Painter and calligrapher Andrea Mistretta talks about her art, Mardi Gras, New Orleans culture and music

"The heart and soul conveys the strongest connections to the human spirit and is timeless. That is why music or art made with those true components stay."

Andrea Mistretta: Litanie Des Saints

Andrea Mistretta is a self taught artist, illustrator, graphic designer and calligrapher. Drawing since age three, she worked with her parents in their small screen print shop during her teen years. A recipient of awards from Society of Illustrators, The Art Directors Club and the prestigious Vargas Award, she considers New Orleans citizenship bestowed by Mayor Bartholemy a very special honor. An activist for the protection artists’ rights, Andrea also works vigorously as an environmental activist and founder of Friends of White’s Pond where her studio is located.

Her Mardi Gras art has been the subject of several feature articles in domestic and international art magazines and books. For more than a century many talented artists with visions reaching the outer limits of imagination, have crafted the European inspired tradition of Carnival into the very American celebration of New Orleans Mardi Gras. Since 1985, the enchanting and joyful expressions of one such artist, Andrea Mistretta, have not only graced the heart of the Crescent City, but her posters  have also been exhibited at Disney World and Universal Studios. Opulently framed in grand homes, humbly pushpinned to the walls of school dorms and hung in local taverns, her classic poster art is a slice of Mardi Gras Culture. Mistretta has been a major influence in the popularity of Mardi Gras celebrations to US regions outside of New Orleans and the South. Mayor Sidney Barthelemy conferred her with the title of Honorary Citizen for promoting a positive image of Mardi Gras and New Orleans through her art. Mistretta’s art has been the foundation of the most successful licensing program in Mardi Gras’ history, with products encompassing not only posters, but tee shirts, silk apparel, jigsaw puzzles, wine bottles, music CD’s and more.

As aficionado of both New Orleans and Sicilian culinary arts, Andrea has designed her own New Orleans Style Sicilian Hot Sauce.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

Andrea, when was your first desire to become involved in the painting and Mardi Gras posters. How did it start?

I loved making art since I was 3 years old. I was exposed to Jazz through my family’s appreciation of it. My grandfather who we lived with loved and listened to 78 rpm records daily in our home. He played Louis Armstrong as well as his opera collection, which I keep intact today though he passed away in 1977. Both my parents, John and Rose were artistic and always listened to jazz, swing, big band. Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, Kenton were just some of the artists heard in my father’s little screen print shop situated next to our home. I was always in my father’s shop as a child and worked alongside him in my teens where music always playing on the radio or on 33 LP stereo record player. The eclectic soundtrack of my formative years in the 1960s included rhythm and blues, Motown. The sound of “Blue Eyed Soul” from such artists as Joey Dee and the Starlighters, Felix Cavaliere’s Young Rascals and were just a segment of the spectrum of musical moods I had exposure to. It’s loving New Orleans and Jazz, my love of color and art led me right to Mardi Gras.

 

What does New Orleans Art mean to you and what does offer you? How does the music and culture come out of your art?

It means much to my inspiration. I consider myself both a New Yorker and a New Orleanian though I still live in the town of Waldwick, New Jersey a suburb of New York where I grew up.  New Orleans and New York have a somewhat of jealous romance with one another. If one is from New York, one romanticizes about the fondly nicknamed “Big Easy” where its character, humor, and slower pace inspire a sharper awareness of life’s joys and sorrows. That attribute allows it to still be a breeding ground for creativity and appreciation. From New Orleans’ point of view, romantising about making one’s success in the “Big Apple.” New York, as nicknamed conjures thoughts of aspirations with its sophistication, wealth, access and worldliness. An example this paradoxical but complimentary relationship is presented in a chef’s and a musician’s storylines in the dramatic series of “Treme” I recommend for music lovers.

My own romantic perspective and longing to be in New Orleans because of stories and music I heard of this special place for the arts offered me inspiration as it still does. The color of Mardi Gras was something I needed for my spirit. Feelings that I was missing out on a good time there while here in the dull cold winters of the north gives me the “Blues.”

To analogize about the music relationship I am playing sort of a visual jazz. Almost 30 years later I still play a different rendition of the same “song” the lady’s harlequin like expression in this particular New Orleans Mardi Gras poster art series.  I improvise its story as I go along. That is the art, as is the art of improvisational jazz.

 

What do you learn about yourself from the colors and blues music?

Lack of the southern sun’s fuller spectrum of color during New York winters cause a “seasonal affective disorder” The full spectrum of colors I work with my art are therapeutic I believe and fool my eye to believing I am in the south. It enhances my painting while music streams from New Orleans’ WWOZ Radio station and also gives me the comforting feeling that I am back in my father’s shop or back in New Orleans.

 

What characterizes the philosophy of your art and how do you describe Andrea Mistretta’s Mardi Gras posters?

Simply to connect its viewer to a time and place that conveys joy and pleasure. No heavy messages. Just playful with underlying stories and games and shouting for some attention. Like Mardi Gras itself.

 

What are some of the most memorable drawings you've had?

My first drawing I still have. The first Mardi Gras painting. I also still have.

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the New Orleans culture?

From several dear friends and also my poster publishers who are like my second family in New Orleans. They show me the nuances of color in between the spectrum of New Orleans as only true natives can perceive. I’ve learned from a close perspective over 3 decades of travels back and forth from New York to New Orleans.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst? 

Worst: When I couldn’t find my friends after Katrina. Best: when I was able to give back to New Orleans from sales of my posters and book to build Musicians Village.

Though one may think receiving the Alberto Vargas award which is given to such luminaries in my illustration field like H.R. Geiger, Mark Fredrickson, Charles White III, and others would be the best, but it was actually just sitting quietly on my friend Tara’s balcony on 205 Bourbon Street in the year 2000 as I looked over the throngs of people with many wearing tee shirts with my designs, commercial banners hung on balconies I designed for Heineken’s Mardi Gras as well as my own poster series were everywhere. The thousands celebrating didn’t know they were surrounded with my art, or knew who I was and that I was there. it was very gratifying for me to observe my art as the backdrop for this scene, much like New Orleans music itself was the background sound to my themed art. It was “reverberating” moment.

My “worst’ experience involved protecting my rights to create my livelihood as an artist. 

 

Why did you think that Mardi Gras and New Orleans culture and music continues to generate such a devoted following?

The heart and soul conveys the strongest connections to the human spirit and is timeless. That is why music or art made with those true components stay. There’s no fooling what is true.

 

How do you describe Mardi Gras philosophy for the life?

Perhaps it’s not what life ought to be but it is what life is. Many are all the happier for it.

 

What kind of music you hear when you painting? 

I listen to WWOZ streaming so I feel like I can just walk out my door onto Royal Street in the French Quarter.

 

Which musicians, would you like to meet and draw?

To draw and paint in tribute the women of soulful music, Marcia Ball, Charmaine Neville, Koko Taylor, Katie Webster, Etta James, Janis Joplin

 

How you would spend a day with Katie Webster? 

I’d like to take her out to my friend’s house in Waveland on the Mississippi Coast where the beautiful beaches are healing and cook up a Crawfish Boil and invite our best friends. 

 

What would you say to Professor Longhair?

Nothing, I would just listen to what he said and what wonderful song he wanted to play.

 

Do you know why the New Orleans is connected to the Jazz and Blues music? 

It’s no short story knowing some of New Orleans history. There is plenty reason for the blues, especially for the the black populations. Even the large Sicilian population that came to work the cotton and sugar plantations with blacks after emancipation of the slaves and worked hard under the hot humid sun. The music influences with each another. Compare Sicilian’s religious feasts processional music that sounds similar to dirges the black funerals of New Orleans. There is much complexity to the connections of the Blues to Jazz and vice versa.

 

Are there any “memories” from Mardi Gras festivals which you’d like to share with us?

Sharing the throws with the crowds from the Mardi Gras parade floats of my first Mardi Gras. The first morning I awoke to the sounds of the foghorns on the Mississippi River, a distant calliope on the Natchez, horse drawn carriages on Jackson Square and the smells of café au lait from Café du Monde across the street and wafts of a creole spice from the restaurant below Margarita Bergen’s apartment. I was in love with the city. I am only still north because I am torn between my family here and my love for New Orleans. Woe am I? I am so lucky to have what I do, so the longing continues expressed through my Mardi Gras posters.

 

What is your painting DREAM?

Without a doubt to create The New Orleans Jazz Fest poster. I understand it is very competitive and political to do so I haven’t approached the committee as of yet. The second dream would be to create a series of US Postal stamps of Jazz greats as I did for St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It included Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and Louis Prima and Nick LaRocca.

 

What are some of the most memorable tales from the famous local bars? 

I was at Vaughn’s (favorite musician’s bar) about midnight on a quiet Ash Wednesday after “The Storm” listening to “Washboard Chaz”. Anderson Cooper came in and I didn’t recognize this CNN reporterand had a nice casual conversation with him. Then I realized he was the reporter most of the world got their Katrina news from. 

 

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the New Orleans of old romantic times?

“Feel” is a sense hard to describe. It’s an elusive, joyful, melancholy, wistful, longing vibe. It’s “What means to miss New Orleans.”

 

You had pretty interesting activist projects.  Would you tell a little bit about that?

The Mardi Gras poster series has advocated for artists because it has long been a source of inspiration to others but at times a detriment to me as a business person when undermined by several misappropriations from businesses seeking to exploit my art for their monetary gain and bypassing compensation to me. Two of the cases involved landmark decisions. In 1992 prevailing in a “Substantial Similarity” case and more recently in 2008 as an exhibit for United States legislation to learn about ”Orphan Works” bill that would have injurious effects on copyright protection. Legislators rejected the bill it therefore preserving copyright law.

 

To order authentic New Orleans Mardi Posters, artist signed:

Andrea Mistretta's official website

 

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