We follow Alessandrini's significant public works along the river and through the Quarter, then visit with the artist in his Howard Avenue studio.
- by Saskia Ozols
- photos by Ellis Anderson
Franco Alessandrini maintains a vibrant studio, gallery, and practice in New Orleans’ historic Central Business District, where he has lived and worked for the past four decades. Although he commutes to Italy a few times a year he considers New Orleans “the best place to be.”
His influence and aesthetic punctuate the city with dramatic multi-figure compositions, portraits, and monumental mosaic work. Alessandrini works in a variety of media and switches from one visual language to another with unmatched fluidity. He is a painter, sculptor, draftsman, printmaker and designer. His varied breadth with visual means inspires appreciation of his work as a contemporary renaissance master of modern media.
A classically trained sculptor who grew up and studied in Italy, Alessandrini’s work connects New Orleans’ unique culture with the international community. There are few sculptors in New Orleans capable of the understanding and expression of form as he orders them. In addition to mastery of technique, many of his works address contemporary yet timeless topics such as immigration, integration, and the nature of man. His overall aesthetic is one that New Orleans is fortunate to engage; it combines impeccable strategies for design and process with issues of local, regional, and global relevance.
An Alessandrini Art Walk Along the River
The Convention Center Mural, "New Orleans"
A monumental Byzantine mosaic, "New Orleans," is my first stop. Permanently installed in the Convention Center along the Mississippi River, this piece is well worth the hunt and stuns at first glance. New Orleans offers a larger-than-life image that captures the spirit of the city with a technique refined in 4th-century Ravenna. Alessandrini designed the masterpiece in its entirety, and the incorporation of this antique art form with New Orleans culture creates a feeling of devotion for the multi-faceted identity of the city.
Rendered with thousands of Byzantine-style glass in twilight colors reminiscent of aging frescos and the humid light of the Mediterranean, the scene as a whole inspires meditation. The vast image is a collage of sorts and includes fragmented renderings of local flora and fauna, artistic activities with accompanying instruments and tools; paintbrushes, palette, and performing musicians.
Endless glasses of wine, candles, carnival masks, architectural elements and fractured constructivist-like divisions of light anchor the dynamic movements depicted. Each form moves seamlessly into another, allowing the viewer to create their own narrative. The mosaic tiles interact with the spiraling compositional elements in a way that vibrates with the motion of the city, the familiar sounds, smells, and textures forever iconized and set in stone.
Monument to the Immigrant
A little further along the river and just across Canal Street is Alessandrini’s large, marble Monument to the Immigrant. It sits with a noble gravity overlooking the Mississippi on the riverfront in Woldenberg Park. The work offers a gentle reminder of the many cultures that make New Orleans unique and offers contemplation on their cultural contributions. Placed in the exact spot where many immigrants arrived in the French Quarter so long ago, the monument also sits as a memorial to lives forever transformed, adopted, and embraced by the city of New Orleans.
The overall composition creates a large dynamic triangle, a floating figure reaching over the waters with a family packed for travel. The guardian-like figure and the huddled family below face opposite directions and offer juxtaposition between stillness and movement, the known and the unknown, of blind faith and hope with postures of disillusion.
From a distance this piece beckons as a windblown spirit protecting the waters, almost a figurehead missing its boat, guiding the family toward safety, or bidding a last goodbye to an abandoned homeland. Monument to the Immigrant speaks to the history of New Orleans while simultaneously suggesting ancient mythological and religious narratives of cultural displacement as well as the ongoing immigration crisis of today.
Monument to the Latino Worker
Even further along the river, in Crescent Riverfront Park, stands Alessandrini’s bronze and marble Monument to the Latino Worker, a heroically scaled thank-you note to those who helped rebuild the city after Katrina. This piece conveys a similar but more specific message as Monument to the Immigrant and depicts workers specifically of Latino descent.
Figures include men, women, and children. They are represented mid-stride on ladders, wielding hammers and other tools, and going about the hearty task of repairing a community after devastation. The multifigure composition is depicted on the roof of a house and is above eye level, allowing the viewer a worm’s-eye view of common laborers. The use of this compositional device gives the workers a degree of importance usually reserved for depictions of gods, rulers, or heroic figures. In this case Alessandrini assigns heroic status to the Latino worker through his reference to the classical language of composition.
Pope John Paul II
Adorning the entrance to the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, also steps from the Mississippi River, is Alessandrini’s Portrait of John Paul II, a larger than life-size marble depicting the Pope with two young children and a single magnolia flower. The young boy holds a bud about to bloom; the young girl has calmly folded hands. This work commemorates the visit of the pontiff, and quietly beckons the public into the Cathedral.
A short walk from St. Louis Cathedral takes the viewer to the Ursulines Convent Museum, where a powerful series of Alessandrini’s hand-carved marble sculptures depict important figures in the history of the Ursulines. His devotional public work provides certain strength to the mystery of New Orleans.
A Studio Visit
The first floor of Alessandrini’s studio building functions as an exhibition gallery. Constructed of immaculate, polished white marble, the gallery presents finished sculpture, drawings, paintings, and prints. The space is airy, clean, and balanced with our New Orleans atmosphere on the gray, rain-filled day. Walking through the space, almost breathing the artwork in, a vertical, totem-like sculpture draws us into conversation.
"Rituals" is tall, reaching slightly below our eye level and hand-carved from Carrera marble. It depicts an almost frightening combination of animal and human faces, newborns, and highly rendered genitalia. Each form is connected with the others by abstract flame and water shapes that lead the eye strategically from one moment to the next and back again. Alessandrini explains that this sculpture addresses the duality of man manifested in religion, regeneration, sex, and the relationship between early pagan behavior with contemporary Christianity.
The piece evokes feelings of embarrassment and enlightenment at the same time - it's almost impossible to look away. The work is a surprise and a jarring juxtaposition to the public works that align morality and the ethics of human behavior in a more traditional way.
His works-in-progress, paintings, and drawings hang throughout the gallery and the adjoining space and populate his working studio on the third floor. They bring light and life to an authentic antique building in a state that rarely exists in today’s environment of homogenization. The interior of his studio provides a beautiful glimpse into what most historic French Quarter buildings looked and smelled like before the mass bleaching of gentrification.
Gratitude washes over me as I consider our conversations on beauty, on art, on man, and on representation. His work transcends culture, language and form. He is an artist in the truest sense, defying the boundaries of representation, style and media - a living treasure to the New Orleans art community, the French Quarter and beyond.
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Saskia is a curator and painter who has worked in the visual arts for over 20 years. She is the Founding Director of The Institute for Fine Arts Practice, Research, and Preservation as well as the non-profit, The Ozols Collection: A Museum for American Painting and Pedagogy. She has taught painting, drawing, or arts related research seminars at a number of Institutions including Boston University, Tulane University, and Loyola University. Her paintings have been exhibited regionally, nationally, and abroad in cities including New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia, New York as well as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Her work is represented in collections internationally.
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