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Painting Aaron Neville: JazzFest Poster Artist James Michalopoulos Talks 'Heart Song'
When James Michalopoulos was approached to create the 2013 Jazz Fest poster, he of course accepted. Trading architecture for portraiture, the renowned New Orleans artist momentarily set aside his celebrated shotgun house illustrations to portray Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers, an exemplar of New Orleans soul and R&B, who also happens to turn 72 years young today.
“This is my sixth Jazz Fest poster,” said Michalopoulos. “I paint figurative works. It’s something that I very much enjoy doing.”
As Michalopoulos knows, painting a face, especially a famous one, involves much more than just getting the features right. For a sitter like Aaron Neville, conveying character and spirit are equally important as getting the proportions right.
“I think the most critical element is to be available to be schooled by the subject and I approach it that way,” said Michalopoulos. “If you’re feeling copasetic you begin to be open to what that person’s about.”
For Michalopoulos, communicating Neville’s spiritual nature, a dominant part of his character, was most important.
“One of the things that comes across to me most powerfully is that his music and his singing is about him practicing release. He is expressing freedom, so he is a challenge in that regard,” said Michalopoulos.
Michalopoulos, who has had the advantage of knowing the Neville with the golden pipes for years, not only looked to the subject himself, but also to his music.
“I spent a long time going over his music and I have interacted with him directly. The thing that was most moving for me was spending the time with his music and in particular the song ‘Bird on a Wire,’” said Michalopoulos.
The Leonard Cohen cover comes through clearly in the painting’s background. Doves scatter above Aaron as if reacting to his song. Their white offsets the deep blues and purples. Aaron throws his head up in a sort of ecstasy, as if the music has completely enveloped him. His eyes are closed, yet his hand knows where to strike the tambourine.
“He did a marvelous rendition of [the song]. He’s done several. I just found myself lost in that. I took it as an exemplar of his expression and his artistic life and that’s kind of what motivated me,” said Michalopoulos.
After successfully representing the elements that make Aaron Neville Aaron Neville, Michalopoulos aptly named his portrait Heart Song.
“I think he’s all heart and that is so evident when he’s singing,” he said. “He’s just lost in it and I tried to convey that and his rising up and his lost-ness that is so evident when he’s in the middle of his music.”
That’s what Jazz Fest is all about. Getting lost in the music even if only for a couple hours.
JazzFest posters are available at art4now.com.
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B. E. Mintz
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