Friday, August 29, 2014

Mardi Gras, Jack Cooley, and a selfie

When I was young and growing up, my parents had some friends who lived in New Orleans, Jack and Joan Cooley and their three kids. They lived, at the time, in a two story shotgun which I thought was so weird, having never seen a shotgun house before.

I think I was about 8 when we went to Mardi Gras the first time and hung out in Jack's studio. Jack Cooley was an artist whose studio was in the French Quarter basically right across the street from Pat O'Brians, a famous bar. Jack was the ultimate in bohemian lifestyle to my parents. He ran his own life and painted or went to Jackson Square and set up to sell his paintings. Joan used to joke that when she married him he was a greek god but now he's just a goddamn greek.

In all I think we went to Mardi Gras three times from the late 50s to the mid 60s. Maybe four. This was back when they had parades in the Quarter, day parades and night parades and the night parades had flambeaux that danced between the floats with their torches for light and the people riding the floats threw hundreds of strings of gorgeous czech glass beads that would be worth a fortune now instead of the cheap green, purple, and gold plastic ones they throw now.

We'd go for a long weekend and hit as many parades as we could including the Zulu parade. I think I was 17 the last time we went. Mother would not let me out of her sight and she was pretty rude about it too chasing off any attractive young men that stopped to talk to me as I leaned against the wall outside beside the door to Jack's studio.

The thing about Jack being an artist is that they lived hand to mouth, even though Joan worked. A couple of times when times got really bad, my parents had a party/showing for him at our house and Jack would spread his paintings all around the house for people to see and buy. Consequently, we had lots of Cooley paintings in our house. Lots.

We even had a mural on the wall in the family room that when my parents built the house I lived in from about 7 on, they left a section of wall for Jack to paint. When my parents sold that house, the mural section of wall was cut out and mounted on plywood. My sister has it now.

The mural depicts the three main industries of Texas...ranching (cowboy on horse and longhorn steer), oil (oil field worker and derrick), and fishing represented by water at the bottom that you can't see.

One summer when I was about 13 or 14, my parents talked Jack into letting me come and visit for a couple of weeks. Jack was supposed to give me painting lessons (all part of my father's plan for me to become an artist painter and get gallery shows so he could bask in the glow) and Jack either just blew that part off or he wasn't paying attention. He told me basically he couldn't teach me anything so I could entertain myself however I wanted. Being a little intimidated, I chose to prowl around the Quarter the whole time I was there, while Jack slopped paint on masonite and drank and smoked cigars. Fact is, Jack was a pretty sloppy painter.

They took me around some to entertain me too. I remember we went to an amusement park and I talked them into letting me ride the roller coaster, assuring them that I was not afraid, that I liked roller coasters (and I do though it's been a long time since I rode one) and almost to the top I was totally regretting my bravado and seriously wanting off as I had never been on one that high before but then I was screaming all the way down and it was a blast.

Anyway, my father was a little pissed that Jack didn't give me any painting lessons at all.

Jack painted the same things over and over...clowns, jazz musicians in general and Al Hirt in particular, scenes from the French quarter and Jackson Square though we had some of more rare subject matter. 

This one was always a big favorite in our house. My sister has it too.

He even did portraits of us kids when I was 5.

I still have that dress. I can remember wearing it. I loved that dress. It's probably the last time in my life I looked good in ruffles and lace.

So what brought up all these memories is the last time I was at the old property I was at my daughter's house helping her get the last things of hers out and I was up in the attic and found 5 of Jack's old paintings. My sister still has a few but I don't have any. I guess I had these or somehow Sarah came into possession of them. No telling. Anyway, I spent the day cleaning them off and I'm going to put the clowns and the 'floral' in the store to sell, my sister wants the seagulls and I might keep the ballerina.


  1. i zoned in on the seagulls right away! love the mural, too. fascinatingly sloppy. :)

  2. I love this post! And honey- you look so much like you did as a child and that dress is a dream. I'm so glad you still have it, still have some of these paintings. I especially love the watermelon guy one.
    And Jack may not have given you painting lessons but he obviously influenced your decision to make your art your life and in doing so, was a very important person to you.

  3. How fun to find the picture stash. Yes, you still look like that little girl. Funny how some of us commenced with that yellow-white hair and wound up really dark.
    I'm not a big fan of clowns, and applaud you letting them go look for homes where they are appreciated.

  4. What a great story! And selfie.

    It is hard to imagine you in that dress, no matter your age.

  5. Wonderful story....and thank you for the telling of it. I love childhood memories that just need to be shared because they are filled up to the brim with "good stuff". Oma Linda

  6. We went again in 1969 or 1970 when I was still in high school but you were off at school somewhere by then. BTW: even back then, the glass beads were coveted and not thrown by all the krewes. I then spent 4 years in college at Tulane and (of course) did Mardi Gras every year since classes were never held M-W of that week.

    And, hey, you want some Cooley's? I still have several including a lithograph he did for the Jazz Fest one year ... and no place to hang them.

  7. Loved seeing the paintings! What great memories for you.

  8. He reminds me of a few hobby painters I have met. One fellow designed the first Ford T-bird and always did a selfie in each of his portraits.

  9. What a find! I like the seagulls too. That would be my choice out of the bunch.

    I can't believe you still have that dress!

    Even though Jack didn't teach you painting, you obviously learned a lot hanging out with him and your parents' other artsy friends.

  10. Those are found treasure. I hope you keep the ballerina ~ that one is my favorite.

  11. What a great story. And fine memories. I do like the seagull painting.. and of course the one of you. The others, not so much but cool(ie) that you have them. And I suspect it's just as well that he didn't teach you anything. To my eye, you're a far better artist.

  12. I found one of Mr Cooley's paintings at my mother - in - laws house. I just hung it over my dining room table. It is beautiful!


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