The Origin of the Jazz Museum's Charles Gresham Mural

Charles Gresham’s mural, displayed on the first floor of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

Charles Gresham’s mural, displayed on the first floor of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

This mural was created by Charles Gresham in the early 1930s. It was donated to the State of Louisiana by Charles Reinike in 1982. It is displayed on the first floor of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

About Charles H. Reinike

Charles Reinike was an artist and director of the Reinike Academy of Art. He decided to become an artist at the age of 15 after a long stay at the hospital. Before that, he wanted to be a physician but made the decision to “dig into life with paint brushes for beauty rather than with surgeon’s knives for appendices and the like”. At 628 Toulouse St in the New Orleans French Quarter, he directed the Reinike Academy of Art as a modern school of fine arts. He was also part of the Art Association in New Orleans, as well as the New Orleans Art League.

About Charles Gresham

Charles Gresham is the artist who made the mural. He studied fine arts and ended up being a one year student at the Reinike Academy.  After a year at the Academy, he wanted to produce larger works and asked the director, Charles Reinike, to allow him to paint the walls of the Academy. Reinike accepted, thinking it would be a good practice, describing the work as “harmonious in color and pleasing to the eye, and being an inspiration to the students”. He painted many murals at the Academy. He then made a career as an artist and opened the Gresham Gallery and Picture framing store at 717 Toulouse Street, before his death in 1979.

The creation of the mural by Charles Gresham in the early 1930’s.

The creation of the mural by Charles Gresham in the early 1930’s.

He made this mural in the early 30s. It was installed in the Reinike gallery at Toulouse Street for a long time. When the gallery was moved to another location in 1982, Charles H. Reinike decided to donate this piece to the State Museum “as an institution that is dedicated to preserving historical art and antiquities to ensure the continued availability of this piece to the public ”. (Arts and Antiques Magazine, December 1938-February 1939)

The mural is a Works Progress Administration (WPA) plaster relief. As stated by the American Public Broadcaster Service (PBS), the WPA was an employment program under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, offering low-paying jobs to more than 8.5 million people, to build bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks and airports”. One of its goal was also to support artists. “The WPA supported tens of thousands of artists, by funding creation of 2,566 murals and 17,744 pieces of sculpture that decorate public buildings nationwide”. This mural was made under this political plan. It depicts five men engaged in sculpture and also a heavy lettering in art deco style. The dimensions are 13” x 13”.  The mural was created under the direction of Charles Reinike and Albert Ricker, a sculptor known for embellishment of government buildings in Louisiana.

New Orleans was at one time the art center of the US (...) the cultural status of a city is identified by its regard of aesthetic values through art representation.
— Charles Reinike

In December 1982, The mural was donated to the State of Louisiana. A departmental request for the mural to be put in the Old Mint Building also provided an exact location for it to be on the first floor in the hallway of the building.  An accession committee entry form from November 8 1982 provides a justification of the gift, being the creation of a Louisiana artist and also “one of the city’s more influential souvenirs”.

Transfer of Ownership from Charles H. Reinike to the State of Louisiana, December 20th 1982

Transfer of Ownership from Charles H. Reinike to the State of Louisiana, December 20th 1982

In a letter from Charles H. Reinike from October 27,1982, Charles declared “I feel the museum is the appropriate recipient of Gresham’s work as it is concerned with preserving heritage left by the artists and craftsmen of this state”. He also describes Gresham as “one of the most accomplished and well respected interior designers”. Also he stated that the material used was a good example of the work that Louisiana artists were creating at this period in history.After making this donation in 1982, Charles H. Reinike died in 1983.

The mural was brought to the museum in different pieces to be installed in the hallway, in this particular setting.

The mural was brought to the museum in different pieces to be installed in the hallway, in this particular setting.

The object of art is to crystallize emotion into thought and fix it in form.
— Francois Delsarte

This statement made by François Delsarte is to be found on the mural and is a reflexion on the process of artistic creation.

As a singer, professor and theoretician from the 19th century (1811-1871), François Delsarte studied at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1922 and graduated in 1925. He received his doctorate and had a post at the University of Nancy. He remained in Nancy for the rest of his life. He studied body gestures and its meanings. He considered that life, soul and spirit were the three elements that made the live human body. He stated that life brought movement to arms and legs, soul to the chest and finally spirit to the head. He established a strong link between the inner state of an individual and the way he expresses himself. As such, being aware of your inner emotions and feelings would be a way to know yourself, express yourself and live better. He mainly linked this statement to the performing arts area, bringing a reflection on how to use the human body as a tool of creation.

What he describes comes from the theory of “expressionism” stating that artistic expression is the manifestation of a feeling. As such, what starts with an emotion (physical manifestation) is put into the concrete and fixed form of a thought (mental expression) and finally is translated into the material form of a medium. This medium, as varied as it can be (painting, melody, body movements) becomes accessible to others through sensory stimulus; the most common ones being sight and hearing. Even though a transition is happening with contemporary forms of Art offering artistic experiences of touch and smell, why not taste?

As Art that can be touched, we can mention Akousmaflore. This installation, made by the french artists Grégory Lasserre & Anaïs met den Ancxt, is a garden of musical plants. These flowers will make tons of different sounds when being touched by visitors.

Installation in Korea

Installation in Korea

As such, we can ask ourselves a few questions.

Is Art an expression of the inner state of an artist ?

unnamed (4).jpg

As described, this process is contradictory to realism, where art is considered as a representation of the external world. A piece of art is here considered to be the outer expression of the inner state of an artist. François Delsarte describes the process of creation following the three steps of emotion, thought, and form.

However, we must differentiate the expression of one’s emotion, as tears coming from sadness or shouting coming from anger. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) describes this as a “natural release” which differs from the process of expression, with the necessity for  a medium. It seems fair to say that an artist cannot produce something totally detached from his personal experiences and emotions. As a creator, there is obviously a personal part of him in his piece. However, how it would be received by the viewer can also vary culturally. Most people will try to understand the meaning of the creation according to what its author wanted to say while searching for explanations. Some others will bring it to their own personal experience in order to find a meaning, perhaps getting a different interpretation, and as a result, a different emotion.

Is the feeling embodied in the piece of Art ?

unnamed (5).jpg

Let’s take a concrete example.  You might have heard “This music is sad” or “This song makes me feel so happy”. What’s going on here?  Is the process of creation expressing the emotion of the artist itself for the viewer to feel this way? In other words, is the piece of art bringing this emotion to me personally or is this emotion embodied in the piece of art? It is difficult to accept that an emotional quality could be comprised in a piece of creation. However, some researchers have stated that we can find similarities between features of music and features of human feeling. X being the passage of a music, Y being the human feeling, they observed that X could be equal to Y. Take a happy song:  a simple explanation could be that certain qualities are to be perceived in the music (ex: tempo, dynamics, pitch, rhythm). These qualities are close to the human experience of happiness, speed, loudness and high speaking voices. This theory could explain how emotional characteristics can be attributed to a piece of art because people tend to recognize their own behaviour in the qualities of a piece of art. As such, the emotion is considered as embodied IN the music, independently of how the artist felt or how the observer will feel when listening to it. It requires the creation of the artist and the interaction of the listener to be moved by them and attribute to them these characteristics. As such, we could agree on a song being a “happy song” whatever we feel when listening to it.

Another theory named formalism states that relating to the artist’s experience when being confronted by a piece of art is a mistake. Its defenders state that it adds a filter in front of what we experience thus not appreciating the true nature of the piece of art and what it could bring to the our own sensorial experience.

I believe that all these theories can be compatible. As such, we cannot generalize the process of creation as it is not an industry. Some would create in their minds, while others would have to be in contact with the medium to produce the form simultaneously as the thought is coming. In addition, many other philosophers have tried to explain stages of creation (Graham Wallas, “The Art of Thought: preparation, incubation, inspiration and elaborations”). I personally think that expressionism, realism and formalism can cohabit all together, and that the practice and diversity of art makes it (almost) impossible to choose a side.

Also, citing the modernity of art, what about performances? and installations? These forms of art are being brought to life by the interactions with the public and might not fit into these classic theories. Performance art hasn’t always been credited as “art” by the fine art world since it is not easily monetized and easy to sell on the market. It gives artists an opportunity to engage with audiences of all backgrounds and ages to address a particular subject or to explore the complexities of the human condition.

This article was written by Philippine Labrousse, Intern at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, Student in Arts Management at ICART Bordeaux, France