As she's closing her gallery and packing to move, Harriette Prevatte reflects on four decades spent as a working artist in the French Quarter.
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
The antique hourglass in the French Quarter display window is easy to overlook; the real attraction is the artwork itself. The delicate drawings - a combination of small pencil renderings and large, vibrant pastels - all seem to be in the process of materializing. It’s as if the scenes already existed in another dimension and the artist has gently pulled back the caul of this reality.
The artwork has been arranged in the window with props – the hourglass is just one among them, although the largest. There’s a bronze pencil holder cast like marching mouse, an ornate brass cup holding a slender brush, a wooden cutout spelling a name in cursive: Harriette Prevatte. The same name is hand-lettered on the bottom of the sign that hangs above our heads. “The Artist's Studio, A Unique Workshop Gallery.”
“Damn,” my husband says, the first, the third, the tenth time we stop to look in the Chartres Street window. “Does this ever take me back.”
Larry repeats himself only because I encourage him. When he was a youth roaming these same streets in the ‘60s, the flocks of artists who lived in the Quarter left their studio doors open, an invitation to friends and passersby who might become customers. He remembers the neighborhood’s predominant smell as being the blended odors of turpentine and linseed oil. His naming of the pungent smells conjures me back to walk beside his teenaged self.
Now artists with working studios in the Quarter are rare birds. Rising property taxes and rents have driven them to the brink of extinction. Harriette is one of the last.
Larry and I catch the artist at work in her gallery one day and introduce ourselves as neighbors and admirers. After a bit of conversation, I ask if I may interview her. Harriette’s agreeable. Weeks pass. Two months, three.
Then, walking by the studio after Christmas, I notice the hourglass has taken center stage. I don’t know Harriette yet, but I understand she’s making a statement. A sense of urgency clutches. In the two years I’ve been living back in the Quarter, three multi-decade businesses on Chartres Street have closed – two others on this block alone.
I immediately call Harriette to make an appointment. “I don’t think so,” she says. “I’m moving soon. Since I’m leaving, I don’t know why you’d want to interview me.” My heart catches. An elevator-drop jolt.
I beg and, finally, she agrees to meet. Harriette, who is in the process of packing her upstairs apartment, allots an hour. We choose a late afternoon in January when the college championship game is taking place. New Orleans is swollen with visitors, but while the game rages, we know the Quarter’s streets will be empty. No one will interrupt us, rapping on the window, asking in.
Before we begin, Harriette flips the hourglass so I can photograph the white sand surrendering to the inevitable. After taking a few more studio shots, I settle in a folding chair close to the artist’s easel, laptop perched on my thighs, typing furiously as we talk. The brief one-hour time slot spins by. But minutes keep unwinding from the tight ball of our schedules, knitting themselves into a cozy evening. We forget all about the hourglass.
Harriette’s memory is as sharp as her pencils, but like most people, her years are sorted by events, not numbers. She discovered when she “ran away with the circus” and first came to New Orleans - sometime in the late ‘70s - that time operates differently here. She drew every day, joining the cadre of artists who show their work on the tall iron fence surrounding Jackson Square’s park. At night, she worked in her studio. Time boundaries blurred.
“There was no weekend or beginning of the week,” she says. “The days ran together in an endless stream of happenings.”
But Harriette can pinpoint one date with no hesitation. Hurricane Katrina has provided her with a malevolent marker: She opened this gallery on Aug. 27, 2005, two days before the storm drowned the city. The artist had been preoccupied with the details of settling into her new space and only found out about the threat when shopping at the Quarter’s hardware store.
She rushed home and ferried all the artwork she’d just finished hanging in the street-level gallery up to her apartment. She only had time to pack a small bag of essentials before friends spirited her away in an eleventh-hour evacuation. They were heading for New York, so dropped Harriette off in rural South Carolina, where she’d grown up. She stayed in her parents’ old house, watching the heart-rending news coming out of the desperate city.
After four weeks, she became one of the first evacuees to return to New Orleans. Her studio and apartment were as she left them. She set up her easel in front of the window where she could see the deserted street outside and started to work.
“I wasn’t discouraged after Katrina,” she said. “I felt like the city was going to come back. And I had portraits to finish.”
The portrait commissions provided more than a solace after disaster. They’ve given the artist a relatively stable income through the years - something she and her family never believed possible. Her father predicted early on that she’d never make a living as an artist. The young girl who had never met a professional artist believed him. In an agricultural region ruled by calloused hands, art was considered a frivolity.
But the girl’s inherent gift blossomed despite geography. Since art wasn’t taught in schools, Harriette taught herself. College offered more opportunities. She graduated with degrees in both English and Art, married and began teaching school.
A job offer for her husband took the young couple to New York State. Harriette found a teaching position with the condition that she obtain a Master’s degree within five years. One of her new professors proved to be a pivotal force. Harriette says Professor Mullen pressed the students to move past their perceived limitations, to embrace challenges. Class exercises often demanded drawings from extreme perspectives. Models would place a hand or foot directly in front of the student, so the rest of their bodies became background.
“He would tell us lots people have trouble drawing hands and feet. He said, ‘You can do one of two things. You can learn by drawing them thousands of times or spend the rest of your life drawing people standing in tall grass with their hands in their pockets.’”
When Harriette and her husband returned to South Carolina, her new master’s degree turned out to be a liability, over-qualifying the teacher for jobs in the South. An amicable divorce left her feeling unmoored. In the late ‘70s, when a friend took a job in New Orleans and invited Harriette to ride down with her, the artist jumped at the chance. She found the city to be “incredible and magical.” Why not try her hand at making a living as an artist in the French Quarter while she waited for the right teaching job? Returning to South Carolina only to pack for the move, she took apart her favorite easel and put it into her small hatchback. Everything else she owned fit into the car.
Working on Jackson Square was often hot and exhausting, but it provided the artist with “the biggest studio in the world, one filled with bright colors, sunlight and free models.” All day she drew live subjects. At night she worked in her studio. She drew more in a single year than she had in three years of college. The quality of her work grew in tandem with the quantity. Fellow artists on the square provided inspiration and support. Many of them held art degrees and, like Harriette, “dived into the soup to grow our art.”
The biggest studio in the world came with live music. Harriette developed an appreciation for the street musicians who performed on the square and befriended some as she drew them. A special favorite was the late Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen. He gave her permission to paint him anytime she pleased.
Anthony had a specific reason for being so fond of Harriette’s work: “‘What a lot of painters do is make wind instruments look easy,’” she remembers him saying. “’But it’s not easy. It hurts. You have to fill your lungs and blow, again and again. An artist has to have an awareness of that to make a good painting.’”
I put down my computer and stand to get a better look at the large pastel behind me. It depicts Harriet’s personal vision of Tuba Fats’ jazz funeral in 2004. On the left side of the canvas, the somber mourners grieve. On the right, a young girl stands in front of the second line band, her extended hands filled with the rose petals she’s scattering. Anthony is right behind her, playing the tuba in his own funeral procession. He’s taking a break from the blowing and wears an expression of happy surprise, as if he’s just seen a good friend ahead.
I count 16 fully rendered people in the piece. Their hands are not in their pockets. Their hands grip instruments, wave, tip a hat. The title of the piece is “The Never-Ending Parade.”
Harriet has drawn a lot of jazz funerals through the years, fascinated by the ritual’s two distinct personalities.
“There’s the first part where everyone is solemn and sorrowful. Then there’s the part where you let go and celebrate what life is all about,” she says. “But you don’t want people being joyful right at the beginning.” She laughs and points to the girl with rose petals. “She represents the temporary beauty of life, only bright and fresh for a day.”
After 40 years in the French Quarter, Harriette thinks her day has faded. She’s closing the gallery and moving back to South Carolina where the only demands will be her art. The property has a small house, a Koi pond, a cat, and a place to make the paper she loves to draw on. She spent a lot of time there helping care for her parents in their final years. Harriette calls her father an honest man, who, before he died, apologized for his early discouragement of her art career. He was proud – although still a little surprised – that his daughter had been able to support herself through her work.
“I never really made a lot of money,” Harriette says, “but I found out it didn’t matter how much you made as long as you spent less than what you had. And Daddy agreed with me that there’s a big advantage working for yourself: you won’t get fired.”
Harriette’s not being fired; she’s leaving on her own terms. She’s looking forward to giving up the sales role a gallery demands and simply focusing on her art. She believes it’s time for someone else to come into the Chartres Street space, a person who offers vibrancy and excitement. Her own life goals have been met. She grew up isolated in rural America and longed to go out into the world.
“Now I’ve seen it and I want to go back. Maybe that’s what our whole dance of life is about. We go looking ‘out there’ for something we need. Then we find out it was really inside us all along.”
The artist moves over to the window and playfully flips over the hourglass again.
“Whatever life is, it’s going to change.”
You can find Harriette and her work online. The new tenant in 608 Chartres Street is Bambi DeVille Vintage.
Ellis Anderson first came to the French Quarter in 1978 to pursue dreams of becoming a musician and writer. Eventually, she also became a silversmith and represented local artists as owner of Quarter Moon Gallery, with locations in the Quarter and Bay St. Louis, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Her book about the Bay's Katrina experience, "Under Surge, Under Siege," was published by University Press of Mississippi and won the Eudora Welty Book Prize in 2010. The French Quarter Journal joins The Shoofly Magazine, Bay St. Louis Living, as a sister digital publication of Ellis Anderson Media, LLC.