We’d heard about the cultural delights of Northern Louisiana—engaging art, accessible artistic communities, great food and elemental American music–but we’d never taken time to visit. So when New Orleans’ restaurants and hotel rooms were jammed and priced beyond our means during the first few days of our scheduled vacation, we decided to fly into the Shreveport/Bossier Airport instead, rent a car and treat ourselves to a slow and easy “discovery road trip” that would, soon enough, deliver us to NOLA. Great decision! Over several days, lollygagging southeast towards New Orleans in a “hot” (rented) Mustang convertible, we discovered rich and nuanced communities that beautifully complemented closing our trip with a few days in one of our favorite venues: The Big Easy. Who knew how much fun we’d have and how easy and delightful the experience would be? We came to call our time in Northern Louisiana our trip to “The Other Easy.”
Shreveport is strategically nestled in the northwest corner of Louisiana on the Red River. The Red River has long been a main artery connecting the cotton fields that built wealth in northern Louisiana to the gulf ports. After Captain Shreve burst out the huge log jam that blocked traffic to and from Texas, Shreveport became a gateway city to a bustling frontier. Shreveport’s sister city on the north side of the Red is Bossier, an anchor on the Texas Trail that connected Atlanta to Dallas. A predecessor to the old Las Vegas “sin city,” Bossier was home of the sometimes notorious Bossier Strip that in its time provided all the necessaries to settlors and soldiers alike. But that was then, and this is now. Today, Shreveport and Bossier present a buttoned-up sparkling and renewed downtown that is home to oil and gas executives, a bit of gaming on the river and a growing arts, a movie and foodie community, partly nourished by aggressive tax incentives and a creative diaspora that moved north in Katrina’s wake. Visitors can choose accommodations at a new Hilton by the Convention Center or a casino room at the Horseshoe or Margaretville, depending on mood. Diners can kick back with a remoulade po-boy at Marilyn’s Place, choose an iconic creole étoufée at Herby K’s or to dine where the chef’s go, Bossier’s Lucky Palace, a Chinese restaurant offering truly fine dining and boasting a world class wine cellar. Really. Who knew?!?
Shreveport’s arts community is diverse and deep. Its musical heritage recalls the harmonies of the Louisiana Hayride, the rhythms of Ledbetter’s twelve string and echoes of early Elvis, signing in Bossier’s clubs and at Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium (from which the famous line “Elvis has left the building” first emanated). Its native sons drove the evolution of Rock a Billy to Rock ‘n Roll. At its Calathanean Temple, where by day well healed African American business men provided insurance, business and banking services to the area’s large African American population, the nighttimes belonged to jazz musicians like Louie Armstrong and Cab Calloway who provided dance music to audiences both black and white long before President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to support the Little Rock nine. But that is another story.
Like many cities in Northern Louisiana, the Shreveport/Bossier area knows how to party. The area draws tens of thousands of visitors to its springtime Mardi Gras parades and its fall Red River Revel, a two week festival (party) for artists, musicians, chefs and all those who enjoy their respective work. While our timing missed both these events, we did ferret out the Mardi Gras Museum on Texas Avenue in Bossier that allowed us an up-close-and-personal look at just how the party and the whoopee is made just before Lent each year, at least by the Gemini Krewe. Marti Gras—Fat Tuesday, the last chance to party hardy before Lent—has occasioned public and private celebrations for centuries. The French brought the Mardi Gras tradition with them when they settled the New Orleans area in the early 1700s. But the fun was too much for one venue, even New Orleans. Consistent with “Lazzier les Bonne Temps Rouler” (Let the Good Times Roll…), the spirit rolled into Shreveport/Bossier (the two cities sparking the idea of Gemini) and the area’s largest “Parading Krewe” was born, drawing revelers from the tri-state area, supporting the Ark-La-Tex brand of the Gemini Krewe. Bossier’s Marti Gras Museum is full of costumes, throws and other memorabilia, all of which come to life when the staff share the stories behind the parties—picking the theme, selecting the royalty, court and Krewe and finally bring the good times to the peoples’ parade.
Down the road a bit, in an elegant, gentrified residential Shreveport neighborhood, is another unexpected jewel of an art experience: the R.W. Norton Art Gallery. The Norton boasts a stunning collection of Remington’s and Russell’s as well as an impressive range of other works—old masters, impressionists and contemporary artists. Throughout the gallery, paintings and visual media play off against sculpture and decorative art, sometimes playfully, such as a famous sculptural image of Marilyn Monroe from the Seven Year Itch juxtaposed against a bronze of Paul Cezanne painting, perhaps Mont Sainte Victoire. But it is the Remington’s and Russell’s that make the visit special. In the main galleries, the blend of paintings, watercolors and sculpture—lifelike, frozen energy—magically transport the viewer from Shreveport to the American West of 100 years ago. Cowboys, Indians, horses, buffalo—you’re there. And to punctuate the experience, if you are fortunate enough to be at the Norton in late Spring, do not miss the gardens—a riot of color and texture set in the tranquility of the Gallery’s spacious back yard.
Interstate 49 was our routing southeast towards New Orleans. A couple hours out of Shreveport, we stopped at a visitor’s center to get suggestions for our time in Alexandria, a surprisingly vibrant mid-State community that successfully reinvented itself after the closing of England Air Force Base in the early 1990’s. Either amazing fortune was with us, or Northern Louisiana just rocks all the time. At a visitor’s center, at 10:30am on a weekday morning, the town was warming up for the Little Walter Music Festival, remembering the legendary local blues sideman and Louisiana Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer. The warmup featured live music from the tribute band with Leon Medica (Louisiana’s LaRoux). Wailing harmonica, great lead guitar riffs and Medica’s base. So a glorified pit stop and map check turned out to be a kickin’ jam session. That’s a quality road trip in Northern Louisiana.
In Alexandria, we stopped first at the Alexandria Museum of Art, housed in the Rapides Bank Building, a National Register structure, just south of Spanish Bayou. AMoA’s Mission here is well executed: promote visual arts in a manner that contributes to the quality of life. Selections from the Museum’s collection of regional artists, liberally supplemented by rotating exhibits, are scaled to give the viewer a vision of an artists’ body of work. This mission and its execution offer an accessible counterpoint to heaviness of better-known, encyclopedic museums. A photographer interpreted the somewhat surreal experience of army units training for urban warfare in settings mocked up to mimic Iraq and Afghanistan. Kids interpreted their experiences of Louisiana in a juried exhibition from Louisiana schools—pretty interesting to see the world through kids’ eyes. And in the main gallery, twenty or so prints by Theo Tabiasse, a lush collection of aquatints, lithographs and carbonrundums filled with Chagall-like images depicting 20th century memories of life in Paris, including during Nazi occupation. Catherine Pears, the Executive Director, brings a refreshing curatorial approach that indeed makes the art experience enhance the quality of life in Alexandria.
River Oaks Arts Center, also in Alexandria, is a community for working artists and artisans. Studio space is affordable, and there is room to exhibit and sell. But there is also communication among community members and that drives experimentation in new concepts. River Oaks is an incubator of artistic expression. One thinks of the interactive creative process at the Bauhaus or even Matisse and Picasso showing early work on Sunday afternoons in Gertrude Stein’s living room in pre-war Paris, driving future masterworks by their interaction. Whether River Oaks has the gravitas to pull off birthing that level of talent is beside the point; a visit, a chance to talk with the artists in residence about their process, is an extraordinary glimpse into the life cycle of the art and artist, and opens broader questions and deeper experience than might first appear when viewing the final product on a museum’s walls.
No road trip through Northern Louisiana would be complete without stopping in at some of the local festivals which seem to be everywhere, all the time. The problem is not finding the entertainment, but picking which ones. In the morning, we detoured to the Melrose Plantation crafts festival to see a collection of Clementine Hunter’s art depicting plantation life as this African American, self-taught folk artist remembered it. At the time she worked at Melrose, the owner had welcomed writers and artists to a makeshift arts community. Paints and brushes left behind by an “established” (now forgotten) painter became Hunter’s discovery tools. From these discards, Hunter’s representations of life in the Cane River plantations emerged: basic, direct, evocative. And as long as we were road tripping, we took an afternoon drive to Leesville’s annual Mayfest, an annual weekend gathering of locals and visitors coming together to enjoy food, music and the arts. We wandered through the historic district, soaking up warm sunshine, welcoming smiles and the smells and sight of local food artisans. Off the main drag, Gallery One Ellleven (no, that’s not a typo) is an arts cooperative showing off the area’s cultural resources and history—Charlie Viers weaving pine straw into colorful, swooping, lyrical shapes, a cross between basket art and a Calder mobile–as well as painters, printmakers and photographers documenting area patrimony and shaping its future artistic direction. We closed our day of festival exploration at the Booker-Lewis Restaurant, where one could enjoy both the art of the restored mansion and some pretty fancy cuisine featuring regional dishes with farm to table freshness. Just another day exploring Northern Louisiana’s byways.
Our time in The Other Easy was just that—easy, fun, relaxing, informative. Fine Art, Folk Art, Organic Art: Sights, Sounds, Tastes. Northern Louisiana is beguiling in the warmth of its residents and the richness of the cultural experience. Truly a great destination to meander for a few days and where one can happily relax and Let the Good Times Roll.