Artist, curator, and gallery owner George Febres helped lead the resurgence of New Orleans as a regional art center beginning in the 1970s.
Fcharismatic and influential artist, curator, and gallery owner, George Febres was a spirited participant in the resurgence of New Orleans as a regional art center beginning in the 1970s. Immigrating to New Orleans from Ecuador in 1965, Febres embraced the local art community and graduated from the fine arts programs at the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Louisiana State University (LSU). Febres’s work incorporated surrealist and pop art elements with humorous, imaginative, and outrageous visual puns, as in his most well known piece, “Alligator Shoes (Thom McCann Eat Your Heart Out).” Febres opened the Galerie Jules Laforgue, named after his relative the French symbolist poet, and showcased a talented southern regional group of artists known as the “Visionary Imagists.”
Born Jorge Xavier Febres Cordero Icaza on September 10, 1943, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Febres left for America when he was twenty years old. In 1965 he settled in New Orleans, but less than a year later Febres was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. Not willing to sacrifice his residence visa and return to Ecuador, Febres served in the US Army for two years, primarily as a draftsman at Fort Bliss in Texas. After leaving the military, Febres traveled to Paris in 1968, where he visited museums and nurtured his interest in art.
Despite never graduating from high school, Febres managed to get accepted into the undergraduate fine arts program at UNO. He worked his way through college as the assistant director at the artists’ cooperative Orleans Gallery and as a night clerk at the Maison de Ville Hotel in the French Quarter. While working at the hotel he met writer Tennessee Williams and artist Hazel Guggenheim McKinley, both of whom he portrayed in his artwork. He earned an MFA from LSU in Baton Rouge in 1974, where he studied with the painter Robert Warrens.
After graduating from LSU, Febres was asked to teach at UNO’s Summer Program in Munich, West Germany. While in Europe he traveled to Rome and visited the Vatican Apostolic Library, where he researched his cousin Francisco Febres-Cordero Mύnoz (1854–1910), known as Brother Miguel, who was destined to be a saint. Febres spent years researching the priest, attending his beatification ceremony in Vatican City in 1977 and curating the exhibition “My Cousin, the Saint” at the Contemporary Art Center in 1982, where he asked artists to incorporate images of Brother Miguel in their work. In 1984 Febres returned to the Vatican for the canonization of Brother Miguel and sent postcards announcing, “as of today, you can pray to a Febres.”
Curator, Gallery Director, and Artist
Don Marshall, director of the then-newly opened Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), enlisted Febres’s help in curating and installing its exhibitions. Febres curated exhibitions at the CAC featuring Louisiana artists, including “Animal Fantasies,” “Visions,” “My Cousin, the Saint,” and “Artifacts.” Additionally, Febres curated the exhibitions “Tampering with Utopia” at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, “Erotic” at the Mario Villa Gallery, and “George Ohr in New Orleans” at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
In 1981 Febres opened Galerie Jules Laforgue on the first floor of his residence on Decatur Street in the Faubourg Marigny. Febres named the gallery after his great uncle Jules Laforgue, a French symbolist poet whom he greatly admired and found an inspiration. Febres wrote, “Uncle Jules was born in Montevideo, Uruguay of French parents, moved to Tarbes in France as a teenager, worked with the Impressionists in Paris as a young man, wrote poetry, essays, and art criticism, became court reader for Empress Augusta of Germany, married an English girl, and in 1886 died at the age of twenty-seven in Paris. Jules Laforgue was the master of several languages and an avid punster. His humor inspired Duchamp, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. At his funeral Georges Seurat led the mourners.” The Galerie Jules Laforgue featured the work of a young group of artists inspired, encouraged, and promoted by Febres, including Douglas Bourgeois, Jacqueline Bishop, Ann Hornback, Andrew Bascle, Dona Lief, Bunny Matthews, and Charles Blank. Art critic D. Eric Bookhardt of the weekly newspaper Gambit recognized the commonalities of the southern regional art group and identified them as “Visionary Imagists.” The Galerie Jules Laforgue closed in 1984, with Febres’s desire to focus more time on his own artwork.
In 1981 Douglas Bourgeois was selected as the southern region recipient for the prestigious Awards in the Visual Arts Fellowship (AVA) from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Bourgeois’s AVA Fellowship enhanced both his reputation as an emerging artist and Febres’s role as gallery director and art dealer. SECCA invited Febres to lecture on “The Art of New Orleans” and to judge its annual art competition in 1987.
In works such as “Alligator Shoes,” “Hand Bag,” “Finger Bowl,” “Catfish,” and “Handsaw,” Febres created surrealistic visual puns embedded with humor, social observation, and often autobiographical references. His use of puns derived in part from the way he learned English by giving pictorial images to the words he was learning. Although he worked in a variety of media, his drawings were precisely drafted with an obsessive meticulousness. “The basis of everything I do is a good drawing,” Febres said. “I do a drawing a day.” A milestone in his career was when his work was featured in Edward Lucie-Smith’s book American Art Now, in the neo-surrealism chapter.
Febres’s work was exhibited in the Visionary Imagists group shows, the CAC’s “The First New Orleans Banana Festival,” “George Febres, Enough Is Enough: The First Five Years” at Nicholls State University’s Fine Art Gallery, Bicentennial Louisiana Artists Exhibit, Circle Gallery, Galerie Simone Stern, New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, and the 1986 Havana Biennial in Cuba. When Pat Trivigno retired from Newcomb College, Tulane University, he recommended Febres for a yearlong position to teach drawing in 1990.
Febres died on May 21, 1996, at his home in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans of complications from AIDS. His work is in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art in Havana, Cuba, the Mississippi Museum of Art, and The Historic New Orleans Collection, where he donated his personal papers.