By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Louis Armstrong spent his youth in and out of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs for “delinquency” in his tough neighborhood known as “the battlefield.” When this grandson of slaves wasn’t housed there, he was passed around for varying lengths of time to different members of his extended family. After his father abandoned his mother, it’s reported she had to go live in the town’s prostitute quarters to make ends meet. Armstrong helped by doing a paper route, hauling coal, and selling food salvaged from trash cans. When the rising singer, cornet and trumpet player could finally put his days of hardship behind him, living in New York and Chicago, he was known for saying that, in spite of it all, New Orleans had given him the gift of music … “something to live for.”
Stories like this of a man who is remembered as one of the major developers of a unique American art form, have inspired Marcia Gawecki to research jazz musicians and paint their faces on huge eye-catching banners. Her work has decorated The French Quarter at Jazz in the Pines at Idyllwild Arts Academy for the past two summers. This month, the portraits bring Idyllwild Library to life in an exciting explosion of color, to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month.
Images of Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Etta James and Miles Davis are there, along with accomplished musicians who teach at the academy or have performed at various venues here as local residents. The latter include 2011 American Idol finalist Casey Abrams and his mentor Marshall Hawkins, co-founder of the academy’s jazz program. You’ll also find Herb Jeffries, who was the last living member of the Duke Ellington Band before his death in 2014.
“What inspires me is the hard work of other artists,” Gawecki said in an interview this week. “People like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald had to overcome such great obstacles like poverty and racism and still they accomplished great things. I do a lot of research on the people that I paint. I once listened to an 18-hour book on tape on Louis Armstrong’s life.”
Gawecki said the musicians’ stories give her hope.
“An artist’s life is not easy because he always has to have a day job. I work as a cashier at Fairway (market) and I’m grateful for full-time work. It inspires me when young people come through my line (at the market) and say that they walk by my house every day and look at the banners that I put in the window. And they are artists too. In a small town you get a lot of support.”
She said The French Quarter’s bartenders tell her the locals really like the color of her banners.
“It really gets them up and dancing!” she said.
Gawecki enjoys painting “big” but even banners have their limitations.
“I was thinking of doing the same work on large wooden panels about the same size,” she said. “I have a couple of doors without knobs lined up in my bedroom right now. But when you go big with wood you have to start thinking about transporting in a truck instead of a Honda civic.”
She plans to target large restaurants that have space to show off her creations.
As a result of her educational display at the Idyllwild library, Gawecki has been commissioned to do five banners of Idyllwild Actors Theatre performers.
“I’m excited about that!” she said.
Her story of coming to Idyllwild is interesting. She was born in Boston and grew up in Omaha Nebraska.
“I’m an Air Force brat,” she said. “Both my parents were in medicine and there were seven of us. So art was my way of getting attention in a large family.”
She came on a visit here after working in South America.
“I just got back from two years in Santiago, Chile where I was the editor of the English language newspaper and taught English,” she said. “I was broke and living with my mom in Temecula and was planning on moving back to Chicago where I had been before. But it takes a lot of money to move to Chicago so I was saving up for that. My mom and I took a day trip to Idyllwild because it was the closest mountain village to Temecula and I was missing the four seasons of Chicago. I fell in love with the place! There was so much overbuilding in Temecula and they were chopping down whole orchards to build new houses. Now I have 40 trees on my property! And I have wildlife at my door so it’s a perfect, quiet, spiritual place to be.
To learn more about Gawecki’s work, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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