It's very early on a foggy, chilly February Saturday morning on Jackson Square, according to the resonating church-bell chimes of the venerable St. Louis Cathedral that has overlooked the square for over two centuries.
Down Pirate's Alley, which runs along one side of the cathedral, one lonely cart is being pushed in the darkness past a few snoring drunks on wrought-iron benches, sleeping off an alcohol-infused Friday night in the French Quarter. The cart slowly turns the corner onto St. Peter Street and stops midway down the block, right across from the darkened 1840s-era Pontalba Apartments. A hand slowly reaches into the cart and retrieves a framed painting before hanging it on the iron fence that rings Jackson Square. He is the first of the dozens of Jackson Square fence artists, arriving before daylight to claim his spot to sell artwork for the day ahead-just as countless other artists have done since 1868. Because, according to one longtime fence artist Lee Tucker, legend has it that the historic Jackson Square Artist Colony dates back to the Civil War, when Confederate soldiers' wives and widows displayed their art on the fence to support their families.
Since those early days, countless artists have called the Jackson Square fence their "gallery," with one historical account claiming that John James Audubon was one of the artists who painted and sold his work here. Back then, most of the artists lived in close proximity to the square and spent their days painting here and selling their artwork-and, of course, they spent their nights at nearby bars and restaurants spending their hard-earned profits.
Tucker, who has painted in the square since 1971, has written accounts of some of the more remarkable changes. He said, "In 1956, the City Council passed an ordinance which required the artists to be licensed and pay city sales tax. In turn, the artists' rights to produce, display, and sell original artwork on Jackson Square was legitimized and protected."
According to another longtime artist, Kenneth Cook,
"We're the only art colony of this kind in the entire United States.
And we're in a very fragile environment here that needs continuing protection by the many governmental and civic organizations that control the Jackson Square world. That includes the City Council, the Vieux Carré Commission, the Jackson Square Task Force, and many more. Jackson Square has changed tremendously in recent years, with the arrival of the many street entertainers who now operate all around us."
As proof of what Cook said, one only needs to walk around the square today and see all the new acts that abound among the fence artists. They include the tarot card readers and the "living statues" painted in silver, gold, and bronze-from those who stand frozen and dead-quiet without moving to those who dance to music from their boom boxes. Others include magic acts, break-dancing acrobatic acts, jugglers, and musicians ranging from those playing New Orleans-inspired tunes to the newest group on the square: the "bucket-beaters." These are kids under the age of 12 using plastic paint buckets as drums and who now occupy almost every corner of the square. Unlike the fence artists, all these street entertainers pay no yearly license to perform here and are not regulated whatsoever.
Indeed, during an interview with the fence artists, a badged representative from the New Orleans Tax and Licensing Bureau came by, checking to see if all the fence artists had their required licenses and tax paperwork. He literally stepped over a golden "living statue" lying on the sidewalk with gold-painted beer cans around him who needs no such license. It's a delicate balancing act among the fence artists, the tarot card readers, and the entertainers, who coexist together in this vibrant slice of life in the French Quarter.
Many of the artists commented that as they sit and paint, people are fascinated to watch them because, for many of them, especially children, it's the very first time they've actually seen a "real artist" at work. So, it has become both a cultural and educational experience.
"It's just another reason that makes New Orleans unique by providing an experience they wouldn't normally find back home," one artist said. "And then, of course, the icing on the cake is when they purchase a piece of artwork to take home with them to remind them of their visit here."
Of course, one aspect that is unique to these artists is working in the outdoors with all the various weather elements typical to New Orleans that can change at a moment's notice-whether it's the constant searing heat and humidity of the long summer months, the brief but bone-chilling winter cold snaps, or the inevitable rainstorms that pop up year-round with accompanying winds that can both soak and send their artwork flying in all directions. Another natural occurrence that the artists all have to keep heads up about is one that also comes from above: bird poop from the many aviary visitors resting in the trees above them.
But the one universal joy that all the fence artists voiced was the interaction between them and people from all around the world who visit New Orleans and, most certainly, Jackson Square. According to Cook, "People are in such a good mood when they walk around the square surrounded by all the amazing history, architecture, and bohemian atmosphere, unlike any other place in the world. And they all love to talk to us about what it's like to live-and paint-here in such a festive environment. We become living representatives of New Orleans who tell our city's story better than any tour guide can because we live it every day."
Everyone, both locals and visitors, appreciates the marvelous architectural treasures that surround Jackson Square, such as the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, the Presbytère, and the Pontalba Apartments. But another treasure that surrounds Jackson Square that should never be forgotten is the indomitable and determined fence artists who have added such color, life, and vitality to this world-famous, tiny historic plot of land for 150 years and counting.