masks required.
CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly located Highlands, North Carolina, near the Georgia border.
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