When an art style in New Orleans starts to become iconic, it has a way of permeating spaces and mediums larger than the canvas those ideas were originally crafted on. Selwhyn “Polo Silk” Terrell turned his snapshots of quintessential Black New Orleans into a Reebok shoe deal, his own photo book, and a collaboration with the Smithsonian on his way to a fully-cemented legacy as one of New Orleans’ greatest culture bearers. Brandan “BMike” Odums turned his guerilla artwork with spray cans into a series of high-profile exhibits, culminating in Studio Be, a 36,000 square foot gallery that has become an artistic beacon of Black art in New Orleans.
Jacques François—a local multidisciplinary artist who frequently lists Silk, BMike, and visual artist Courtney “Ceaux” Buckley’s work as some of his inspirations—is finding himself on a similar path. François, who grew up on the Westbank, creates colorful renditions of familiar Black faces and offers an elegant example of Black New Orleanians and their historical figures.
One of François’ pieces titled “Bulbancha Boy” (Bulbancha is the indigenous name of New Orleans before it was settled by the French) transports a Soulja Slim look-alike holding a gold-plated Uzi to a remote tropical paradise. The colored pencil drawing feels like a rare Polo Silk photo developed through a dream state. François also offers handwritten word art—bold sans-serif letters delivering affirmations to live by (his Twitter banner reads: “GHETTO I$ FABULOU$”)—that has become a popular staple in his work.
François’ resume is quickly expanding—designing a limited edition shirt for the New Orleans Pelicans during the 2022 season, designing a book cover for Jami Attenberg, adorning clothes with fresh artistic ideas and typography styles for people like Curren$y and WDSU’s Darryl Forges, and designing a cover for New Orleans rapper-romantic duo PoppyH and 504ICYGRL’s newest project Fried. François was an open book on our midday phone call as we talked about the Westbank, Juvenile, developing his style over the years, recent accomplishments, and much more.
As a fellow Westbanker, I know it can be easy to feel disconnected from New Orleans proper. How did you keep in touch with both sides of the river growing up?
That’s a great question. I grew up in McDonoghville, and that’s a very small, close-knit community of people who were Jefferson Parish-down. I did not have any cousins across the river. I didn’t have any close family across the river, but all of my glimpses of what New Orleans was was either through the radio—because I felt like Q93 was basically a gateway to New Orleans—and my family was really big on exposing us to different things early on. So those trips to Algiers Point felt magical, or those trips to the French Quarter. It just made me feel like New Orleans was a magical world, like I was in Disney World or something. So I always had a yearning to see New Orleans and be around it at all times. Even on the Westbank, I had such a desire to go across the river. So I was always reading about it, always watching videos, [watching] Phat Phat N All That. I was always tuned in. And I just felt like my attention was always on the culture because that’s what moved me. All the happenings of New Orleans itself is what I wanted as a kid.
It’s cool that your art is centered on New Orleans, but you are also proud of being from the Westbank.
I’m so proud of it. [laughs]
Can you give some insight on making a name for yourself as a Westbank artist?
I feel like the Westbank truly is one of the best kept secrets of New Orleans because it’s a slower pace, but it’s still just as hustle and bustle as across the river. It’s more suburban, but there’s so many pockets of communities with so many people that it really doesn’t differentiate between this side of the river or the 7th Ward, 6th Ward, 8th Ward. There are cultural differences, sure, but the people are still the people. On this side of the river you really do find people who, you know—I can’t claim the 7th Ward, but that doesn’t make my New Orleans experience any lesser. So it’s been so great to see many other artists and creators claim their homestead because you’re right, [repping the Westbank] really wasn’t a popular thing to do initially. It was like, “Oh, you from the wack-ass Wank?”
Can you talk about trying to get that attention and be taken seriously from people across the river?
I thought about this recently. I have friends on all sides of the river who have asked me to give them steps or ideas on how to get this out, or spread this around. For me, it really was just like a God-blessed universal appeal that people happened to stick with early on and follow me through. I can’t say I purposefully tried to get someone’s attention so they can notice me. My whole thing was: I’m an artist with a perspective and a sound of mind, and the most I can do is share. And whoever likes it, likes it. It just so happened that not only did my community like it, but New Orleans likes it. Louisiana likes it. Other states in America like it.
It’s silly sometimes, to me, when people try to dismiss the Westbank in general. When you think about it, Algiers is one of the second-oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans! Even going back to slavery, that’s where the slave docks were. To anyone trying to dismiss it like this is a lesser-than experience of a New Orleanian who has a Orleans Parish tax bracket is crazy.
Bulbancha Boy (2022)
How did your immediate family support your art growing up?
Growing up, my mom always said that when I was three years old, she would find me at the kitchen table and I would be writing the newspaper out. She said I would open a random passage, pull out a piece of paper, and would just start writing what I saw. So I think that my family always had an expectation of me to be in the arts. I didn’t know in what capacity, but it was kind of expected of me. My grandfather [Lawrence Moody] was an art teacher for 50 years at West Jeff. He taught me art when I was a senior in high school. So he taught me art and he had been there for eras and eras. Just coming from him, people expected—Oh, that’s the grandchild who’s going to carry that legacy forward. But I didn’t see that for myself. I just felt like drawing and knowing how to draw was kind of normal and wasn’t anything to strive after. I really wanted to direct music videos. I wanted to be a filmmaker; that was my real ambition. Or to be in New York and do sick shit. But I never thought, “Oh, I’m going to be a fine artist or a visual artist.”
How did you ultimately land on the drawing and the other artwork you do now?
When I got to my late 20s—that’s how long it took me—was when I said, “You know what? There are people who I look up to and if they’re telling you that you have something, then maybe you might want to listen to that and see what happens if you take it seriously.” When I was 24 I quit my job at Skechers—it was the most ridiculous job ever in life and everyone who worked there was like, “What are you doing here?” I quit at Skechers and just wanted to see [if] I can pay my phone bill without going to work. That was my biggest goal. And I paid my phone bill for the month. The next month I paid another phone bill and a credit card payment, and I was like, “Oh shit, I’m making some kind of money.” And now it’s been almost a decade and I have not missed a phone payment because it’s been continuous work and projects and all kinds of things thrown my way.
One of those big projects was the collaboration you did with the Pelicans. That was a huge deal. What was that experience like?
I got the email from the Pelicans—it blew my mind. I was like, “What the hell? How they know about me?” I thought it was spam and, lo and behold, it was not. They really gave me so much grace and freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. When I made my initial design, which ended up being the final design, I remember being so hesitant and nervous because my ideas are so crazy to me. I can’t expect the outside public to dig ‘em, you know? I may love it, but you may hate it. I was nervous when I put that shit out, and when I saw the response from the city, it was so humbling to me. To see artists I look up to, you get the response from Ceaux and BMike—people who have been so nice to me the whole time—it’s like, “Damn, I made y’all proud of me? I impressed you?” That’s a big deal to me. That was a turning point in my career. That’s when I knew: You got something, kid.
You’ve mentioned BMike and Ceaux, some of the most established and respected artists in the city, as people who have helped you along this journey. What role have they played in helping you to this moment?
It’s been a real pleasure to be a Black artist in New Orleans at this time specifically, because the community of Black artisans is so dynamic. It really is the main art hub of the city. It’s not just Black artists and others. It really is the artists and they’re mostly Black. That’s really been powerful for me because there have been rooms and doors that I know would not have been opened up if someone who I admired didn’t speak my name. There were invitations from BMike to go to Whitney Plantation—that was huge to me. Or getting feedback from Ceaux or commissions from Ceaux, like, “Wow, he wants to buy something from you?” Terrance Osborne used to just send me so much helpful advice. It would just be something small like, “Wow, this is big. You should try it in color,” and it made me look at color in a different way. Those type of gems from people I look up to had been like a battery pack in me not only believing I could do it, but seeing that they’re doing it, so I could do it. I still look up to a lot of people within these circles, and it’s been really cool to be in the same circles with them now. We are shoulder-to-shoulder where they can ask me for advice and I’ll have something to give them. My homeboy Nik Richard, one of my closest friends, I love his work—we share ideas back and forth. But I was just thinking how a few years ago I was just a cool fan of his and now that’s your homie.
How did Juvenile, and specifically the “Ha” music video, influence your creative passions and the art you make today?
That album, that song, that music video has been the gift that keeps on giving since I was seven. I remember the first time I heard that song: I was in the French Quarter. I was seven years old; it was a nighttime excursion with my dad and my two siblings. That song came on and I remember it being such a special moment because there are not lots of moments I spent with my dad as a kid that I remember, but that one was. And it just felt like a perfect night. Maybe because I have so many memories attached to that song from that one time that it meant more than anything else. Growing up and really recognizing what I was seeing in the video, it seemed like a Black fantasy to me. It was a true representation of what life really was and what life looked like across that bridge that fascinated me, and I felt like I belonged. I felt like there were people who looked like me on screen. That was amazing. And not just Black men and Black kids. It’s like, you know that man across the river that looks like you. Now I look at the video as even more of a special thing because it really is one of the purest and last representations, at least visually, that we have of New Orleans pre-Katrina. That video means everything, the lyrics mean everything.
Bally Bart (2022)
With your art it feels like you’re creating your own imaginative community of Black New Orleanians. How do you make these portraits stand out and differentiate themselves from each other even though that inspiration comes from the same place?
That’s a great way you put it because that’s exactly how I see it in my mind. My favorite artist in the world is Kerry James Marshall. What fascinates me about his work is his main aim is to represent and have a Black face in every piece. If you go to a fine art gallery, you’ll see these high art pieces but you’ll rarely see the Black figure. He really turned me on to the idea of making pieces of work that were regarded as high art that would be focused on Black people. So in my mind, I want to use the imagination of a person who is an artist in his community and only uses people who look like him. So I thought about every single person I saw growing up in Oakwood Mall and so on. And I’m thinking of them within this fancy landscape of maybe these French Gardens. Maybe he’s somewhere in the tropics of Bali, but he still very much looks like Soulja Slim. She still looks like the girl who is at Beauty Mart, but she’s in these fine spaces. The whole aim is to not only represent the Black figure, but to elevate the Black figure so that the eye automatically knows this is someone of substance. So much, we look at people and claim to be “ghetto” and it’s meant to be insulting. But to me, [I] not only want to represent but reclaim that. How these people are not only hustlers, but these are wives. These are teachers. They are doctors. These are geniuses, and they’re on the street. And that’s my whole interest, is to make sure that when you see them, they are still themselves but they have this air of elegance, this air of superiority, and this gaze of power so that they know, I’m supposed to be in the same room as you, and if anything, you are in my domain in this piece of work. Polo Silk’s work has been such a deep well of imagination for me. I used to love to browse through his work and just imagine who these people were, what they thought of, what they wanted to be seen as, and why they posed this way, and why they wore this. I apply the same methodology to my work.
How do you see your interpretation of these people changing? Is there a different aspect of them that you want to touch on that you haven’t yet?
So many. I’ve battled a lot over the ideas that I haven’t shared over the ones that people know of. It’s great to be known for the handwriting. It’s great that people have been receptive of the drawings so far. But there’s so many facets of the Black imagination that I feel are untapped, specifically by myself. I have a lot more ideas when it comes to making new work. I’ve been drafting a whole new series of drawings exploring Black magic within the projects. That’s a thing that I’ve never seen, especially in these high art spaces. I have been absolutely curious about what else we do, how far we can go, what else should we be doing, and I want to bring it there through artwork.
Speaking of the handwritten art you do, how did that style come about and how did the hand-written messages become such a vital piece of your portfolio?
That moreso happened out of happenstance. My handwriting alone was something I already knew was different from a lot of people. I was always influenced by graffiti. Even though I never made graffiti myself, I always loved that feel and the way they look so structured. It was like, if my handwriting could look like that then I would write on everything. In high school, it became that. In college, it was even more pronounced. Once I was in my 20s, this was my permanent handwriting. Early on in my career, when I was just trying to make sure I paid that phone bill, I was like, “Let’s write some lyrics out and see how that looks.” And people were receptive of it: “Is that a font? Is that something from the computer?” And I’m like, “No. It’s just a pen and paper.” It stuck and I’m grateful for it, but it was very unexpected.
Melpomene Barbie (2020)
You did a piece for the 2024 Los Angeles Jazz Festival that brought you to City Hall, and your designed backboard won the Nola Has Wiiings campaign. When working on those kinds of projects, did you feel you had to shift or downplay your focus a lot to make your ideas with those collaborations come to life?
That may be a big pro for me. If I can’t do it the way I want to do it, I probably wouldn’t participate. When I put my name in whatever these events or competitions are, there is an expectation that he is going to bring something. Maybe the something is provocative. Maybe the something is colorful, or maybe it’s something that’s controversial. It might be. But I think that within these spaces, there is only a something that I can bring, which helps me out because I don’t really have to deter my own natural inhibitions to fit some ideal of what they expect from me through the artwork. Lo and behold, recently I made the font for Jami Attenberg’s new book [1000 Words: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round] that comes out next year. And that was a big deal because it was like, “Damn, OK. They want you to write the cover of the book and all that stuff.” What I was so grateful for was—I was curious, like, “Was there something you guys wanted me to do, like, draw a certain face? Or, what do you want from me?” And they were just like, “No. It’s your handwriting. Just write these with your handwriting.” And that was my ticket in. Gratefully, I haven’t been in a situation where it’s like, “We like you, but we don’t want you to do that. We want you to do something else.” I’ve been able to be fully myself in these spaces and I think that’s what we need from other people so there can be more diversity in styles and tones and voices via the artwork.
You also put on your first art show [I WI$H THE FUCK YOU WOULD, at Axiom Fine Art Gallery] late last year. What did you learn from that experience?
First of all, art shows are expensive. And I learned that if you don’t have a solid team of people who specifically know what they’re doing in an art show, you’ll have a band of friends trying to make anything work that really shouldn’t take that many people to make it work. It was like a gauntlet of what to expect when you have an art show. No articles online or no friends’ advice can prepare you to do that. But on the flip side, it was so rewarding. It was so fulfilling to see not only a collection of work that you really did put your all into as far as the story, the narrative, the texture of paper, everything—but to also see people receive it who can easily just dismiss it. It was wonderful to see people who I look up to—Polo Silk was there and I was like, “Wow, the man who inspired me is here and telling me he likes the work.” That was such a reaffirming event for me in my life to know that I had a narrative, I had a story, and that people were interested in knowing what it was. People could have easily been anywhere else, but they were here to look at some drawings. That was a big deal for me. I just hope that the next time I do it, I would absolutely have a team and I would be even more adventurous with my thoughts. At times I toned it down thinking, “This might be too much.” But the “too much” pays off.
I feel like you are a part of this contemporary wave of New Orleans millennials who have grown up and become creative leaders, in art or music or whatever, within the city. Do you feel that sense, and what kind of responsibility do you think you have with this new standing in the arts community?
That’s a great question. I turn 33 this year and when you realize as a kid that’s a real person’s age—that’s a grown man. I do feel a certain responsibility to not play around when it comes to making work. To me, it’s like, “Do all the things that you preach,” which is if you have an artistic idea, you see something you have not seen before, make it and see what people receive of that. You could be making a whole new lane for some artists behind you who may have the same type of thoughts and inspiration, and they can’t get in just like you couldn’t get in. How about you open those doors? I do feel like we have a responsibility to show up. It’s important that every Black artist just continues to show up, continue to do the work, and continue growing the community so that people under us can not only get in, but only make it bigger and more successful for everyone. So there is a responsibility and it means show up and do the work.
Lastly, you’re very active on Twitter. I remember a tweet you made saying New Orleans is a Caribbean city and some people came at you about that. Do you want to set the record straight on that topic for the last time?
Oh my goodness gracious. [laughs] First off, Jacq François loves the South. Because I don’t know how the hell that statement became, “He’s anti-Black. He’s anti-South.” Like, what the hell? If you think I’m lying, if you think I’m just being provocative, if you think I’m just talking out my ass, then read a book. Google is free. I’m not making this up to try and score some brownie points. So that’s what I’ll close it with: Read a book.
François is preparing to roll out Denim Dynasty, a collection of hand-painted garments, that will debut in December. For more info, check out @jacqpierrefrancois (Instagram) and @jacqpfrancois (Twitter).
photos by Avery Leigh White
images courtesy JACQ FRANÇOI$