- Ellen Byron
THE ART OF BEING A NEW ORLEANS ARTIST
I’ll never forget the day my friend, Jan Gilbert, a renowned New Orleans, called with terrible news. “I have stage four breast cancer,” she told me. I was terrified for her. But she survived that ordeal. She and her husband, documentary filmmaker Kevin McCaffrey, also survived almost losing their home to Hurricane Katrina. And thank God for it, because without them, New Orleans would be a much less interesting city.
I met Jan on the Crescent City Amtrak train. I was going to my brother’s college graduation in D.C., and she was heading home to the Big Easy after making art gallery rounds in Manhattan. We struck up a conversation in the bar car, and have been lifelong friends ever since. She was with me in the mid-1980s when we fell upon the dignified yet decrepit plantation, Ashland-Belle Helene, which inspired my debut novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery. Jan and I attended my one and only ticker tape parade when the Mets won the World Series in 1986. Next to this paragraph is the fabulous wedding present Jan sent when I got married in 1994.
Jan’s work is interdisciplinary. She often develops public art projects aimed at audiences that wouldn’t set foot in a gallery or museum setting, frequently collaborating with other artists. Here's an example from Louisiana Prayer Flags, a series she’s co-created with Babette Beaullieu. (Jan and Babette are also finalizing details to participate in the first Experience Louisiana Festival in Eunice this fall, which sounds amazing!)
Vestiges/trinitas, another collaboration, began in 1984 as a way for New Orleans writers and visual artists to investigate the interconnection of image and text. Jan and fellow artist Debra Howell, who founded the Vestiges Project, will be commemorating Hurricane Katrina’s tenth anniversary with the exhibit, Marking Memories 2005-2015, at Reese Gallery in St. Louis, Missouri.
Jan could be in New York. She could be in L.A. But she’s not. She remains in New Orleans, which her family has called home since the mid-1800s. What keeps her there? “Its unvarnished sensibility, the realness,” she says. “Oh, and its ritualistic celebration of everything, even death. It is HOME, and deeply resonant in every way.”
To learn more about Jan and her work, visit: