New Orleans, 1920s: a city pulsing with contempt for the Volstead Act.
It’s said anyone there could score a drink within a matter of seconds at any time during Prohibition. Nobody tried to hide it, and nobody cared.
And Olive Leonhardt got in on the joke through her artwork, which continues to poke fun at the era in the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Shaking Up Prohibition in New Orleans: The Cocktail Drawings of Olive Leonhardt.”
The show runs through Oct. 31 and features Leonhardt’s original drawings for a tongue-in-cheek cocktail guide she and author Hilda Phelps Hammond created in the form of a classic A to Z alphabet book. They called it “Letters from a Shaker,” with two cocktail recipes accompanying each letter.
“It was a children’s book for adults,” says Gay Leonhardt, the artist’s granddaughter. “Olive and Hilda probably did this book around 1928. They were both mothers with young children, and A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin stories were very popular at the time. These were the books they would have been reading to their children.”
These also were the books on which the illustrator and author modeled their parody. But the manuscript was never published, and Leonhardt’s granddaughter wouldn’t discover it until some 90 years later.
Gay collaborated with LSU Press, which published the book earlier this year under a new title, “Shaking Up Prohibition in New Orleans.” She also worked with the museum’s former curator, Katie Pfohl, to develop an exhibition of her grandmother’s original 26 illustrations to coincide with the book’s release.
The drawings not only showcase Olive’s sardonic wit but offer a glimpse into the art and culture of 1920s New Orleans, as well as her signature graphic style, where drunken revelers and urban sophisticates carouse amidst dynamic art deco designs and stylized letters.
Yet Olive was leading two creative lives in the art world.
On the one hand, she was the young, pretty and proper lady who took care of her family while working as a graphic artist for D.H. Holmes, a set designer for Le Petit Theatre in the French Quarter and an illustrator for books and covers for the literary magazine “The Double Dealer,” which established its own legend by being the first to publish William Faulkner’s work.
The artist also published a book of her own drawings in 1938, “ New Orleans: Drawn and Quartered.”
But she was also the painter who made regular trips to Mexico. The work from these trips can also be found in the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Mexico in New Orleans,” which runs through Aug. 30.
“She would travel to New Orleans every other year, and she would write her husband every other day,” Gay says. “At home in New Orleans, she wouldn’t have that freedom. She was a married woman, and it wouldn’t have been right to go places with her male art friends. Mexico gave her this freedom. She knew Diego Rivera and William Spratling, and she got to know Gore Vidal in Guatemala in 1947.”
Olive was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1895 and died in New Orleans in 1963 when Gay was 12 and living in New York. Gay accompanied an uncle to New Orleans after her grandfather’s death in 1978, where her grandmother’s work was still stacked in her Uptown Pitt Street studio.
Art pieces were divvied out among family members, and Gay took the remaining material back to her Woodstock, New York, home. Three decades would pass before she delved into it.
“I was raising my family and pursing my own art career,” Gay says. “Then, eight years ago, I moved Olive’s work to my basement.”
Boxes not only included paintings but handwritten letters to and from her grandmother.
“You learn a lot through reading people’s letters,” Gay says. “I was fascinated by the period and all the people she knew. She also kept a dream journal.”
Gay began making trips to New Orleans, digging up documentation about grandmother’s life and work. She discovered that Olive showed regularly at the Arts and Crafts Club in New Orleans and staged a one-woman exhibition in New York in 1939.
“The show featured a lot of her Mexico paintings,” Gay says. “Several critics reviewed it, and some were pretty nasty. She mysteriously turned down requests from the Whitney Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art to review her work. Now she’s quite obscure.”
But the granddaughter won’t let the art world forget her grandmother. She tells Olive’s story in an essay preceding her grandmother’s artwork in the book, and the exhibit is scheduled to show in the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi, in the spring of 2017.