Over the years, I’ve observed three more or less geographically and stylistically distinct groupings of New Orleans galleries. There are the French Quarter locations with heavy tourist foot-traffic, which often feature portraits of pop culture icons alongside Louisiana-fetishy paintings and whiffs of Antebellum nostalgia. There’s the St. Claude district: younger, more contemporary, with weird and wild exhibits, an avant-garde estuary where intellectuals and up-and-coming artists mix. I’ve always thought of the Julia Street scene in the CBD as more “professional” in the sense that the galleries are neither semi-abandoned buildings with cardboard meatballs dangling from the ceiling, nor carefully restored carriage houses filled with bulbous neon portraits of Louis Armstrong. Instead, on Julia Street I sometimes find myself grateful for the free wine but mystified by the chic galleries hung with paintings I’m sure jargon could explain, but which I can only describe as “abstract.”
When I learned that Stephanie Pearl, Editor-in-Chief of The Iron Lattice (a quarterly arts and culture magazine), had started a new gallery in this unassuming brick building near the lakeside end of Julia Street, I had to see what it was all about. A former stone-working shop, 912 Julia’s industrial-feeling interior is lit by candlelight flickering from sculptural candelabras at the edges of the room, while a comfy, L-shaped leather sofa dominates the right corner. A row of pillar candles leads through studio spaces, separated by bright red jaguar-print curtains, to an outdoor courtyard. There, slabs of broken marble line the brick walls, which the artists working indoors occasionally fashion into shelving.
In January, during the Reyini exhibit of artists from the Jacmel Arts Center in Haiti, the gallery walls were tightly packed with vivid, dreamlike paintings and festooned with the red, white, and blue of the Haitian flag. Enormous papier-mâché masks gazed down on the audience, and dancer Gerald Joanis electrified the room with performances, before a panel discussion which dipped in and out of Kreyòl.
I recently sat down with Stephanie to ask about how the new bohemian jewel of Julia Street got started. During our conversation, artists and visitors came and went, jingling the small bell on the gallery’s front door. Stephanie was wearing a navy-blue mechanic’s jumpsuit and seemed to embody the artist-as-worker: as comfortable handling thousands of dollars of international artists’ paintings as rewiring an electric grid.
How about we start with an overview of 912 Julia as a space and how it came about?
A friend of mine, Jeff Joslyn, had a woodworking space here that he turned into a stone workshop. He’d had it for seven or eight years when I met him at Faubourg Wines, where I used to work. One night, he came in when I happened to be on the other side of the bar. He gave me a shot of tequila and said, “Hey, I have this spot on Julia Street…”
Packing tequila at the wine bar, my kind of guy.
[laughter] Well, he’s been banned from doing that, I think. Anyway, Jeff was familiar with my work through The Iron Lattice, and said he was looking for someone to run the space for him. He told me the address was on Julia Street, and I was like, “Well, shit.” You know, not a part of the city I felt I had access to. But I came and saw the potential here, and fell in love with it.
That was almost two years ago. A marble workshop was still in the back. He had built out this front space to be a showroom, so it already had a gallery feel, but an unfinished one. I essentially got handed the keys to this place, which was an incredibly generous thing for him to do. Jeff wanted to see it used more, and go in an artistic direction. He had already done a few art shows here; it was a satellite gallery for Prospect 3. But then he had to rearrange his business and move out. That could have been the end of the story for this place, but by then I had just started to get some traction, and seen the potential for the community. So I approached the landlords and took over the lease.
About a year ago?
Exactly a year ago. Which was a big move for me; I’d never leased a commercial building before. By the time I had contacted them, they were already in talks for a lease with a, um, certain giant coffee corporation.
Let’s just say it: Starbucks—who then opened up around the corner, just recently! Anyway, I had to convince them not to go in that direction here, because they had a real estate agent who was really encouraging them to lease the building.
Wow, you talked them out of turning it into a Starbucks. Amazing!
[laughter] I did, I did. It was surreal.
What was your pitch?
To her credit, the woman who owns this building is a pretty open-minded person who liked the idea of it being an art space, but was a little skeptical about me. I don’t have assets; I certainly don’t have the kind of security that Starbucks could offer them. I think what worked in my favor was that she’s kind of an unconventional thinker to begin with. She took a chance on me, and certainly didn’t have to.
You and I met through The Iron Lattice release parties, so originally my idea of your work was more literary (even though art is a big part of the magazine, of course). How would you describe your background? Are you a practicing artist yourself? Do you think of yourself as a writer, publisher, curator?
I think about all those things. I have an English degree—let’s start there—and a professional degree in publishing and editing from the University of Washington. I wanted to work in publishing, but graduated during the recession, when publishing was changing. I worked as a freelance editor instead of at a publishing house, and ended up in New Orleans, where I met Holly Devon [Iron Lattice/ANTIGRAVITY editor] and Tyler Rosebush [Iron Lattice art director]. They’d been kicking around this idea of a literary and arts publication, and found out I had experience, so we teamed up. It’s been a garden path, honestly—we’ve worked with a lot of artists, so 912 Julia is a continuation of that. The magazine is about creating conversations and weaving our community together throughout the city, in a way that I now see reflected here, too. Which is more physical.
I had to grow up very quickly and didn’t always have time for making art, for very practical reasons, so a lot of the work I do now is re-forging that space for myself and others. At this point in my life I see myself mostly as an organizer, and, as a friend pointed out to me the other day, as a producer.
Exactly. That’s my brain: looking at things and constantly thinking, “How can these people be connected?”
As far as the structure of 912 Julia goes, you’re the curator and sole proprietor of sorts, but then you have artist membership as well?
People always ask what I do here, and the truth is I do a lot of different things. I just recently gave myself the title of Creative Director. Right now, there are six artists working in the back space. Four were here since the beginning. So it’s a collective effort in that sense. We’re sharing the space and it helps with the overhead for me. But as far as the general operations, it’s just me.
Who are the artist members?
We have Maria Sandhammer doing fabric arts; Gavin Jones, a painter; Aaron Sarles, photography; Madelyn Petty, illustration and sculpting; Elvira Castillo, photography; and Noone, a painter, photographer, sculptor, and filmmaker.
Noone, cool. What’s an art situation without a one-name person?
[laughter] And there’s been a few other people who’ve come and gone. It’s very much a shared space.
How many shows have you had here so far?
Reyini makes 13. I’ve played around with structure a bit: either two shows in a month or one, and then pop-up shows as well, depending on who the artists are and what the programming is.
Right, events—I came to the Poets & Po’Boys reading here during the Words and Music festival, which was packed and so much fun. You’re starting to do more events now, in general?
Space is such an important resource, which is ultimately why I’m here. I have almost an obsession with space and how it’s used. I want other organizations to come and use the space as well. It’s sliding scale and donation-based. We’ve done performances here, workshops. We did a film series with Shotgun Cinema. As of right now, it’s an open call, 100%.
Are there any moments of the past year that stand out for you?
The show that’s up right now, Reyini, has been a continuation of work over a few years, at first through the Lattice. So I’ve been looking forward to this show for a long time. And the very first show I curated myself was really special, during White Linen Night with the Level [Artist] Collective. That was the first time I got to see how fun it could be to put things together.
Tell me about the Level Artist Collective.
They’re a group of five Black and Latina artists: Carl Joe Williams, Horton Humble, John Isiah Walton, Ana Hernandez, and Rontherin Ratliff, who created Level Collective around the same time as The Iron Lattice. We featured Horton’s art on the cover of the first issue, and have been in cahoots since then, so it felt right to have them as the kickoff show. We had a huge turnout. For me, as someone who isn’t necessarily comfortable in a traditional gallery setting (like a lot of people who didn’t grow up around that or feel connected to it), to create a living event with good music, good food, even just comfortable places to sit—it’s important to me. I think it opens up who feels comfortable in the room.
I wonder if my idea of Julia Street art is the same as yours, since I come to art openings down here so rarely. My impression, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that many of the galleries which are plugged into a collectors’ market, so to speak, carry a lot of extremely expensive paintings where you can’t really tell what’s going on. Non-figurative, maybe I should say.
There is good work happening, and I have friends now on Julia Street that I’m very grateful for. And there’s definitely an up-and-coming wave of women and people of color who are curating and interested more in the health of the overall community. That’s exciting. I think the major difference, for me, is that 912 Julia is about making art, and how we support each other in making it. Because it’s hard to be a working artist. So it’s about creating and combining resources, because the act of making art is—maybe not exactly radical—but creating is the opposite of consumption.
It seems like the impresario role is a delicate balancing act between maintaining artistic integrity and then balancing that with the reality of how everyone has to eat.
That’s what the latest issue of The Iron Lattice was about: work and money, and how artistic practices interact in the economy. Because not having those conversations, in my opinion, is incredibly privileged. [laughter] Like, “What, you don’t pay rent?” I don’t get to not have those conversations, and neither do most of the people I care about. It’s a conversation I’ve had with other galleries, who have definitely come here and found artists. I love seeing someone who shows here going on to show elsewhere. That’s a big part of how this place functions.
Are there any Julia Street galleries you especially recommend?
Absolutely. LeMieux, Soren Christensen, Hall-Barnett. Our openings are usually later than more traditional gallery spaces, til 10 or 11 p.m., and part of that is so other curators and people who work in the galleries can come down after they close up shop and see what’s going on.
To me, it’s crazy, the 5 to 8 p.m. thing. Some of the artists I know are still getting dressed at 8 p.m.
People are telling me they often start at that end of Julia [closer to the river], earlier in the night, with 912 on this end [lakeside] as their destination, because they feel like they can stay and hang out. I have a pretty heavy hospitality background—I’ve worked in restaurants and bartended, so I love the hosting aspect of art openings as well.
Kahlil Gibran’s quote, “Work is love made visible” is a favorite of mine. Somehow, it makes me think about your jumpsuit—how it’s both a practical choice for artists who work—and also serves as a strong visual notation. It mutes most aesthetic signifiers, class signifiers, sexual signifiers—there’s not much left but a symbol for creation, for work itself. What are your thoughts on that?
I love Kahlil Gibran. That quote goes on to say that, “If you can’t work with love, but only with distaste, you should leave your work.” Or something like that. I think being an artist is committing yourself to work on something you love, regardless of how others receive it. Because you have no choice. I have two of these jumpsuits. The guy I’m dating found them under a house he was working on. I joke that it’s a slippery slope, because I can see myself just having one for each day of the week and calling that my wardrobe. It’s comfortable and yes, I feel ready to work in it because that’s what it was designed to do. My favorite artists are the ones who work constantly; it’s compulsive. I’m also that way. I don’t know how to not strive towards my own visions because that’s the only way I can make sense of the world around me. One of my few requests of the folks I share space with is: use it to work, or leave it for someone else. Because there is so much work to do!
912 Julia will host the pop-up show #fewerthan100posts on Saturday, February 15, 6-10 p.m., and an opening reception for the group exhibit Hot Future on Saturday, March 7, 6-9 p.m. For more info, check out 912julia.org. For more info on The Iron Lattice, check out theironlattice.com.
photos Katie Sikora