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Shining a Light on Red River Art

With a world-class art museum, city ArtWalk and visual arts and fine crafts center, Alexandria, Louisiana, is an unexpected artsy city.

At the beginning of March, the Alexandria Museum of Art (AMoA) announced a new exhibit titled “Concrete & Adrift: On the Poverty Line.” Featuring 39 regional and national contemporary artists addressing poverty and homelessness, this exhibit is surprising for what could be considered a conservative central Louisiana town. But this museum and its Director Catherine M. Pears are shaking up not just perceptions about art, but also community and creativity.

“I learned a lot from the works submitted to the call for artists,” says Pears, a former art history instructor at Louisiana State University at Alexandria. “I had certain ideas about the subjects I expected to see reflected in the works. Once I began reviewing the work, I was compelled to broaden my thoughts on the subject, including but not limited to immigration, gentrification and artists who struggle themselves. The works in this exhibition prove that beauty can be found in some of the most unexpected places … and faces.”

According to recent estimates, approximately 40 million people live in poverty and a greater number are barely above the poverty line. Everyone encounters at least one person living in poverty or homelessness daily, whether they notice it or not.

Pairing with “Sordid & Sacred: The Beggars in Rembrandt’s Etchings,” these two exhibits show the topic of homelessness from two far separate historical periods—and in different styles.

Exploring ideas of feeling invisible, overlooked, misunderstood and more, those living in poverty and homelessness experience difficulties far beyond the financial. This exhibition strives to bring some of those issues to light and confront some of the associated stereotypes and generalizations.

Some of the artists work from their own experience and memory, having
experienced these issues firsthand. Thematic sections of the exhibit depict portraits, shelter, isolation and invisibility, poverty, immigration, food and location.

“Sordid and Sacred” features 35 rare etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn executed between 1629 and 1648. Rembrandt repeatedly chose beggars as the subject for his etchings, and many of them sympathetically portray beggars as biblical figures.

Pears explains that exhibits like these are part of an effort to reinvent the museum to be relevant in the 21st century. For this reason, the museum offers events from film screenings to concerts and what it calls “Renegade Tours” for people who don’t really like museums. Guest tour guides do their best to entertain and convert during these free, after-hours visits.

But one of the great things about the city of Alexandria is that art isn’t just in museums. It’s taken to the streets, too. An ArtWalk is held biannually in the Cultural Arts District downtown, a self-guided walking tour of more than 60 participating artists. Sidewalks, green spaces and alleys come alive as local artists demonstrate and sell their works of art tax-free.

The next ArtWalk will be held May 3-4 during the first-annual Alexandria Red River Festival (taking the place of Alex River Fête). Live music, Dragon Boat Races on Lake Buhlow, a major fundraiser for AMoA, a classic cars display and BBQ Cookoff will all be part of the reimagined festival.

Another cultural asset in Alexandria is River Oaks Square Arts Center (pictured above), a contemporary visual arts and fine crafts space with more than 30 individual artists’ studios, three galleries and a gift shop. Located in the historic Bolton Home, a beautiful example of Queen Anne Revival architecture, the center’s resident artists work in a variety of medias, including pottery, stained glass, sculpture, oils and watercolor. Some works are still in progress, but many are available for purchase.

The adjacent Studio Annex Building has even more spaces that allow visitors to get a glimpse of works in progress by artists like Leah Morace, who was born and raised in central Louisiana. Her colorful paintings of pelicans, Louisiana bayous and cotton fields draw inspiration from nature and the state’s landscape.

She says on her website that “every boat ride, camping trip, scenic tour or simple getaway is another idea for a painting, waiting to be projected onto the canvas.”

For pottery lovers, River Oaks has the Dirty South Cup Call & Competition, a national, juried exhibition in which clay artists from around the country send in their mugs, cups and tea bowls for consideration. The chosen works are then displayed in an exhibit starting on April 12 this year.

“River Oaks has become a name amongst nationally acclaimed ceramicists,” says Executive Director Rachael Dauzat. “We ask for creativity, experimentation and imagination, and the arts community never disappoints. We get cups from within the state and clear across the country.”

The holidays are also a popular time of year at River Oaks due to the Annual Christmas Porch Sale. Visual artists and craftsmen living or working in Louisiana are invited to submit their works for the “porch.” Single-day sales often surpass the $20,000 mark as shoppers fulfill their Christmas lists on the first Saturday in December each year.

One of the primary goals of River Oaks is to make art more accessible to the community as a whole, and that seems to be the theme in Alexandria. Both River Oaks and (AMoA) have outreach programs and events year-round that get people of all ages involved in artistic expression.

Another way (AMoA) is shining a light on the power of art in the community is through its Illuminate the Arts Luminary Processions during certain events. Community members can make lanterns at the museum on set days (April 18 is the next), and those luminaries—some of them life-sized—are then paraded through the streets during ArtWalk and other community events.

On the Friday night of the Red River Festival, starting at 8 p.m., museum staff and friends will proceed through the streets and illuminate all the ways that art can change and improve a community.

“Sordid & Sacred” and “Concrete & Adrift” are on display through June 22. Visitors to AMoA can also see “Connected Visions: Louisiana’s Artistic Lineage,” part of the permanent collection on display through 2022.

Featured art at top is “Selfie-ish” by Melody Croft and suitcase art is “Do You See Me?” by Monica Santaella. Luminary procession by Photo Lumiere.

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