On a gorgeous Saturday, I’m at Krewe du Brew Coffeeshop on St. Charles Avenue, waiting to interview the French artist Gersin. UL Press published a beautiful reproduction of Gersin’s sketchbook, New Orleans Sojourn, early this year. He came to New Orleans back in 2010, intending to spend six weeks researching a planned voodoo-inspired graphic novel. However, six weeks turned into three months, during which Gersin amassed a huge illustrated documentation of his experience, including a dive into the local music scene.
Sojourn feels substantial, more a classic art book, like nothing else published today. As I flip through the book once more while waiting for the artist to arrive, one of the shop’s owners, John, looks over my shoulder, laughing and exclaiming as he recognizes local musician Washboard Chaz, among other familiar images.
When Gersin arrives (he’s also known as Jérémie Garcin in his filmmaking endeavors), Sojourn is on the table between us, and with a smile, he hands me his current personal sketchbook. It includes scenes of his travels since New Orleans, his life in Paris, and New Orleans again during his recent promotional tour. The published book and his new sketchbook are roughly the same size, and it’s stunning how similar they look and feel, reinforcing the painstaking work UL Press did recreating the first sketchbook with Sojourn.
Gersin talks about the scenes in the published work—visiting the wax museum, which resulted in several pages of feverish and strange historical images, interrupted by sketches of modern burlesque dancers performing. Colorful paintings from his exploration of Laura Plantation and a very Toulouse-Lautrec-ish illustration he did as a gift for a barista friend (“sexy people tip”) are counterbalanced by informal drawings and messy notes that illustrate Gersin’s attempt to immerse himself in the city and understand it. Several times in the book, he captures snatches of English conversation and muses over how the slang phrases are used. On one page, he ponders the sometimes-rhetorical question, “How are you doing?”?
I agree with a statement of Susan Larson’s during their WWNO interview, that he somehow captures the light in New Orleans. He shows me a portrait of Susan at the microphone and I tell him he got her smile right. He says casually, “I use coffee now, since New Orleans,” and pulls a small glass jar of coffee from his bag, placing it on the crowded table. I ask him if he will draw something new for me so I can observe his process. He agrees and looks around the shop, at the framed photographs for sale on the walls. His eyes fall on me. “I will draw you.”
We move into a sunny alcove, with three enormous windows instead of walls. I sit in front of one window, St. Charles Avenue behind me, and Gersin studies me for a long time without saying anything. Sensing my discomfort, he says jokingly, “You can’t escape. I am never finished drawing. I am studying. It’s not in your hands; I’m sorry.”
Over the next hour, he sketches in pen while I ask him questions. “There are a lot of things that are very nice about Louisiana,” he says. “For me, it’s not American, yet it’s the birth of modern America.”
As Gersin mixes the watercolors, he says, “I first do the line, without any possibility of coming back to it. Drawings exist just as they exist. After that, there will be the watercolor step. Some drawings don’t need it, but for a face, it’s actually quite essential.” He begins with my hair and dress, which are similar shades of brown, and my eyes are filled in last.
He is running late for a book signing, but he insists on taking the time to apply coffee to the portrait. The first time he used coffee, he was in a coffee shop without his paints. Now, he uses it regularly.
The book signing, it turns out, is at my friend’s shop, Crescent City Comics on Freret Street. It is Free Comic Book Day, the busiest day all year. Gersin debates with regulars about various graphic novels and signs copies of his book for hours. “What is your first impression of New Orleans?” he asks each person, adding little sketches of their answer, filled in with coffee, to his signature. This day, the interview that turned into a portrait sitting and then became a book signing, could have been a page from New Orleans Sojourn, had it only happened two years earlier.
After Gersin leaves New Orleans, he sends me a scan of the portrait, now finished. When he first set the coffee on the table, I thought this might be an artist’s affectation. Later, as I watched him apply it, I worried it would ruin the portrait. But now, I think the coffee is what makes Gersin’s drawings feel old in the same way that New Orleans is old, and this might be how he captures the light here so perfectly.
My portrait is surrounded with a riot of notes about signings at Barnes & Noble, l’Alliance Française and The Garden Gates in the days following our meeting. He refuses to translate the page for me, saying, “Challenges are good.” Finally, I work it out for myself, reading what he wrote about drawing my portrait: “She seemed first of all embarrassed and then delighted.” This is true. It’s not often, in my experience, that a subject of your work turns you into a subject of his own.
How UL Press put it together:
• “Two authors who have published other books with UL Press told me about this great artist who was staying in New Orleans and had been working on an amazing sketchbook, but they did not know how I could contact him. Then, as chance would have it, he approached us on the street at the New Orleans Book Fair. I looked over his sketchbook and was blown away. I knew immediately that we needed to work with the artist in some fashion,” says UL Press assistant director James Wilson.
• Gersin left New Orleans the day after meeting Wilson, so they worked long distance via email and telephone to create the book.
• To make the book feel as authentic as possible, UL staff included the bleed-through of colors from one page to the next, most notably when Gersin used coffee on a picture.
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