It’s easy to feel intimidated when approaching Michael Meads, the architect of a body of work ranging from intimate sketches to vast, dramatic tableaux, all of which indicate the kind of mastery of craft few contemporary artists can claim. But if you take a chance and give him a ring at his studio, you will be instantly rewarded, as his warm voice and artistic curiosity make for a conversation as engaging as his drawings. It is rare and refreshing to find an artist as humbled by his subjects and the artistic process as Michael Meads. He meticulously chronicled the New Orleans underworld for decades before Katrina hit and destroyed much of his studio and countless works of original art. Though he has relocated to higher ground in New Mexico for the time being, he remains a devoted reveler and supernumerary in the mad opera of New Orleans.
Your most recent work takes on such epic proportions. How do you piece together the arc of one of these larger drawings?
I’ve always felt that these big drawings were basically the last 15 minutes of a four-hour epic, like a Wagnerian opera where I’m just trying to capture the most dramatic, intense moment. First and foremost, I always think of it in theatrical terms—my whole world, really, is about opera.
Ultimately, I would say it’s history painting: recording one’s experiences, one’s history. That’s what I’ve always done. I’ve never been conceptual. All I know how to do is simply record my world, pay attention to the things that attract me and interest me, and that’s the underdog, the outcast, the loner. Those are the people with whom my sympathies lie. I want to make the work about those people and the things they’ve gone through, the things that I’ve gone through. I don’t know how to make art otherwise.
The skeleton is a recurring character in your painting. How does it figure into the theatrical narrative?
I would say it’s my Memento mori. I’ve always had a very clear understanding of my own and other people’s mortality. Even as a kid, I did not have the illusion that life just goes on and on. Growing up in Alabama, when older family members died, you didn’t go to the funeral home. Instead the mortician would come to the home with the body. I remember the mortician coming to my grandmother’s house and placing the casket in the parlor. I was a wee lad, but I can still remember it, and it was rather grotesque… Alabama in the summer, no air-conditioning, dead body… you get the idea. And then of course, as I entered college, I suddenly heard about this weird disease that seemed to be affecting gay men in New York and San Francisco. And then I started having friends that were becoming ill and dying—it was a nightmarish period of time. So death has always been part of my vocabulary.
How would you describe the relationship between the saints and sinners who share the canvas?
To me, the sacred and the profane are really the same. One of the things I like to emphasize is that religious ceremony used to always incorporate both, until the Judeo-Christian tradition created the division between the sacred and sin. Mind-altering drugs and sex were all part of the worshipping process, as they brought about the transcendent moment where you could identify with God. Those are the closest things on earth that could give you an example of what the God-like state is about. I think so much has been lost in the human condition because those things have been removed from religion as opposed to being celebrated.
Carnival’s roots are in the pagan past as well as being a Catholic holiday. There’s a lot of dark history behind Carnival’s symbols; they carry a heavy weight, and although I’m not Catholic, I am fascinated by the rituals, or ‘the swag and the drag’ as a Brother I know likes to say. But. I’m not trying to pick on Catholics. I mean, I was raised Southern Baptist, and if you want darkness, honey, let me tell you, go up to Alabama with a Southern Baptist and you’ll see just how dark it can get.
Do you find that your artistic sensibilities fit into the existing art scene in the city, and elsewhere?
The art scene in New Orleans—when I first moved down there—was like any other art scene, with artists locked in competition with each other. I find that ridiculous. There’s plenty of pie to go around. My studio is always open. If people need help or advice, or if I have a contact that might help someone, then why the hell wouldn’t I give them that information? It was like that then, and it’s like that now. Most of what I see are people with the facility to paint or sculpt, but they have nothing to say. They work hard to make you think they do, but when you cut to the chase, there’s really nothing going on. I’ve known a lot of people who called themselves artists, and you can always hear the capital “A” for Artist. That’s why I don’t really participate much in the world of contemporary art. You always see more galleries than are needed, that constantly look for new people to show whether or not they’re worth showing. I walked into a gallery one time in Chelsea, and there were pedestals throughout the space with melting sticks of butter displayed on top of them. Not ceramic castings, or sculptures, but actual sticks of butter. It’s an oversaturated scene.
Just to be clear, one of my heroes is Rothko, so I’m not saying that art has to be narrative or realistic, but it has to be well done with a brain behind it. Art-making is essential. It always will be. When it comes to being an artist, it’s not a career choice or a lifestyle. It’s about making the work, something you are compelled to do. You’re going to make the work no matter what, whether you’re getting attention or not. Folk or outsider artists are usually the most honest and actually have something to say. Those are the people whose work I find to be the most interesting. Even if they’re just in dialogue with themselves, and others may not speak the language, that’s okay. To me, the excitement is trying to decipher that visual language.
It seems like you draw a lot of inspiration from subterranean atmospheres like the Corner Pocket. Is that where you feel most at home?
Well, I’ve never really been comfortable in the mainstream of anything. Suburbia just makes my skin crawl: the plastic, the manufactured, the inauthentic. As for the Pocket, Ms. Fly (the late Lee Featherstone) the original owner, who I knew and adored, created a really wonderfully twisted atmosphere. It was just this side of legal for the most part. The clientele was terrifying and the dancers on the bar could be everything from ex-marines to runaways from Mississippi. Back then they’d dance in pretty much whatever they had underneath their clothes: boxer shorts, tighty whiteys, whatever. It wasn’t just this G-string business you have now. Even the regular dancers would come out in briefs, and the bar just had a feel to it that was naughty, but not necessarily pretty, which is what I really liked about it. It was something dark, sad, with a certain air of desperation. Many of these young guys were running away from bad situations; they had drug problems, or they were prostituting themselves. Usually I spent more time watching the crowd than I probably ever did watching the dancers. The crowd at the ballet, that was fun to draw.
But then my favorite bar in the city of course is Molly’s at the Market. I’ve spent more time there than any other bar in the city; ever since my husband and I moved to New Or
leans, it’s always been our home bar. That’s where you would find us on a Saturday afternoon sitting in the window drinking. More so there than the gay bars, unless it was an event or we were just kind of making an evening of it, going on the grand tour, so to speak.
Even so, it seems like queer culture in New Orleans is a real preoccupation in your work.
I wouldn’t say a preoccupation, more just a matter of fact. I find gay culture is becoming more and more homogenized, and I find that extremely disturbing. No matter where you go, you can be inBerlin, or you can be in San Francisco or you can be in Atlanta, and it all looks and feels the same. I think New Orleans is something of an exception. The queers in New Orleans are, well, we’re a wackier bunch. In New Orleans, by birth right you’re an outsider—so then to be the outsiders within the outsiders makes it even more challenging, and also kind of wonderful—being a fabulous freak, so to speak, which I take great pride in. In New Orleans there’s also a certain degree of insanity that goes beyond any desire for conformity, and a wonderful disregard for fashion and trends. I think it ties into the larger culture—what everyone that has lived and died here had to go through to be here. Those shared experiences create a somewhat insulating effect from outside influences.
In what ways would you say New Orleans has shaped your art?
There is no one way to ever describe it. If you spend any length of time there, you’re never going to look at the rest of the world the same way. New Orleans is a hard place to live. I think people have been trying to come up with a description for 300 years, but just breathing the air has its effects. The history, the melodrama, the drama, the tragedy, the comedy, the costuming. If that doesn’t fuel one’s creativity, I don’t know what possibly can.
The people are just some of the most fascinating people you’ll ever meet. From your very sweet next door neighbor, to some of the bizarre, perhaps a little mentally touched individuals just walking down the street. You head out the door for the day and you have no idea what adventure may lay ahead, no matter what you had planned out. That’s what I miss the most: on a daily basis, there is just that sense of adventure. What the hell might happen today?
How did you get from New Orleans to the high desert?
In 2006, I was blessed to receive an artist residency in Santa Fe for a couple of months, and that allowed me to get out here and kind of check out the lay of the land. The nearest major body of water from Santa Fe is twelve hundred miles away; I figured it’s quite safe from hurricanes. The environment of the high desert is very cathartic, very healing and it was what was really needed at the time.
Do you still consider yourself in exile?
Well, the way I think of it in my head is that I live in New Orleans. I just happen to be spending too much time in the desert. What I’ve been trying to do for seven years now is figure out a way to be there for six months out of the year, and be here for six months out of the year. Unfortunately, it’s still weighted towards the desert. Homesickness has just become something that’s kind of always there, particularly when oysters come into the season. That’s when it gets really bad—I’m a raw oyster fanatic. But no, I have not found the solution to that question yet. If somebody said, “Here’s your house. You can live here year round.” I would have a very hard time doing that. With all that happened with Katrina, that would be difficult. After all the emotional trauma, it’s kind of like, do you really want to put yourself back into that position again full-time? And that’s the rub….but we always get home for Mardi Gras. It’s something that just has to happen. I spend 364 days a year preparing for that one day.
Michael Meads artwork is included in private collections and showcased in a retrospective of the artist’s work “Bent, Not Broken,” curated by Bradley Sumrall for the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
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