Walking through the rooms of LeMieux Galleries, Shirley Rabe’ Masinter points to her works and tells me a bit about making each one. When I ask her how she chose the subject for any particular painting, her answer is invariably, “I just liked it.” When she talks she comes off as no-nonsense and playful at once. Her work gives the same impression. The linework is sensible and straightforward, while the images themselves communicate a sense of fun. A 2018 watercolor called Regular Flavors shows a close-up view of a sign outside a snowball stand displaying two side-by-side but separate lists of “regular” and “special” flavors. A 2016 pencil drawing called Park Here shows the exterior of a parking garage with a massive sign bearing those instructions running down the center. In her art she pays close attention to whatever calls to her, to whatever she feels like. Her paintings show storefronts, current or shuttered; houses, inhabited or empty; street corners, peopled or quiet—all rendered with precise, attentive care. Rabe’ Masinter grew up in New Orleans and has made the city her main subject. She got her start in advertising, working downtown through the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s before pivoting from commercial art to fine art. Returning to school to study painting, she’d bike from her house in the Carrollton neighborhood to the Tulane campus for classes while at the same time continuing part-time work and raising a family. She has worked as a painter since the late ‘80s and is now working in her 89th year. She met me at LeMieux, where her last show, “Louisiana Now,” was exhibited, to talk about her process.
Do you have any favorite pieces from your last show? What do you like about them?
No. I don’t have any favorites, not really. [laughs] Once a show is over I’m thinking about the next thing. I’m working on a new drawing now.
Could you talk about how a painting comes together? What draws you to a particular scene?
I just ride around and see what interests me. I have a small camera in my car, so I can just hop out. Sometimes I would go on site and do little sketches. I used to be able to take a folding chair and sit on the street and sketch, but it’s not safe to do that anymore. In some areas, I’ve had older people come out of their houses to tell me, “Don’t sit out here, it’s not safe.” And of course, with the coronavirus, we also have had to be careful about exposure. For this one, [pointing to her painting The Hot Spot] I just saw this wall, and I don’t know exactly where that is, but I think it’s on Simon Bolivar. And these two men were working on this car and I said, “Would you just stay there?” because they made a great composition. Sometimes people say, “No, I don’t want to be in any painting.” But lots of times they say, “Yeah, what do you want me to do?” I just liked that sign, and the colors worked out great. He really was in a yellow shirt, and there’s a red car there, and it picks up the colors in the sign. And I love painting cars, I really do. I love painting cars as much as painting buildings. I like the contrast between the old and the new. I know a lot of people like to leave them out of street scenes, but it’s part of our life. I like putting them in.
How do you decide what medium to work with?
I love my watercolors, and I don’t work that much in oils now because I have to stand up to paint in oils, and my knees are not in great shape—that’s aging. With the oils, I stand up to do them on an easel, but the watercolors are easy because I have a big drawing table, and I can sit down on a stool. But I like working in both mediums, and I like doing pencil drawings.
Tattoos (2014), Watercolor
You grew up in New Orleans? What part of town were you in?
Yes. I was born in New Orleans and grew up in New Orleans. We lived at 2419 North Johnson Street, but I was born in the house a couple of blocks over. It was on the side of the St. Roch cemetery, and a lot of my relatives are buried in that cemetery. They’re in the oldest part of the cemetery, which is from the 1870s I think, and there are a lot of German families around there. I’ve done—not recently—but I’ve done some watercolors and drawings of that cemetery. My father did not grow up in that neighborhood, but we lived there because my mother grew up in that neighborhood. Her maiden name is Sedgwick, which is an English spelling of the name Zedwick. The name Rabe is actually a German name, but they gave it a French pronunciation (they just put an accent on the E) to fit in better here. Some of my relatives are buried there, and some of them are buried in the Masonic Cemetery. I’ve done watercolors and drawings of both of them. My relatives that were buried in the Masonic Cemetery, of course, belonged to the Masonic organization. Some of my grandparents and my parents and my sister are buried in that cemetery. I don’t know if you’ve seen it—it’s right on City Park Avenue.
So your relatives have been in the city for a long time?
Yes. I think I had one relative on my mother’s side who came here before the Civil War, but most of them came here right around that time. There was, I’m sure, a lot of unrest—they were from a working class background—so they were looking for more opportunities. Which they found. On my father’s side, my great-uncle owned Economy Iron Works, and I think they sold the business right before World War II. I think they made sugar refinery equipment, which was very lucrative then because sugar was a big thing in Louisiana. I’ve done some drawings of it; the building is still there. I don’t know what they make there now, but it’s still the Economy Iron Works.
Foreign (2018), Watercolor on paper
Does the city look very different from how it did when you were young?
It hasn’t changed that much—the older parts. The newer part of the city has changed a bit, but I don’t really paint the newer houses except for commissions. I like the older parts of the city—the frame houses, or the brick, anything with a patina on it. It’s just more interesting to me.
When and how did you get into visual art?
When I started getting a little bit interested in drawing in grammar school and then in high school, I had some excellent teachers. I went to John McDonogh High School, which was an all-girls school at the time, and I had one or two art professors there. Most of the women who taught in the public school system were either college graduates or had two years of college. So I had great instruction. The public school system had a good emphasis on art, music, and theater. My sister was seven years older. She went to Catholic school and took extra classes with [the artist] John McCrady. So my parents were very supportive. Which, a lot of parents weren’t. This was before women’s liberation. A lot of parents really thought their daughters would just finish high school and get married. I think that was true for a lot of people. Probably it changed because of World War II—more women went to work, so then they had to be better educated. But my parents were just open to ideas like that. I’ve tried to be a parent that had that attitude, and I was very grateful that my parents had that attitude. I didn’t feel that I had to fit into a certain niche, or that my sister did.
Could you talk a bit about what it was like working in advertising in the ‘50s and ‘60s?
Oh, I enjoyed everything about the job. I worked at D. H. Holmes in the advertising department. It was a department store and we did newspaper advertising; they had a page every day. We used to do catalogues, and I think we did a fashion catalogue a couple of times. Newspaper advertising was a big business back when they had all the retail stores—and there are still retail stores—but then everybody orders online now. I did a couple illustrations, but I mostly did layouts and copy. I worked full time. I was the production supervisor briefly, before I got married and right after I got married, but then I started to have children so I just worked for them as a freelance artist. They would have me come in if they needed extra help. Sometimes I would get to do a Christmas ad or a Thanksgiving ad. I like interacting with people, and of course while working in advertising I had to do that. But I remember when I worked freelance I told them I would rather have the little office without the telephone. I like to be able to work without distraction. But I’ve seen other commercial artists: They can have a phone on their shoulder, talking away, or looking through a computer while doing something else. I can’t do that. I like to concentrate on one thing.
What were your coworkers like?
They were great. A lot of them are deceased now, ‘cause I’m up in age! I’m still friends with one of the younger women who did layouts and copy. She lives out of town now; we still stay in touch. She’s about 15 years younger than me. Most of the people who were there that were my age or older are deceased.
Were there a lot of women working there? Or were you one of a few?
There were quite a few women working there, and I worked under two women who were head of the advertising department. So even at that time they had women in executive positions, which I guess was a little unusual.
The Hot Spot (2017), Oil on canvas
What was the process of transitioning to working in fine art like?
While I was still working in advertising, I went back to Tulane and started drawing and painting again. I went part time because I was still working part time. At the time I lived at the corner of Jeannette and Fern street, which is within riding distance on a bike. So it was great that I could go back and do that. I enjoyed my classes. A couple of my professors who knew that I was a professional commercial artist once or twice made remarks like, “Well now, remember that this is fine art, not commercial art.” But I don’t see any difference between fine art and commercial art. Andy Warhol was a commercial artist—he did window designs and advertising before he became famous as a fine artist. Then I also went back and got my master’s in education—because you never know how the art field is going to be. That way, with a master’s, I was able to work at NOMA for a short period of time before I retired, and I taught art history classes at Tulane and UNO.
Did you feel like your background in commercial art was useful to you in fine art?
Yeah. It teaches you how to work faster, and not to be so precious about every little mark you put on a canvas or a piece of paper. With commercial art, you might wrap up fish in it to throw out tomorrow. It gives you an awareness that things don’t always last.
How do you feel like your most recent show continues with or diverges from the work you’ve done before?
I think with most artists the work they create is kind of similar. It may look a little different to the public eye. And you can see a progression in their work. A lot of my younger friends don’t draw or paint anymore. They do everything on the computer now. But there are still young artists like the young artists that are showing here [at LeMieux] that use traditional materials. I don’t like working with a computer, but it’s because I didn’t start off very young with a computer. I don’t even use it anymore. I disconnected it.
When you were raising your kids, was it hard to balance painting and parenting?
Yes it was. But I just wanted to do it. And my children were very good about helping me, they really were. I think they would get aggravated with me sometimes but, you know, they were fine. I don’t think they were resentful of it at all. I have four children, and when I worked at D. H. Holmes sometimes they would come downtown after school, and my two sons loved to go to the little soldier shop in the Quarter. My daughter has a couple of paintings of mine in her office now, and I did two street scenes for my son’s office. I think my first husband and his wife have some paintings of mine as well, and I still have the paintings I’ve done with my second husband, unless I gave any of them to his children. We were both older, so we didn’t have any children together. My children were supportive of me working, and of me being an artist.
Were many of your friends also visual artists?
Oh, yeah. I guess there are some artists who don’t want anybody to see their work because they’re afraid that somebody is gonna steal an idea or something. But I think because I worked in advertising it was more collaborative. One of my friends who did layouts for years, Elizabeth Laughlin, was married to the photographer Clarence John Laughlin at one time. Then they divorced, and they both got remarried, but then they got back together. I think he’s buried in France now. But Betty and I stayed friends. That would probably be the most well-known commercial artist that I worked with.
Theophile Prudhomme (2013), Oil on canvas
Who do you spend time with nowadays?
I spend time with my family, and I don’t know if eventually I’ll end up being taken care of by one of my children, or in some facility. It’s just the way life is if you live a long time. I have a couple of friends who live in Christwood on the North Shore, and a good friend of mine lives in Lambeth House. I used to go to lunch at Lambeth House, but since the virus we don’t do that anymore. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that again.
What’s your working routine like now? Has it changed as you’ve gotten older?
I usually swim in the morning, then come home, have breakfast, and rest awhile, and then I get started around 10:30. I’ll work for an hour or two, take a break, and then work in the afternoon. I used to work a little bit at night, and I do have spotlights in my studio, so I can work at night, but the light isn’t the same. I have a window in my little studio at home and my drawing table is right there so I have a lot of natural light. I used to be able to work about four to six hours a day, but now if I work two to three, that’s the maximum. I get really tired. It’s not my hands or my arms or my eyes, but my legs get tired, and my back. It’s just the aging process. I’m glad that I still have my facilities. I’m glad that I still can do it. I think that most people who don’t do any kind of creative work have no idea how much energy it takes. It’s not something that you can just sit down and be done with quickly. To create anything—it takes a lot of energy.
To see more of Shirley Rabe’ Masinter’s work, go to lemieuxgalleries.com.
Top photo by Alena Cover