In considering artisan products from around the world for 12 Small Things, I felt my collection needed representation from the United States, as so many Americans are struggling with the economic recession, albeit on a different scale than most underdeveloped countries. Nonetheless, there are many American communities in need of economic support and one in particular that, despite all the attention from the infamous Hurricane Katrina, still needs more help.
In trying to make contacts in New Orleans through friends of friends, The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, the Arts Council and Tulane University, I was about to give up when a fellow student in my business class, Bill Washington, suggested I attend the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and check out all the arts and crafts vendors who sell there. While at first I thought it was too extravagant a venture, after two more unproductive months of emails and phone calls, I booked a cheap flight and hotel, bought my festival tickets and flew to New Orleans.
The Jazz Festival is held at the horse track, transformed with music tents, vendor booths and thousands of people. This is a big festival with multiple stages playing music at once. The “Congo Square” stage featured three black goddesses dressed all in white, singing across a field of rapt listeners, while next door at the “Fais Do-Do” stage, a Cajun band was playing Zydeco, with members of the audience dancing the two step. My favorite stop was at the Gospel tent, where the pure power of all the singers assembled on stage gave me goose bumps.
I turned my attention to the vendor booths and shopped the “African Marketplace” where I found some of the same things one finds in other African import stores. Nice, but not local. To my disappointment, I found many of the booths were rented by out-of-state vendors, touring the country’s festivals. Apparently when the festival first started forty years ago, there were only local artisans selling product made in Louisiana. There were some of those craftspeople still there, but they were featured more as an exhibition.
I took a break from the 100 degree heat in the air-conditioned grandstand that had an exhibit of Mardi Gras costumes and historical parade photos. I learned about the Baby Dolls who were a group of prostitutes from the Storyville red light district who used to march in the parade. The tradition of the group continues with women dressing up in baby doll costumes and marching in the parade, although I don’t believe they are working in the same historical profession. I strolled back outside and ordered up a plate of fried catfish and potato salad with a large red herbal ice tea and sat in the shade in Jazz Fest heaven.
My next stop was the “Contemporary Crafts” booths where I met some local artists. A large group was assembled by one of the booths where a woman was demonstrating the art of glass blowing, hot furnace and all. The owner, Mitchell Gaudet, startedStudio Inferno in 1991, in the old World Bottling building and has become one of the South’s most well known glass studio and artist’s space. I also met a local jeweler, Thomas Mann, whose work I really liked. Thomas lives and works in New Orleans where he oversees a jewelry and sculpture studio and gallery where he exhibited his work, “Storm Cycle, An Artist Responds To Hurricane Katrina”.
At 4:00 I had thoroughly done all the arts and crafts booths and was wondering what to do with the rest of my day and evening. I remembered in one of my endless online searches for “artisan goods, New Orleans”, coming upon a business plan for a fair trade gift shop on the Tulane University campus. I left the festival and took the streetcar up Saint Charles Avenue, with an amazing view of the large column mansions lining either side of the wide divided street. Tulane University is lush and beautiful and at ten minutes after 5:00 on a Saturday I actually found the campus store, In Exchange. As the founder, Erica Trani, gave me a tour, I recognized some of the international product and artisan groups she was working with. She told me about writing her business plan at Tulane, and getting funding to start her fair trade store on campus. I could tell it had been a lot of hard work. When I explained my concept and search, she was very complementary and supportive, pointing out some local artists products she had and gave me a few references.
The next morning I took the local bus to the French Market and walked along the Mississippi down to Café du Monde for the classic New Orleans beignets and café au lait. Feeling fortified, I stopped in at the New Orleans local arts and crafts gallery where I met Gerald Haessig, a local ceramist and sculptor. I explained my mission to him and he told me about New Orleans Thanks You, a collection of work by New Orleans artists who donate a portion of their proceeds back to the community, through non-profits helping with the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Gerald showed me the necklace he’d made for the project, featuring the French fleur de lis symbol, that has taken on a new role since Katrina as a rallying cry for rebuilding, recovery, and pride for New Orleans. Gerald designed the necklace with the fleur de lis symbol in front of a Roman column, symbolizing the strength of the people, stately mansions, and historic plantations of New Orleans. A banner above reads, “Merci,” honoring the city’s French heritage, as a message of thanks to a volunteer or someone special. Gerald donates a portion of his proceeds to the Headwaters Relief Organization, a non-profit group of volunteers helping to rebuild in the 9th Ward. After a long search, I knew I’d found some great, small things from New Orleans.
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