Though born and raised in the Northeast, over the past three decades James Michalopoulos has become synonymous with New Orleans. The self-taught artist first gained notice during the 1980s on Bourbon Street, where he sketched portraits of passers-by for up to $3. He has since garnered an international following, built on his trademark takes on local architecture and has positioned himself as one of the city’s most acclaimed talents. You'll see his influence on knockoffs citywide and discover the real deal at his eponymous French Quarter gallery.
When did you first start drawing and what drew you to New Orleans?
I started sketching at a McDonald's in Niagara Falls. Just bored, passing time, but I stayed with it. I came to New Orleans on a lark about 30 years ago. My artist girlfriend suggested New Orleans so I could paint plein air in the winter. I fell in love with the town; she did not.
Many of your works, especially your early paintings, were created outdoors at night. What attracts you to nocturnal New Orleans?
There is a netherworldly quality to New Orleans at night. At times the sky is clearly purple and sprinkles magic. The shadows are deep, and even the ghosts roam more comfortably. The scent of sweet olive calls and tunnels of mystery emerge beneath the oaks’ extended arms. And there you are under the stars, painting this impossibly beautiful scene and thinking nothing could be more majestic, when a young woman rides by on her bike singing, “I-ko, I-ko un-day.”
Is there any one type of architecture or New Orleans neighborhood that most intrigues you?
No, I'm smitten by it all. Every neighborhood has its qualities. That said, I'm painting a lot of the 9th Ward and Bywater because I live there.
You’ve said your paintings “move and groove.” Explain.
I like to listen to R&B while I work. So, I dance and paint. Like any self-respecting New Orleanian, I search for my salvation in orgiastic release. The dance shall set you free!
You have created six of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival's most collectible posters: Dr. John, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Aaron Neville. Are there any other local musicians you’d like to depict?
The Nevilles, Tribe Nunzio, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Kumasi, Tommy Malone, Mem Shannon, Rosie Ledet ... who'd I miss?
Where would you send visitors in search of great live music?
Chickie Wah Wah, Siberia, the AllWays Lounge and Saturn Bar.
You’re presently in France, where you have a summer home and focus on landscapes, and recently returned from a Hawaiian exhibition of tropical fish paintings. Name another destination that calls to you.
Ponchatoula [Louisiana] is a terrific old town; lots of wandering spirits and great bars.
What are you currently working on?
Zen meditation, my lawn mower deck and small canvases of Old Arabi, a lovely neighborhood that sits on the river and reflects on the Big Easy, kind of like Algiers but smaller. The details on the old houses will knock you out.