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Ask the Artist: Ann Strub



Ann Strub Studio

In the New Orleans Museum of Art there is a 48 x 36 mixed media work on vellum on board, a piece called “Flirtation.” It depicts a shy looking pair. On the right stands a young man: he smiles faintly, his white suit and blue tie topped with a matching hat. On the left, a young woman looks demurely towards the ground, clutching her shawl against her tiered, ankle-length dress. The blossom affixed to the brim of her hat adds a burst of color to her otherwise powder-blue ensemble. The pair’s attire is markedly antiquated, and yet they seem familiar figures, and the wrought iron work behind them, as well as a certain tinge of sunlight, heralds New Orleans almost exclusively as their location.

Ann Strub“Flirtation” is a work from local artist Ann Strub, who recently welcomed me with the utmost hospitality into her home to discuss her career. Strub greeted me at the door of her 150 year-old Esplanade Avenue home with smiles, her short crop of white hair framing round, ocean-blue eyes. She ushered me into a room just off the foyer, and as I fumbled to plug my computer cord into the wall (“It can’t last more than a minute without power, I’m afraid,” I explained sheepishly) I made a note to finagle a tour of the home later. Within the first seconds of our meeting, I had glimpsed at least 6 paintings that invited closer inspection. I would later discover that no such finagling was necessary, for in an unsurprisingly gracious move, I was offered a tour with no provocation at all.

Strub, a beacon of that particular Southern hospitality she admires, made me feel as comfortable as I could in the immaculately appointed, buttoned-up yet homey environs of her house. On a table to her left, two silver dishes offered pecans and water crackers. At one point during the interview, Strub gestured toward these elegant goodies to offer me some, but I was occupied with the task of balancing my behemoth of a laptop on my knees while simultaneously maintaining a dignified perch on the wing chair.

At my prompt, Strub (born Ann Cox) recounted the broad strokes of her life. Born in Columbus, Georgia, her family relocated to Union Springs, Alabama, and later Birmingham during Ann’s childhood. As a young woman, her enrollment at Tulane’s Newcomb College was no great shock, considering the line of Newcomb women from which she comes. She earned her BA from Newcomb in Theater Studies in 1963, and her MA in the same subject in ’64, after a year of study at the Sorbonne. Upon receiving her degrees, Cox became Strub when she married husband Dr. Richard Strub, and the couple spent two years with the Peace Corps in Brazil. Then it was back to New Orleans for a long career in theater.

For years, Strub worked as an actress on stage and in film (she even appeared briefly in Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 hit JFK) and later enjoyed her position teaching drama and communications at UNO. “I had a wonderful time doing that,” she recalled. Her career, however, took a sudden unexpected turn when a new male teacher was hired to do Strub’s same job—at a higher salary. “I asked the dean to pay me the same salary and he said, ‘Oh no [the male teacher is] divorced and has to pay alimony, and your husband supports you, so I just resigned.” With that, she returned to a passion that she had only half-nurtured during her Newcomb days, when as a supplement to her other passion—the theater—she took several Newcomb Art School studio classes with professor Hal Carney. “I always had two loves,” she said in a 2010 interview with Dr. Susan Seward, “theater and graphic art.”

Strub enrolled at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts to revisit this passion. Eight years of study later, she was ready to listen to the encouragement of multiple peers and began to try to get her work into some galleries. “I was in several different galleries around here…Jean Bragg has just been wonderful to me. I had bought art from her, and so I knew her…that was when she had a room [adjacent to her Julia Street gallery], and I rented a studio space from her. She said: ‘Why don’t you show with me?’…and that started that association, and that was a very good association. Now I have a show [at the Jean Bragg gallery] every year and a half or so.”

Strub’s verdant layerings of vellum, drawing, and paint have shown in several Louisiana galleries. She rarely shows outside of the state, or even outside of New Orleans. She may paint elsewhere (she and husband Dick now spend half the year in North Carolina), but the setting is always New Orleans, her eternal spring of inspiration: “It’s so different, and it’s so exotic and it’s so European and it’s so tolerant and it’s so beautiful and yet we live in it…there’s never at time when there’s not something to paint, something inspiring to paint.” New Orleans has long held a place in her family’s history, but Strub told me she was “the only one from [her] family who never went back home.” A New Orleanian at heart before she took up residency, Strub had always been enchanted by her mother’s tales of the city, as well as her own childhood visits. I asked Strub if, after all the romance and enchantment of her mother’s stories, perhaps it was a little disappointing when her own New Orleans story began. Quite to the contrary, she told me her early impressions: “I thought the people were pretty exotic. They spoke French and Spanish. I thought the architecture was marvelous and I thought the oak trees were prettier than any I’d ever seen. I was intrigued by the way people entertained and how gracious they were. Everything in New Orleans was built around being lovely and fun and elegant.

“Lovely and fun and elegant” neatly encapsulate most of Strub’s figurative paintings (many of which are born as drawings), whose saturated pigments and swingy figures—at times caught in moments of revelry, and at others in an expression of thoughtfulness—are colored by a New Orleanian sense of recreation and beauty. Strub’s figures, just like the shy young couple from her piece “Flirtation,” are plainly situated in a New Orleans of days gone by: their strolls, lunches at Antoine’s, and dance hall heel kickin’ are all accomplished in the easily identifiable garb of the 1920’s and ‘30’s—about the time her mother Evelyn was enrolled at Newcomb. In fact, most of Strub’s inspiration comes from a book of photos given to her by her mother. The paintings sometimes correspond directly to the photos that inspire them: in her 1995 acrylic on canvas piece Atlantic City, for example, two gentlemen strolling the boardwalk mirror a 1935 photograph of Strub’s grandfather, R.B. Daniel and his friends.

Despite this studied nostalgia, Strub’s subjects are not restricted to a single era. For in a town where the past can and will rush in at any moment, it is not unheard of to see a gentleman in a white linen suit and panama hat, nor is it out of the question that one might kick up one’s heels any night of the week. As Strub put it: “I think New Orleans lets history live, there’s that great connectedness. I think—do you know in writing how they talk about magical realism? I think of my work as being magical realism. Some of these people could live today, the houses certainly, the interiors I use…I use my own house as an interior; I use my balconies outside. It’s only the costumes, and certainly New Orleans, of any place, is full of costumes…it’s hard for me to get a division between what I see in New Orleans today and what my mother talked to me about and what I saw in my mind’s eye. So it’s all mixed up.” Don’t fret if you have a hard time placing a Strub portrait in chronological context. In all likelihood, it could depict a New Orleanian of today as easily as one from 80 years ago. Even if said portrait was directly inspired by a photograph from mother Evelyn’s collection, it only adds to the verve of Strub’s work that her subject could easily be a present-day buggy driver, or some well-tailored gentleman standing quietly in the corner of a crowded music hall.

It is easy to forget that Strub wasn’t born here, and so she has that passionate appreciation that often only transplants have for a town. “I came from the Deep South, and it’s very Protestant.

We had pretty comfortable homes, and people worked hard, and you behaved yourself. We didn’t go from party to party and ball to ball and drink to drink. Everything was centered on Protestant religion, work ethic…there’s not much of a work ethic here, it’s just enjoying people and enjoying your life and making things beautiful. That seems to be the ethic here, and I thought it was very seductive. It certainly seduced me.”

Just as “lovely” as the town she seemed destined to love is Strub’s home, the walls of which are laden with a trove of local artwork. “When my husband and I got married 45 years ago, we just started [collecting].” Their collection mixes local flavor— “Gail Hood, a lot of Georges Dureau, Lynn Wessel, and Dell Weller” for a start—with more widely known figures such as Francis Bacon and Edouard Vuillard. Strub’s own works make an appearance as well, and there is nary a wall in sight without artistic adornment. Strub tapped lightly on the surface of these paintings as she explained their provenance to me. “I try to buy and encourage some of the young people that, you know, are in the pipeline so to speak. And I enjoy them!” Strub’s support of the art scene is all part of the experience, she tells me: “It’s so loving down here for art. If you like to write, you like to paint…people always love that part of you. Even the straight, sort of lawyer-types love the art scene here. My husband is a doctor and he just loves it. New Orleans just likes that.”

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