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Willie Birch, The Best of '77, 2017

                                             Willie Birch: Paintings from 1998-2019

                            An online exhibition in conversation with Leslie King Hammond
                                              Monday, May 24 - Saturday, July 03, 2021

       
          “Black landscapes activate present-day life…then and now, here and everywhere - teach
     us about a different rhythm...They teach us about being human...Their pasts and presents, their
        then-ness and their now-ness, their here-ness and everywhere-ness, accumulate and carry
                              forward the memory and possibility of other possible futures.”

                                                                                    Anna Livia Brand.

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina and an unprecedented, relentless global pandemic, unbridled acts of systemic social injustices, senseless gun violence, economic, political, medical and environmental disparities, Willie Birch finds himself inextricably driven by an aesthetic mission to define, preserve and celebrate Black New Orleans’ communal life and the dynamic culture of its people. Historically, the critical practice to document, interpret and validate visual creations has focused on the - who, what, why, where, when, how - from voices of varied authorities who often, inadvertently, leave the voice of the artist last on the list of contact and context. Having spent nearly five decades developing complex studies on the origins, sites, objects, experiences of his people, this conversation with Willie Birch reveals an authenticity, power and reverence of an artistry that sanctifies the monumental essentiality of Black culture - the landscapes, objects, events, communities and lives lived in New Orleans, Louisiana.

New Orleans is one of the most unusual and distinctive American cities in this nation. It is a city that was built with the labor and ingenuity of Africans in the 17th century, brought to the Americas during the Middle Passage era of the slave trade. Not all Africans became slaves, some blended with the Europeans and Native American people, giving rise to a new powerful culture of ‘creolized’ people in New Orleans.

Proud, defiant, resistant, highly skilled, gifted with shrewd, deft intelligence, they developed communities of support and interdependence similar to those lifestyles of the Senegambia and Congo Angola region from where many were kidnapped. Scholar Lawrence Levine’s research affirms that in New Orleans, “Retaining African culture and world views affirmed individuality and resisted the dehumanization of slavery.” Historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall asserted that, “The strength of the city’s black community was reflected in New Orleans ‘Africanized’ culture.” By the early twentieth century this city became the birthplace of Jazz - America’s first new, classic, musical artform as musicologist Charles Hersch notes how this innovative music evolved from, “a strong black population unafraid to assert its power.”  The complex and vibrant history of New Orleans became the driving force that inspired and grounds Willie Birch’s creativity to capture the visual, metaphoric, phenomenon of how Black culture in New Orleans has not just survived, but thrived and evolved to a high level of emboldened sophistication. The cultural infrastructure of this city, combined with all its celebratory manifestations, attitudes, symbolisms and significations, have becomes a catalytic beacon of power and authority - masked to the larger public, yet - in full, plain view for all to see...that is - if you think you know what you are experiencing or looking it!

Press Release

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Willie Birch, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, 1999

Leslie King Hammond: Artists often speak of a personified force - a muse - that inspires their creativity. Who and how does your muse inspire or identify subjects for your monolithic narratives and intimate studies?

Willie Birch: My first muse is my life story. All my life it has informed me how I select my imagery in becoming an artist. My birth reads like a history lesson because my mother moved the family around the city of New Orleans. I was forced to learn about the place I was born and grew up. I was born in New Orleans surrounded by my family Thanksgiving night in the back room of my aunt’s restaurant, 2133 Tchoupitoulas Street, an indigenous people travel route located next to the Mississippi River and railroad tracks. New Orleans is a port city, and my father was a longshoreman and my mother was a cook for a prominent family. I was born between five young females, my sister and four cousins - raised by adults in my family with teachers and women in the community. I also spent a large portion of my early years in a village where my grandparents had a farm.

In the sixth grade my teacher Mrs. Ranson asked students to draw a picture about something we experienced, and I drew a farm scene. She must have thought I was special because she called my mother to school to debate my newfound talent. My classmates treated what I did as special, and I soon became the class artist. I also found at lunch I could hold my classmates' attention by telling stories about what I had depicted. I loved telling stories. In 1954 I attended Carter G. Woodson junior high school and began learning Negro history. In the eighth grade I was chosen to study with C. Maxine Holtry Daniels who received her art degree from art school in Cincinnati and had studied in Paris, France in the 1940’s. She became the first African American art teacher in the New Orleans public school system. I began formal training in perspective, composition, watercolor, still life and anatomy. In the eleventh grade I was chosen to take a social studies class on the History of the Negro with Mr. Higginbotham who was also my economics teacher. We had to take an oath that we couldn’t tell what he was really teaching us because it was against the law to teach African American history and he could lose his job. This is where my love for history and art came together in shaping my future decisions as to how I would create for the rest of my life.

LKH: Why or how did you make a selective decision to work on paper with graphic mediums instead of traditional paint and canvas?

WB: After graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art and an Artist in Residence position at the Studio Museum in Harlem, I found I liked working on paper more than painting on canvas. A defining moment came in 2000 when I was trying to develop a concept going forward in black and white on paper. I wanted to position myself in the art world as an African American artist developing a body of work coming out of my New Orleans experience. Romare Bearden, Charles White, Elisabeth Catlett and Jacob Lawrence all worked on paper and I saw myself in that continuum by using paper as my main medium. I also wanted to create a dialogue with the works of Kara Walker. Each of these artists connected me to my past and present within the African American tradition. Returning to New Orleans from New York I met Ron Bechet and saw his small black and white drawings. I approached him about the concept of using New Orleans culture to develop our own visual language as musicians had done. New Orleans is full of color, carnival, Second Line parades, Mardi Gras Indians, the way we paint our houses - all told me that if we define New Orleans through symbolism and metaphors in black and white, the rest of the world would catch up to the creation of this new visual process. The idea of paper being fragile, and having less value than canvas in the commercial art world, I saw as a joke. As a risk taker, I took on that challenge.

 

LKH: Why is it crucial to create narratives, monumental documentaries, and visual stories about Black life in New Orleans?

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Willie Birch, Dapper Young Man, 1999

WB: I see that the best art is layered, and New Orleans has its own unique culture with Jazz as its defining marker. The cultural manifestation of this city is what I draw, understanding that this visual medium has never gotten the attention it deserves. Understanding African fractal traditions and how New Orleans DNA sits comfortably within those spatial dynamics, defines historically how the people of this city are connected to the world. We must feed off what the ancestors left us, for example - in the use of diamond shape symbols which come from the Kongo sacred religion. It is only natural, as an artist who has studied the history of who he is - I have no choice but to use these symbols, whether Kongo, Yoruba, Akan, etc. in their ability to aid me in speaking to the moment in defining what it means to be a New Orleanian in terms of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

LKH: I am always fascinated with people who create portraits. Portraits are a catalyst for artists to focus specific attention on issues of identity, dress, status, character and/or personality. You have included several portraits in this exhibition - Dapper Young Man, Waiting for the Procession, and Mourning. Each of these subjects is in the standing position - what is it about this stance that is so important to record?

WB:  I wanted them to be monumental, so they are equal with the scale of the viewer. When you look at photographs and images of Black people, they're not life-size. When I was growing up, we saw them as very small images. The other point is that I created them standing because when you study traditional African sculpture, they’re a lot of figures that are standing. They stand on their own which is a socio-political statement within itself as far as I'm concerned. They each project a sense of pride in terms of being able to have a powerful sense of dignity. In New Orleans, we have all kinds of signifiers that define who we are as a proud people. A major signifier how we dress and what that dress says about who we are as Black people. When Thomas Jefferson came to New Orleans, he was blown away because he saw Black people who had a different attitude in how they dressed and, in their ability, to be stylish in public. If you read Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit, you realize that 60% of the people in New Orleans were from an urban environment. These people came with an urban anarchy, with a stylish swagger like the Dapper Young Man - are like beautiful peacocks we are made to be seen. We stand out to want to be that admired peacock. These portraits are important because there's an attitude of subversion and resistance to repression that's documented and preserved in my creations. Keep in mind that the music of New Orleans, which is subversive, in terms of how jazz evolved, is this subversive attitude where what you see is not necessarily what you see or perceive.

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Willie Birch, Mourning, 2000

LKH: Was it a turning point in your career to return to New Orleans - the city of your birth - and the origins for you of defining your aesthetic?

WB: Coming back to New Orleans at this time, was a way of reconnecting with my city and the fact that I really missed what the culture gave me spiritually. Although many of my musician friends in New York were dapper dressers, you didn’t get the same intensity of New Orleans culture in how they dressed. In New Orleans, you can take that vitality for granted because it is so immersed in every person, activity, space and places throughout the city. Seeing how beautiful things were because I missed all that culture. I began to observe that there were more people wearing African attire and I had to capture  Waiting for the Procession at the funeral of a friend of mine. This was a cultural shift from prior times when everyone wore black clothing. Now you can find women wearing stockings that have skeletons instead of black stockings. These are signifiers as to what the human condition allows them to be, and they are addressing those concerns in their own way.  I'm sure you know since you have been to New Orleans several times. We are a colossal people - who are constantly letting people know where we stand and how we see ourselves. The second line tradition is the personification of the whole idea of taking to the street and about how to celebrate life on your own terms.

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Willie Birch, Woman Sitting in Big Al's Gallery, 1999

LKH: Let’s move on to the seated portraits, that are no less important than the standing portraits, but give another perspective - the act of signifying how New Orleans culture celebrates life’s daily rituals especially in the compositions Woman in Purple and Woman sitting in Big Al’s Gallery.

WB: Look at the dignity that they have. Look at the way they hold their hands and there is such gracefulness. We have been trying to respond to the dignity, pride, and the fact that we love ourselves. I remember when my poet friend, John Farris, told me the story about his New Orleans visit and how he felt the Black people he met were arrogant. And I said, “No, they aren't arrogant - brother, that’s just who we are.”  That's how we let the world know how we feel about ourselves. Both of those sisters have a grace, and you see them as proud Black women in positions of responsibility.

The vertical disposition of their bodies tells you something about who they are and how you are going to have to deal with them. The beauty moving through my neighborhood was the way the women came to us and made sure we had food and candles. I had forgotten what that experience felt like. This is the objective of my work and the ‘attitude’ I referred to earlier that I seek to capture in my compositions. As a result of these observational studies, I have established the focus and quality of imagery I was looking for - and then it just flows from there.  

LKH: Your work opens a door that allows for a deeper dive to explore the interpersonal relationships that make New Orleans so distinctive. In your standing and seated portraits, self-care is evident in how each subject creates their own sense of personal aesthetics. In the work on Woman braiding man’s hair, you focus on Black folks caring for each other. A standing figure and seated figure define the centrality of hair aesthetics that are crucial to New Orleans and African cultural attitudes of personal adornment and care.

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Willie Birch, Woman Braiding Man's Hair, 2001

WB: Let me first say, we are a communal city. The only way we could have survived this journey in terms of being African American, is through the act of nurturing each other. Women have always been the nurturers. We had an incident down here about a month ago where all the lights in the city went out. The beauty moving through this neighborhood was the way the women came to us and made sure that we had food and candles, I had never experienced that.  It is so beautiful to be able to see the nurturing and caring they provided. This is the strength of New Orleans; its community and the women, they set the tempo. It's a way of celebrating what we do and how we take care of each other. This is the essence of what I seek to preserve - a way of life unknown to the rest of the world but critical to the history of New Orleans.

LKH: The concept of community and city, are too often perceived as two separate entities. In New Orleans it is one total concept. In the triptych, Free to be, you have on either end of the composition male seated figures and in the center of the piece, as an altarpiece, you have these very beautiful, empowered female figures.  

WB: They are not women - they are gay men. I was following the Black Men in Labor parade. This is an all-male, second line group that celebrates the men of labor in New Orleans and they were walking down Rampart Street at the same time Gay Pride Day was in the French Quarter. I said let me go into the French Quarter after following Black Men in Labor, and all of a sudden, I saw this beautiful huge, powerful Black brother. And I said - “Okay brother!”  This is where we are and the fact that those brothers can show who they are without any shame, with just pride, said something about how far we've come and how we see each other at this point. How are we going to force you to see us regardless of what you may think? So that piece was really important for me because it set the tone for New Orleans. New Orleans is a place where we don't talk about gay men, but if you go to any Black Church on any Sunday, you will see gay men and there's something very beautiful about them, so they are a natural part of the culture. Although we don't always give them their due, I grew up around men like this. The sheer fact that I had a chance to say something about this so-called] hidden world was just something that is very, very special. It is basically a message to all my macho brothers who have problems with the whole idea of somebody choosing a partner that they don't find appropriate.  

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Willie Birch, Free to Be, 2004

LKH: This imagery goes to the core of a relentless problem of how we see and identify with ourselves, the whole process of being free and a true sense of self. This brings this conversation to the crucial role of the church in New Orleans life. Black folks could not have survived without the presence of the communal church experience which they created to address their specific spiritual and physical needs and unique belief systems. What is happening in the monumental triptych Sunday Morning?

WB: The beauty of that piece is that it is one of the reasons why I'm glad to come back to New Orleans. I couldn't go into the Black churches in New York because I didn't have someone to say - “He’s alright. We can trust him and he’s going to do us well.”  I remember when I asked my sister, do you think the Rev would let me come and just document this experience of what it meant in terms of just being inside and enjoying the sheer revelry of a Sunday in a Black church. That became really, beautiful, and the fact that we still have found ways to take so called Western concepts of Christianity and spin them on their head - once we put that drummer on that stage, the music changed, the rhythm changed. We can be free to be. We can express ourselves on that day in the manner that we choose. You know life just goes forward. We have been nurtured because we have just validated ourselves.  

 

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Willie Birch, Sunday Morning, 2004

LKH: This is the interiority of intimate, sacred Black space, and the landscapes that Black people created to address the needs of their own sense of reality, truth, and how they interact, connect, and validate each other.  Please talk about your treatment of exterior spaces, objects and relationships of ordinary stuff hidden in plain view, that are inextricably tied to unknown stories of people in those communities. There is a complex and fascinating work - A dialogue with Martin Peyton and me that depicts a disassembled bicycle against a chain link fence. What compelled you to create this work?

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Willie Birch, A Dialogue with Martin Payton and Me, 2012\2013

WB: Well, Martin Peyton is one of the better artists here, let’s put it like that and we never became close friends, but we became close enough that we could have this incredible dialogue. Martin is also well read, so I could go to him and we could talk because he understood the symbolism beyond the fence in terms of shapes in my works. The use of the chain link fence with its diamond shapes and the Bambara headdress in the form of an antelope, represented by the bike’s handlebars, placed on a two-dimensional surface, create metaphors that connect us spiritually, intellectually and historically. Martin’s work basically deals in metal, so he's a welder. When I saw the bike, it was just based on conversations that Martin and I had had about the nature of how we interject African symbolism into our work, which again allows the work to read on more than one level.  The fact that the bike has been totally violated, to me, also says something about the human condition. Of course, as I have mentioned, anytime you have the metal fence in my work, I would say 99% of the time, the metal shape makes a diamond shape. That diamond shape comes from Kongo belief systems which are again addressed in Robert Ferris Thompson’s research and is a visual language laced throughout the city of New Orleans. Two diamond shapes can be found atop the Saint Louis Cathedral. I don’t believe they were put there by accident and was one of the many things that people from the Congo region brought to New Orleans in terms of symbolism. So, the idea of being signified and using signatures, particularly African symbols, in terms of the way we use the iconography, it just speaks to us on one level but to somebody else who does not have any sense of what they see, these things are decorative so that is where this divide comes in the subversiveness that you find in the music. In the music you have the same element. This is one of the few places in America where we could play the drums, but to me, Martin understood all that symbolism that breaks throughout this piece besides just being a tattered bike on a fence. This is the same thing that the musicians were doing in terms of Jazz and the various types of African rhythms. That eventually evolved Jazz into what we know as the music that defines New Orleans. The nature of these pieces is very, very complex. People will interpret this work on different levels because depending on where you are in that moment, there is something there for you - again its validation, what it means to be human and free. 

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Willie Birch, An Altar for Villere Street, 2015

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Willie Birch, Covering, 2015

LKH: You did two studies that deal with cars that are particularly curious and appear to riff off compositional elements you explored with the bicycle study. Covering and An Altar for Villere Street are works that embody and ponder elements of the elements that are ambiguous and mysterious.

WB: The idea of a covering is a basic thing, you don’t want other people to see something, so there is a mystery within that action. Whoever had this car, I’m sure this was the pragmatic reasoning, as well as the idea of stopping the sun from baking the surface of the car, dust, or other damages. There is also the idea that there is a history - hidden underneath the covering. As people we are constantly putting on camouflage, we put on the other exterior because we don’t want people to know who we are sometimes. In terms of the other car, it had the rocks on top and the string.  I just saw an Altar, there is something that is beautiful about that when studying African religion and I believe people make altars without even realizing they are making it because those things are consciously and unconsciously sacred to them. The fact that he used this covering, string and a rock or concrete, was to keep this canopy in place. At the same time, he was talking to me about something that was very sacred in terms of African people speaking to us, like speaking in tongues can make things that speak to who you are without compromising. It depends on where you are, if you come to New Orleans you are going to experience these things, they are not made up, they are real interpretations. As someone who has religiously studied African art, there are always these other layers. I take this information and begin to build on it, so that, particularly young artists, will begin to understand that you can make things that speak to who you are without compromising anything you believe. 

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Willie Birch, Trying to Communicate with Kanye West, 2016

LKH: As you gained a deeper, more profound understanding for your culture, your works became more layered with complex symbolism and metaphors. In your composition Trying to Communicate with Kanye West you have a very ordinary object - an air conditioner - situated in the window with a satellite TV antenna. This appears to have an extraordinary message embodied within ordinary objects.

WB: One day I was in my studio and I’m looking at the television. Donald Trump and Kanye West were talking about global warming. Of course, Donald Trump says he doesn’t believe in global warming and here was Kanye West saying he doesn’t believe in global warming either.  As I look out my window, there is this antenna and an air conditioner which gives off pollutants that are killing human beings. Here was my brother, who I felt because he was supposed to be very bright, totally didn’t get it. So, I am using the imagery of the antenna and air conditioner to communicate with Kayne West (and a larger audience). That’s scripture in me. I am provoking Kanye, Jay-z and all those brothers because I am saying - hey man there are some other things that me as an elder, would like to discuss with you. You make images about him and you hold that to him, so at least he might think “what is this dude talking about?” 

LKH: Let’s move the conversation to the importance of humor in your work. People are faced with very serious issues facing humanity. Talk about the use of humor in the culture of New Orleans.

WB: Well, I always say that people outside New Orleans don’t really get it - like “wow you’re being crass”! When somebody dies that you don’t like necessarily, there is a song that people sing, “Glad you’re dead, you rascal you.” People say, “That’s so horrible,” but it makes us laugh and it humanizes that person. We put them in all these fine clothes, and we put them in a 20,000 dollar casket - and they’re dead!  The humor in New Orleans is unbelievable. My grandmother always fascinated me because I went to more funerals with my grandmother than most people. People would be trying to get in the casket with all their grief and guilt. My grandmother would always say “Willie, flowers are for the living, because that’s who they’re really for, dead man can’t speak.” How we see death and life is different. In New Orleans we say when you are born that is a sad moment, because you are coming into a world that you have no idea, you didn’t create and then you become a part of something which if you had a choice, you would probably crawl back inside the womb. So, we may justify that when you are dead - you are just dead! You don’t have to worry about this, so all those plans that we have made, to give celebration to death and life it is very much important. We are the city that celebrates, when we go to somebody’s funeral, we are celebrating the whole act - the biblical act of you transcending to another place in terms of our history and what it means to be alive at a certain time and after you’ve done your time on Earth. You can go on your journey and hopefully, you’ve done enough so your name will live on. That is your legacy, that’s how we live through our legacy. 

LKH: You have noted the complex layers in the cultural legacy of Black life, Black spaces and the Black lived experience. In Safe(gate) interlacing patterns create a webbed, textured design often seen to protect neighborhoods, communities and living spaces. Why was this image important to document?

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Willie Birch, Safe (gate), 2016

WB: In the neighborhood that I live in now, right across the street from my studio, there is this wonderful wrought iron gate that has covered this entire door and the two windows next to it. I’m saying “are you safer now or are you safer later?” Here we are at this point in history, covering up to hopefully make us safer, but does that really make us safer? So that’s one of the issues that I am trying to express, just because you put this thing up, is it going to isolate you from the rest of your community? Is that what you want? I’m dealing with the psychology of what is that about. In my city this has become an issue, do we become more isolated from each other or do we still find ways to sit on our porches and stoops and talk to our neighbors and say yes ma’am and no ma’am and how are you doing? This is important in terms of how African people have responded to each other historically. This is also one of the big things that Black people brought to New Orleans but not just New Orleans, really any place that they have been, is this ability to say good morning, good evening. And it’s not saying it for the simple reason that you like the person, what we have found is that if I speak to you and you look me in the eyes that humanizes you and it humanizes me. It is very difficult for someone to do you harm once you have made that eyeball-to-eyeball contact. So Safe(gate) is addressing that issue. This brother, who seems like he doesn’t want to deal with me. That’s okay - but the point is, that as an artist, I am going to make imagery that hopefully addresses these issues. New Orleans is an accepting community, so this piece is well within the social fabric of what we have created out of the idea of African culture through a duality of something that is personal to you and your culture - and that’s how I see culture created. New Orleans doesn’t look like any other city in this nation. It's one of the oldest cities in America. Yet, one of the poorest cities.  In my head, I'm dealing with all of those different things and at this point in my life I can use these issues to say what I need, as an artist, at a particular moment in time.  

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Willie Birch, The Builders (For Jacob Lawrence), 2019

LKH: Your journey in this conversation is like a time travel through the art history of artists who walked this path before you. The Builders (for Jacob Lawrence) a masterful homage to one of the greatest documentary artists who created brilliant works about the African American experience from multiple perspectives. How has Lawrence’s legacy, and that of so many other Black artists before you, inspired and informed your own aesthetic?

WB: Jacob Lawrence spent a substantial amount of time in New Orleans. He tells a story that when he came to New Orleans he saw black builders working and that's what inspired him to do the builders series. You already know that I see myself (through my work) as a continuation of Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Charles White because they have each lived here or spent a considerable amount of time in New Orleans. The imagery that these artists created is about the dignity and appreciation of the Black people. Jacob Lawrence also had another vision in understanding the importance of what that meant in terms of who did the work and what it meant to live in New Orleans - a city built with the labor of Black builders. Obviously, things were not necessarily as they appear. Black folks built New Orleans which is a history lesson that I share and learned from Jacob Lawrence and other artists. We are visual storytellers. Black people were specifically brought here because of their skills. So, the beauty of New Orleans is that when the French and the Spanish went to Africa they knew exactly what they wanted. All this stuff is in the Louisiana State Library, so I didn't have to go very far to find out the importance of the people who were brought here. Jacob Lawrence is so important - his incredible Migration series makes him the king. So, if I'm trying to make stuff that is comparable to his legacy, then The Builders becomes really important. These stories must be recorded, and these are tidbits that are crucial to the heritage of our legacy. When you start talking about American history these facts get lost because it is such a unique situation. 

LKH: Please talk about the importance of photography as a tool in your creative process. How do you identify a scene, situation, personality, moment and use photography to inform works in acrylic or charcoal on paper or any of your other mediums?  

WB: OK, that's a big one. Well, I took a couple of drawing courses at Maryland Institute and Abby Sangiamo said, ‘don’t take another drawing course, you got something that nobody else has. You have your own way of creating your own language’ and I didn’t believe him at first.  

But eventually I realized that my work didn't look like anybody else’s and I had to learn to love my own marks. The other thing is that I'm not a photographer, I don’t want to be. But what I can do at this point, rather than go to an area and do sketches - I got a camera, technology drives our process. And so, I am no different than anybody else in that sense at this point. I would rather take a snapshot of a group of subjects and then reconstruct them into what I want to say compositionally - then I begin to make work out of that experience.  And the other part is that there is something which is very dear to me in terms of my process is that we've always had what is called ‘yard art’ in New Orleans. It was never recognized until probably the ‘60s or ‘70s, that creating sculpture and installations from nature and found materials was its own art form and it has pushed ideas and processes of creativity, to the ambiguities I see around me.

 

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Willie Birch, The Chef with Knife, 2001

I like to see myself as somebody who is constantly trying to define my time, I’m not interested in making these things from the standpoint of what Mr. Lawrence did, although there is cubism in my work, or what Mr. Bearden did, or what Mr. White  did, but you must take the essence of what has been passed down and put into the work those things which are also important to me and create something that's new.  I've been looking at photographs all my life. My love for history and my love for finding ways to tell more contemporary stories is my objective. If somebody wants to dismiss my work as being photographic that's their problem.  I'm more interested in using it as a tool that begins to help me set things in motion. Once I reconstruct the photographs into the composition I want, then I begin to put it on paper. All those photographs are color images, the idea is that because they are in color, it forces me to recreate through black-grey-white gradients.  Through these layers, the way of life in New Orleans emerges because New Orleans is surrounded by water - we don't have North, South, East, or West.  We get these incredibly different tones that just makes this place very special and gives it a mystery and a magic. I don't have to go out and say I'm trying to create something that’s magical. It's already within the process and that process is based on what I call my spiritual truth. I can make the images I want and define whatever I need to, and if people can get that, then usually they’ll go on this journey with my work. There are so many more layers beyond the fact that I'm using photography, but it is all within the cultural process of creativity and extending that process.  

LKH: I feel like I've been to church.  

WB: This is a conversation we should have all been having long ago! 

LKH: You have become a deft and masterful storyteller, much like the narrative traditions of Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden...yet, even more like an African griot. What do you hope the people of New Orleans and beyond will benefit from engaging with your works?

WB: Like the Mardi Gras Indians, I’d like to think what I create will be seen in the same light. These works are created from what it means to be human, layered with language that was begun long before the Europeans brought us here. All my work comes out of real things I see in my environment. I am not interested in whether it is perceived as representational or abstract. The community I live in tells me, and I trust their feelings to know what is real and speaks to their joys and sorrows. This is my role as a storyteller - born and raised in New Orleans - my home. Just like the world catching up to the music, the food, the dance, why not the visuals? It is all part of the same manifestation based on a people’s need to define who they are in our collective voice to be free. Spirituality is truth! If I do that work, it will reward my efforts.

Selected Works

Selected Works Thumbnails

Willie Birch
Woman Sitting in Big Al's Gallery, 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
82.5 x 36.5 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Way Down Yonder in New Orleans , 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
76 x 42 inches

Inquire

Willie Birch
Mourning, 2000
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
90 x 36.5 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Street Musician with Guitar, 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 48 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Waiting for the Procession, 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
83.5 x 48.5 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Dapper Young Man, 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
82.5 x 42.5 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Woman in Purple Sweatsuit, 1998
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
78.5 x 45 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
The Builders (For Jacob Lawrence), 2019
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
96 x 72 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
The Best of '77, 2017
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 90 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Safe (gate), 2016
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
71 x 48 inches

Inquire

Willie Birch
Trying to Communicate with Kanye West, 2016
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 40 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Covering, 2015
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60.5 x 90 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
An Altar for Villere Street, 2015
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 84 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
A Dialogue with Martin Payton and Me, 2012\2013
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 81 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Free to Be, 2004
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 180 inches

Inquire

Willie Birch
Sunday Morning, 2004
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
72 x 144 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
The Chef with Knife, 2001
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
69 x 36.5 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Woman Braiding Man's Hair, 2001
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
66 x 48 inches 

Inquire

Willie Birch
Woman Sitting in Big Al's Gallery, 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
82.5 x 36.5 inches 

Willie Birch
Way Down Yonder in New Orleans , 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
76 x 42 inches

Willie Birch
Mourning, 2000
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
90 x 36.5 inches 

Willie Birch
Street Musician with Guitar, 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 48 inches 

Willie Birch
Waiting for the Procession, 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
83.5 x 48.5 inches 

Willie Birch
Dapper Young Man, 1999
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
82.5 x 42.5 inches 

Willie Birch
Woman in Purple Sweatsuit, 1998
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
78.5 x 45 inches 

Willie Birch
The Builders (For Jacob Lawrence), 2019
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
96 x 72 inches 

Willie Birch
The Best of '77, 2017
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 90 inches 

Willie Birch
Safe (gate), 2016
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
71 x 48 inches

Willie Birch
Trying to Communicate with Kanye West, 2016
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 40 inches 

Willie Birch
Covering, 2015
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60.5 x 90 inches 

Willie Birch
An Altar for Villere Street, 2015
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 84 inches 

Willie Birch
A Dialogue with Martin Payton and Me, 2012\2013
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 81 inches 

Willie Birch
Free to Be, 2004
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
60 x 180 inches

Willie Birch
Sunday Morning, 2004
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
72 x 144 inches 

Willie Birch
The Chef with Knife, 2001
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
69 x 36.5 inches 

Willie Birch
Woman Braiding Man's Hair, 2001
Acrylic and charcoal on paper
66 x 48 inches 

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