John K. Lawson: From the ruins, a rebirth

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and work, the British artist gives new life to the remains of a devastated city.

By Betty Aguirre-Maier
Entremares Magazine

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In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina pummeled New Orleans, leaving John K. Lawson’s house and studio under nearly 10 feet of water for six weeks. The storm changed the British artist’s life, setting a before and after nonetheless infused with optimism for art and life.

Lawson grew up in the English countryside, where he came into contact with gypsies and transients who came to his home looking for work or food. Their skin, weathered by countless wandering days, and the texture and craftsmanship of their intricate clothing fascinated his young, artistic eye. From them, he acquired a unique sense of place and space, and a nomadic mindset. This, as he would later learn, had a profound effect on his life: his decision to move to the Deep South, to New Orleans, a true melting pot of French and African-American heritage, and how years later a catastrophic storm would force him to rebuild his life and move again.

Before Katrina, Lawson was known for his intricate works using discarded Mardi Gras beads. At night, when the carnivalesque exuberance waned and the city slept, Lawson would wander down St. Charles Avenue and collect the beads, which became the building blocks of extraordinary art pieces, such as a piano completely covered by the colorful beads. But beyond their aesthetic beauty, these pieces are charged with political and social commentary.

After Katrina, Lawson moved north, where he divides his time between the cityspace of New York and the rural life in his home in Massachusetts. Here, he begins a new chapter filled with new memories, characters and life, the product of which are published here.

These pieces, which Lawson has spent the past five years working on, are enveloped in a mystic aura, impregnated with energy and intricate details. Painted paper, newspaper, magazine and catalogue clippings are the raw materials that Lawson employs to construct characters that appear and disappear in a fragmentary play of color and form. Iconic figures of the jazz scene such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker seem to emerge from the stupor of an endless party, of a perpetual carnival that celebrates life. The spectator can’t help but feast on the colors, the constant movement, and surrender to Lawson’s call to life.

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JL PhotoJohn K. Lawson (Birmingham, England, 1962). Lawson first came to United States on a student exchange program to Louisiana State University. Lawson was drawn to the Deep South and became part of an underground art culture in New Orleans that included working in tattoo, T-shirt, and graffiti murals. Lawson became known for his unique drawing style and creations using recycled Mardi Gras beads. In 2005 Lawson’s home and studio were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. He spent several years reworking his flood-damaged pieces. This gained the attention of several New York galleries and awards including the Pollack Krasner Foundation. In 2009, Lawson began working on a series of large scale figurative collage work. Some of these are currently on view in New York at MZUrban Art. Lawson divides his time between New Orleans and New York City, where he lives with his wife, and son, Sebastian. To learn more about the artist, please follow this link.