© Copyright 2005 by Kristin K. Fouquet
“Whatever she ain’t got, she don’t need.”
This was the funniest compliment I had ever received, even if it was delivered second-hand by my boyfriend. The bit of flattery had come from his father after meeting me for the first time. Wayne “Dimitri” Fouquet would become my beloved father-in-law, fascinating friend, and the most talented artist I have ever had the privilege of knowing.
His life began on a wooden
kitchen table in Algiers Point on the West Bank of the murky
Mississippi River. Just a river away, Algiers shares the same thick
humid air in which New Orleans Voodoo folklore was born through
whispered stories about Baron Samedi, the original Dr. John, and
Marie Laveau; two spirits Dimitri would later capture in oil.
Growing up, he ran with his cousin Ronnie Barosse, who would later be known as Ronnie Baron the well-known New Orleans pianist and singer. Dimitri told many stories about his youth. As boys, they would strip down on the levee to swim in the Mississippi River so their mothers wouldn’t catch them with wet clothes. As wild teens, they would sneak into the church, Holy Name of Mary, and light their cigarettes and joints off of the candles for the poor. Ronnie would run up on the altar and bellow from the pulpit like an old Baptist preacher.
The Algiers Point of their day was full of interesting characters as well. Dimitri would talk of an old Chinese man who owned the local dry cleaners. He made it well known that he kept snakes as a robbery deterrent. Yet, Dimitri and his friends were privy to the old man’s secret about the snakes. He would sew their mouths closed with silk thread so they couldn’t bite. When they needed to be fed, he simply snipped the thread open and would sew their mouths shut again after their meal.
Although, Dimitri came from a family of artists, it was Ronnie’s grandfather, an elder artist named PaPete, who became his artistic mentor. At PaPete’s house, Ronnie would play his grandfather’s piano while Dimitri watched the artist paint. PaPete also painted in Jackson Square in the French Quarter. Young Dimitri spent many days in the Square observing the master artist working in the old European style. The fact that he managed to make a living as an artist was something that impressed Dimitri very much. He was a determined student and soon learned the techniques of the brushstroke and how to mix paints to achieve desired colors.
A Russian priest, a beatnik, and an artist walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey Dimitri, what will it be?” His outward appearance always matched whichever side of his multi-faceted personality was showing that day. If he was in a pious mood, he might be found wearing all black with a huge silver cross around his neck. Other days, he might be donning blue jeans and a Zig Zag rolling papers t-shirt or a full black wool cape and a black beret. His chameleon-like image was indicative of a restless and curious mind.
Dimitri’s artwork also reflected his many diverse interests and beliefs. He painted original artwork of a novena for Mary’s Helpers. The resulting prayer cards from those paintings can still be found today around New Orleans. Recently, one turned up in the men’s room of St. Joe’s Bar on Magazine Street. After converting to Greek Orthodoxy and taking the name Dimitri, he began painting the religious icons of the Orthodox tradition. He painstakingly produced them as close to the originals as possible. He bought rabbit skin glue, the exact wood boards, and the type of paints used by the monks. Dimitri used garlic cloves to adhere the gold leaf just as they had. For him, it was an exercise of both art and faith. He was honored when his icons were blessed on the altar of his church, Holy Trinity Cathedral.
He was an avid reader, reading anything he could find on a subject. Although he had only a high school education, he spoke like a scholar on subjects he was interested in. He’d joke that he'd “read every book in the Algiers library.” Dimitri never traveled too far from home, choosing to explore the world through books instead. When immersed in a new culture or theme, he would invoke the spirit of the people and it would become a part of him and his artwork.
Beyond Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, Dimitri
devoured beatnik literature including many of the lesser-known
writers and poets of the period. The majority of his artwork was in
the Realism tradition using oils, but for fun he did several
multi-media pieces that were stylized and comical reflecting
counter-cultural themes, back street blues jams, and beatnik
decadence. As with all of his paintings, these were full of life; one
could almost taste the red wine and smell the pot smoke. When he read
all the Irish poets, he wore tweed hats, carried a shillelagh, ate
Irish oatmeal, and painted people in the Irish countryside. When he
read about gypsies and their folklore, he listened to gypsy guitar
music and painted gypsies. Dimitri read the great works of Zen
Buddhism with the same intensity and respect as he did the books of
his own faith. He used Sumi ink for his Zen ink drawings of monks and
He loved animals and used them as subjects in many paintings. He always bought pure bred cats and dogs for pets because he admired the look of the breed and their bloodline. He painted Chartreux, “the blue cats of France” often kept by monks. When they were young, he and his cousin Ronnie would trap common pigeons in the French Quarter and keep them as pets. Never content with the average, Dimitri began collecting pure blood pedigree homing pigeons in a loft in his backyard. Befriending pigeon breeders, he would often trade one of his paintings of pigeons in exchange for an egg from a champion hen or pigeons from good lineage. Among his favorites were English Carriers and Damascenes.
Always the New Orleans artist, his most enduring subjects are taken from his hometown. He painted buggy drivers, absinthe drinkers, vendors in the French Market, many French Quarter scenes, Congo Square, and of course, Baron Samedi and Marie Laveau. It was Ronnie and Dimitri’s old friend Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, who used these two latter subjects as the artwork for his CD “Creole Moon”. This CD along with a few gallery showings in town and on the road, a local television interview, and posters and t-shirts of those lasting images, would prove to be the most recognition and exposure of Dimitri’s work to date. Sadly, this modest brush with celebrity would come in the last two years of his life. Dimitri died suddenly at the young age of 59 on August 22, 2002.
In his final years, he returned to many things that he enjoyed in his youth. He bought a new sitar and again tried to master it. He wore mysterious looking skull beads and started smoking Gauloises cigarettes again. His last painting entitled Opium Dream displays elements from a mystic past. He became reacquainted with his roots and old pleasures.
Like many New Orleanians, Dimitri was attracted to light and dark; good and evil. He was equally amused if someone mistook him as a devil worshipper or a Russian priest. In our unique culture, there exists no contradiction in embracing both seemingly conflicting sides. We are decadent during Mardi Gras before the fast of Lent and then we feast again at Easter. It is our custom to celebrate even in death, as in our jazz funerals. Although complex, there is no inconsistency in a man who painted Voodoo deities, pot-smoking beatniks and musicians, strippers, saints, and the Madonna and Child.
With his death, the body of work is now finite and we are denied any more masterpieces. On occasion he would paint on commission but the majority of his paintings are of themes he was personally interested in. His family and friends are fortunate to have held onto many of them but numerous paintings are unaccounted for as Dimitri was very generous and would give them away frequently.
The pain of losing him is immeasurable. He was a passionate eccentric that made any event more fun with just the addition of his presence. Mere adjectives cannot describe how inexplicably cool he was. Dimitri’s joie de vivre conjures up for me several mental images of him: the way his eyes would light up childlike in the anticipation of eating sushi, the pride in his face at showing us a painting he had just completed, the respect and gratitude he would show me for turning him onto a good book. I cannot imagine living a single day without missing him. The world is a less interesting place without him in it.
For my husband, not remembering all the crazy stories of his father’s youth troubles him the most. He often urged his father to write them down or to at least relay them into a tape recorder. Alas, this never occurred. Despite his memories of a wild past, Dimitri actually lived in a time of innocence compared to the violence of this day. He and his gang were harmless hoodlums performing pranks, unlike the angry young element that now walks this city’s streets often murdering for underground social promotion. The Algiers of Dimitri’s youth was a tight knit community where people really did know each other and looked after one another.
Having a young daughter who missed the opportunity of knowing her grandfather, I too wish we had all of his stories. We do have our memories of him to share with her. She’ll have his wonderful paintings and Zen ink drawings to look at. She also eats at the family shrine, the old wooden table that Dimitri, one of his brothers, and his cousin Ronnie were born on. He’s everywhere in this house: there’s one of his easels; his silver handed walking stick leans against the wall; in the china cabinet is a perfume bottle he bought for his mother then later gave to me; on the shelves are books from him, an old camera, and an incense burner; and there’s the sitar. My daughter points to his portrait and says, “Dada’s Dada.”
I guess he was too busy living his life to sit down and document his past; maybe that would’ve made him feel that his life was over. Perhaps, Dimitri had to take his stories with him to leave an element of mystery surrounding his memory, much like the mystique of this city in which he lived and the lasting images he immortalized.
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