64 Parishes

Fall 2015

Bent, Not Broken

The Ogden Museum of Art showcases the photography, paintings, and drawings of Michael Meads.

Published: August 25, 2015
Last Updated: September 17, 2018

On October 3, 2015, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art opened Bent, Not Broken, an exhibition of photographs, paintings, and drawings by Michael Meads. This exhibition offered not only a close look at the output of an artist whose style is steeped in the culture of the Deep South, but also a lyrical and visionary, deeply personal depiction of that artist’s relationship with the people and culture of New Orleans.

Michael Wayne Meads was born in 1966 in Anniston, Alabama, on the southernmost slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He earned a BFA from Auburn University in 1987, and a MFA from State University of New York at Albany in 1990. After a brief stay in Brooklyn, Meads returned to his native Alabama, maintaining a studio in the rural community of Eastaboga.

An artist since childhood, Meads developed a style as a painter, draftsman and photographer that expresses a personal narrative filtered through the lens of classical themes and a deep sense of place. From his Eastaboga studio, Meads crafted an intimate visual narrative of rural Alabama. The surviving Alabama work offers a glimpse into a South hidden to outsiders — one where tenderness and vulnerability are revealed in the midst of poverty and violence.

Like many young men born in the Bible Belt, New Orleans held a deep allure to Meads from an early age. “When I was a boy I remember my father listening to the radio broadcasts of a ‘hellfire and brimstone’ Baptist minister preaching from Bourbon Street. Even at that young age I knew there was something about New Orleans that was enticingly forbidden as my father would warn me repeatedly to never go to that wicked city,” he recalls. He moved with his partner, Charles Canada, to the Crescent City in 1998, fulfilling a dream and deepening a relationship with a place that has served as setting, character and muse for most of his work since. Meads further developed his art through both subject and medium in New Orleans. He drew from the culture and individuals around him — from the bars of the French Quarter to the ritual and history of Carnival. He became a New Orleanian. He also became a master of graphite.

In August 2005, the floodwaters from the breach of the federal levee system in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina filled the first floor of Mead’s home and studio. Fifty percent of his life’s work was destroyed. Returning to the city in 2007, Meads quickly realized that there was still much healing to be done before he could live in his adopted home again. Choosing the arid, isolated environment of the high desert as the place to heal, Meads and Canada bought an adobe house in Abiquiu, New Mexico, building a studio in 2009 where he continues to work today.

Bent, Not Broken, will focus on the massive graphite drawings created post-Katrina. In these drawings, Meads creates a magical world (much like Carnival itself) where valkyries and Roman gods mingle with frat boys and firemen. Plague doctors and Pulcinella roam the streets of the Vieux Carré, and winged putti struggle to support the crumbling edifices of historic architecture. With a masterful hand, Meads creates a graphite opera — complete with proscenium arch — where each work is a complex visual libretto. With pencil and paper, Meads tells the story of New Orleans: the storm, the oil spill, the HIV epidemic, tourism, history, gentrification and demographic shift, all through the lens of Carnival. This body of work is both celebration and cautionary tale. It is both deeply personal and universal. To Michael, it is healing.

Above all, it is New Orleans.