Constance: Delicate Burdens

Constance: Delicate Burdens

If you don’t know someone – I mean really know them in the sense that you’ve made some emotional connection with them, gone out drinking with them, had that mystical one-night stand with them, sat on a back porch playing guitar with them, even if only once – if you haven’t warmed your cold hands on another person’s soul, can you really care what happens to them?  If you have looked, however quickly, into a person’s heart and tried to understand them, how can you possibly turn away when that person is in pain?
This, to some degree, is Constance: Delicate Burdens, the local art/design/literary journal helmed by Erik Kiesewetter and Patrick Strange [full disclosure: Patrick Strange was associate editor of ANTIGRAVITY until August of 2007].  Delicate Burdens follows in the form of Replicas and Replacements, the journal’s first issue, by offering not only a portrait of what life in New Orleans is like after Katrina, but by personalizing the work of each contributor.  Unlike in most journals, each artist or writer is given space to write about themselves, and contact information is listed for everyone.  The hope, according to Strange, was initially “to serve as a sort of avenue through which local artists could get their name out to a larger audience and then potentially garnish more work.”  What it has turned into, though, is an avenue for deeper connections.  While each contributor’s art is certainly sufficient in its ability to teach the reader about the artist, the personal touches remind the reader that the art here does not and cannot exist independent of its creator.  Or, as Strange put it, “the hope is that [readers] will grow connected to the people themselves, instead of trying to empathize with a ‘city’ or a ‘plight’ or something that seems so foreign and abstract. I mean, how do you stay emotionally and philanthropically connected to a ‘place’?”
Delicate Burdens, then, is about people, and on a very basic level, it’s about people trying to deal with what it means to be alive in a city that has practiced toeing the line between tragedy and comedy for far longer than any other.  It’s both a promotional vehicle for New Orleans art and a way to remind the rest of America that we’re still here.  After all, we no longer have the pull on our countrymen’s heartstrings that we once enjoyed and still need.  Few presidential candidates – besides John Edwards, who has bowed out – have even bothered mentioning Katrina anywhere on the campaign trail besides south Louisiana, which speaks not to the varying levels of benevolence of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain, but to where we now stand in national eyes.  The small, personal touches of Constance – the mini-profiles, the email addresses – connect the contributor to the reader at a more practical level.  After considering the screenprint and watercolor of “Monks and Quakers” and “Pioneers,” and reading the somewhat-twee description of how she first found the depicted birds, it’s hard to not want to know more about artist Jenny LeBlanc.  This is what art is supposed to do – connect us to others, enable us to experience things that we would otherwise never be able to experience.
This is why Constance matters.  The contributors’ spirit of honesty – honesty about themselves and the city that they love and call home – brings the audience in closer to the true soul of the city.   The journal eschews the sides of New Orleans that America has seen for the past two hundred years, the tired landscapes that don’t say a word about the people who live here.  Nowhere in this issue will you find flowery pieces about the French Quarter, trad jazz, beignets, parades, Bourbon Street.  When these things and places do appear, they are just as much a part of the background in the art as they are for all of us.  We see the New Orleans that we inhabit every day, paintings and stories and poems that strike at the true soul of the city and the way that the bizarre becomes ordinary here, but without all of the window dressing found in tourist brochures and Blue Dog paintings.  Constance, in other words, does not need cliché to convince people to care; it is convinced that good art and real people are worthy enough.  The people in Delicate Burdens are not relegated to crowd-shots on Canal Street; they are valued as individuals, and the “feeling of disorientation and self-doubt that people in New Orleans seem to have,” as Strange put it, is seen not as a weakness or a cry for a handout, but as a genuine problem worthy of our compassion.
Times have changed since Constance’s first issue.  Where Replicas and Replacements reflected the hopeful spirit that buoyed us when we were still underwater, Delicate Burdens finds a “one foot in, one foot out, why-are-we-here, we-love-it-so-much-but-it’s-not-healthy attitude,” according to Kiesewetter.  “The general population feels fickle and forgetful [concerning New Orleans],” he said.  “We aren’t as sensational as we have been in the past.”  Now more than ever, we are forced to come to terms with the dichotomy of New Orleans life.  This theme shines throughout Delicate Burdens, from the sleepy nostalgia of Natalie Sciortino’s paintings to the photographs of Dave Relle, whose portraits of abandoned shotgun houses could just as easily be of exhausted New Orleanians for all of their slumping beauty.
The book itself is alternatingly hilarious (Michael Patrick Welch’s loving description of teaching music to inner-city kids comes immediately to mind) and devastating (as in the bleak dissonance of Bud Faust’s poetry).  At times, most notably in Susan Gisleson’s “Why I Live Below Sea Level,” it manages to be both.  But the piece that captures what Strange described as “the duality of living in New Orleans” with the most poetic accuracy is Jim Louis’ “Razor Knives.”  In the deceptively short non-fiction piece about the trials of tutoring kids in the Sixth Ward in 1995, Louis expresses the struggle of attempting to point others towards some sort of hope in the middle of horror, not to mention the effort it takes to remain positive oneself.  That “Razor Knives” takes place ten years before Katrina serves only to underscore how the storm amplified an already-existing condition.  The piece ends with a very simple setting of the scene, a scene that is a bit fantastical but, hey, in New Orleans in 2008, what isn’t?
The student that Louis has been tutoring has left for the day, returning to the neighborhood “that hears, as we do, the nightly cough of gunfire.”  Louis, meanwhile, is standing on his porch and looking out on the street when he perceives “five blocks down and one over, on St. Ann, a marching band practicing for Mardi Gras strut[ting] by a crime scene as the pregnant widow, seeing her husband’s blood washed by the rain into the gutter, faints.”
This is true life, the mélange of dark and light, good and evil, that exists everywhere but for whatever reason is played out in such shocking contrast in New Orleans.  There is happiness, and there is sadness, there are celebrations and catastrophes, but the one thing that remains constant is the humanity and worth of the people who live at the storm’s center, the people who, everyday, are forced to come to terms with what it means to be alive in a world gone mad.  Everywhere, in every city, life is a delicate burden; we just happen to handle ours – as we do everything here – on a stage much larger, much more extravagant.  But in doing this, by capturing and expressing the losses and gains of normal human beings with such prescience, we show the rest of the world both the despair and the hope of being alive.  In that way, New Orleans is teacher to the world.


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