The Color of New Orleans

By Claire Purcell

When you enter Terrance Osborne Gallery, the first thing you notice is not the art. As soon as you step foot inside, the strong–but somehow, not overwhelming–scent of lavender lures you further inside and makes you want to stay awhile.  Sitting in the center of the gallery is an oversized beanbag, resting atop a bright red plush rug. Small dishes of candy are scattered around with the art. “The gallery is the full experience in that way, it appeals to the senses,” Terrance told me over the introduction of Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana. As soon as he noticed what song was playing, he stopped to ensure that I also wrote down MJ as one of his inspirations. Terrance’s art is all over New Orleans, as he is one of the cities most respected and successful artists. His work is almost immediately recognizable; after we spoke in his gallery I recognized one of his posters for Heineken in a corner store by the colorful cityscape behind a second-line band playing in the streets.

“It’s not a fantastic story, it’s just a kid wanting to be creative and finding some people who could do it, who I could learn from.” he told me, while dotting his current project with fresh blue paint. Terrance Osborne, born and raised in New Orleans, started making art in the third grade.  Under the wing of Richard Thomas, an “elder” of the New Orleans artists, Terrance gained experience he needed to develop his talents. He attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts during high school, then graduated from Xavier University before moving on to teach for the same program he once learned under at Alice Heart Elementary. After years of building a career off of commissioned works and watching Richard build and grow his galleries, Terrance now is able to focus on creating pieces for his own gallery located on Magazine Street.

Terrance considers himself a ‘”culture producer”, as the goal of his art is to share the authentic culture of New Orleans. “I just try to be as genuine as possible as far a painting from my experience,” he said. To make sense of what a genuine painting may look like, he described to me a painting of a woman with tattoos and a 50’s hair-do, riding her bike down magazine, with a basket attached holding a little dog in it, and holding a Starbucks cup. “When you see that, you know its New Orleans. Those images, I don’t have to work too hard to find them, it’s what I know. If I grew up on a farm, I’d be painting cows and chickens and barnyards.” Terrance said. He wants his work to be truthful and to capture real experiences. “He does this thing where he puts a T and an S in a heart in many of his pieces and you have to find it.” his wife Sharon Osborne told me. She tends to be mistaken for some of the women in his paintings; she said “it’s because he uses me sometimes as a model for his work, so even if it’s not me some of the characteristics resemble me.”

Painting can be hit or miss, “either I’ll paint it and I don’t nail it or I paint it and it’s exactly what others are seeing, but how can you know?” Terrance said.  I think it’s safe to say that Terrance has a talent for capturing the way people see New Orleans. He has been selected to create 5 Jazzfest posters and the Ultra Exclusive New Orleans Edition Air Force 1 Nike tennis shoe. “That was like a dream.” he said about being selected to work with Nike, “when [Nike] googled New Orleans artist, my site was one of the first to come up, and when they kept looking they kept going back to my site, like a standard for what they were looking for.” To make the shoe design New Orleansesque, he put a second-line band on one side and a classic cityscape on the other, two things commonly found in his paintings.  “Traditions of the musicians, and the way we, the people, dance to the music in the streets…which is really what I consider as the essence of New Orleans culture.” Richard said, who focuses most of his pieces of musicians. “It has such a rich heritage of music, and that type of New Orleans music… I have spent my entire career focusing on these musicians, because I consider myself one” Richard said, as he also is an amateur trumpeter.

Many of Terrance’s pieces include houses and the unique architecture of the city. But, “When Katrina hit I couldn’t paint a house without water underneath,” Terrance said. Two years after the storm, he began what he called his “Hurricane Solution Series”, poking fun at the storm by placing houses in places they traditionally don’t belong.  “I would come up with silly solutions, like houses on boats and houses on trees, or houses on top of vehicles. “ Terrance said. All of these pieces have a playfulness to them, with colorful houses artfully stacked 4 high, but knowing the nature of that storm, do not seem all too unreal. “As close as Terrance and I was, I never knew that he was painting images about the Katrina situation while I was doing the same thing, it was sort of uncanny.” Richard said.

The aftermath of the storm led to a lot of families rebuilding and renovating their homes, which opened up a unique opportunity for art. “People were really sentimental at this point. They would get me to paint an image of their old house so that they could hang it in the fireplace of their new house. “ Terrance said. His arts’ ability to capture the authentic culture of the city was a catalyst for those looking for pieces of the way things were. “His brand is family, because he centers his life around his family, so he tries to bring that in his artwork,” Sharon said.

“As an artist I felt obligated to make sense of what went on…it’s my job to be an art journalist, to be able to help people, to be inspired and to have hope and to make sense of what’s happening.” Richard said. He relocated after braving the category 5 storm, but soon found himself creating a poster for the Voice of the Wetlands festival. The music festival was intended to raise awareness for the disappearing Louisiana wetlands, which coincidentally was going on shortly after Katrina hit, bringing with it plenty of water. “I wasn’t into painting land and water, so it was the first time I painted water and the bayou… it put me back to nature.” Richard said.  He then was invited up to Waterloo, Iowa, to create a mural titled We the People.  “It was about immigration…We were the last arrivals to this city, and a lot of people from New Orleans had to settle in Waterloo, or had been staked around the country.” Richard said. The mural ended up serving as the background to one of President Obama’s speeches while he was in Iowa. Shortly after this mural, Richard told me “I then get a call from the mayor of the city of New Orleans… he asked me to come back home to create a poster for the city, as an official communative piece that would help bring people home.” The mural, titled The Daughters of New Orleans: Faith, Hope and Love “was all about the resilience of the people” Richard said. “If you’ve ever seen that much water, you don’t think it will subside one day and land will come back” but Richard aimed to help the scattered residents of New Orleans make it back home. “To be selected by the mayor of the city, to be able to be of use in in several communities during that time, and be able to share my insight and my work, and I guess be a blessing to people… That was a constant role, I didn’t understand it, but I was glad I was able to make contributions like that.”

Terrance has a list of inspirations—Michael Jackson, obviously, Vincent Van Gogh, and Richard Thomas. “I see Terrance like a son… I fell in love with his spirit from the first minute I met him.” Richard told me. Richard works as a mentor to young artists in New Orleans through his self-funded Pieces of Power program.  At the time, “Ronald Regan took away a lot of social programs that had benefitted poor people, I wanted to give them a target, for them to refocus.” Richard said. Before the program, he had mentored 15-year-old Terrance Osborne.  “He had a lot of talent but wasn’t painting at the time, so I had him paint the backgrounds to my paintings. I showed him how to do it, like a karate kid kind of thing with the brushstrokes.” Richard said.  “He was one of those kids that it was burned in his soul, like mine. You couldn’t stop him from painting when he started. ” Richard said. Terrance gained loads of experience under Richard’s wing–traveling, watching him build and develop galleries, and even establishing the Pieces of Power program to mentor more kids like him.

 Following in the footsteps of Richard, Terrance worked as an art teacher. Specifically, he was a teacher that would come into school, pull the kids out, and work with them for about an hour before returning them to class. The program is paid for by the school system and allows the kids to use the same materials as the professionally practicing artists.  Terrance is a product of this program himself, but as a teacher it is a whole new perspective. “Children’s minds are so boundless. The older we get the more we restrict our ideas. If we want to paint a sky green as a child we just do it. I look at just bravery in the kids, and the freedom of their ideas. I was motivated by that. “ Terrance said.  His experience with the children is reflected in his consistent use of a wide range of color in every piece. When I asked him why he uses so much color? He told me “Why not”.

Terrance’s new chapter of his career begins with his new gallery, the Terrance Osborne Gallery that opened in February of this year. His first ever exhibition, The Color of New Orleans, is currently on display at the gallery. However, following the COVID-19 lockdown of the city, the gallery is currently not open to the public. Terrance has recently released his newest piece, Front Lines, to pay homage to the nurses, doctors, and first responders that are braving the virus. The image is a spin off of the World War II quintessential image, Rosie the Riveter, including a fleur-de-lis earring and the words “Front Line“ tattooed on a woman’s bicep. Terrance donated 1000 copies of the piece to local hospitals, in an effort to honor them and boost their morale.

“I feel like I’m in the NFL of art, I know where I am, I know it’s not easy for artists to be successful.” Terrance said. Now, he is working on a lot of figurative paintings, many of which include women, and “putting things on their heads, like that one” he said, while pointing to the piece behind me, showing a woman with a an umbrella, crawfish, alligator, and crane all sitting gracefully atop her head. “ I don’t really know where I’m going with it.” he adds, “I just know it is going to be colorful whatever it is.”

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