Heart of Louisiana: Casselli

When the rex organization was looking for an artist to create this year’s official proclamation, it enlisted famed New Orleans watercolorist Henry Casselli.
Published: Feb. 5, 2023 at 4:21 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - When the rex organization was looking for an artist to create this year’s official proclamation, it enlisted famed New Orleans watercolorist Henry Casselli.

New Orleans’s artist Henry Casselli made a lot of sketches before he created one that he felt would best represent. This year’s rex parade.

“There’s a lot of pageantry with flag dancing,” Henry Casselli said.

But a Mardi Gras proclamation was a new challenge for an artist who has spent a lifetime sharing feelings and emotions with watercolors.

“It’s not just painting the surface, it’s going real deep inside the person, knowing the person, knowing them, and trying to catch that essence of that person,” Casselli said.

Casselli grew up in the racially mixed ninth ward, and his paintings capture the characters of his neighborhood, but that changed on his 19th birthday.

“I had looked at a life magazine. Before leaving for art school that morning, there was a photo of a marine, and the caption was marine spends 19th birthday in the jungles of Vietnam. It’s a young marine, this deep in water with his bazooka over him. Some, some rounds. I’m here having fun, he’s there. All of it evolved around. I’ve gotta do something to record this,” Casselli said.

He joined the marine corps as a combat artist. He drew these images of his fellow marines in 1968, he called this one “Young en growing old”.

“It’s the pieces that were done right there in the moment. In the mud, at the time it was happening that are the most valuable, most meaningful to me,” Casselli said.

After the war, Casselli continued doing portraits like this one of boxer Muhammad Ali.

“I said, by any chance, do you know the children’s game, cat’s cradle, and he took the string. He said, yeah, do you know Jacob’s Ladder? He started showing me how to do Jacob’s Ladder, and it was just, again, that magic that clicked, that took place,” Casselli said.

Casselli ended up in the oval office painting the official portrait of President Ronald Reagan.

“It was very, very informal. It was just really, really, really wonderful,” Casselli said.

Casselli was at cape Kennedy sketching space shuttle astronauts, including John Glenn’s return to space in 1998.

“John Glenn was a marine corps general at that time with a lot of marine corps experience and NASA experience. I saw it as the old general right before the battle with his head in prayer, thinking about what was ahead,” Casselli said.

Henry Casselli’s paintings show much more than you could ever capture with a camera. That brings us back to rex, which first published colorful proclamations to attract tourists in the late 18 hundreds.

“These edicts and proclamations would go out to train stations for decades and decades,” said William French.

Now, the proclamations are works of art and rex turn to Casselli.

“This year’s theme for the parade is the Palio di Siena, which is a horse race that takes place in Siena, Italy twice a year, and it is their equivalent of our Mardi Gras,” French said.

Then I finally decided that I wanted more of this, this very abstract image.

That image of a lone horse in a dark space before the chaotic ride was chosen.

“What I wanted was a dramatic image, an impact, which is, that’s what I aim for,” French said.

The proclamation feels powerful and majestic in its simplicity, and it carries all of the feelings that flow from the brush of a great artist.

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