Enrique Alférez was barely 30 years old when he was commissioned to design and cast the aluminum friezes that grace entryways to Charity Hospital, built in 1932.
He was in his 80s when Joe Canizaro commissioned him to sculpt the statues that now stand in front of the First Bank and Trust Building on Poydras Street.
In between, Alférez crafted dozens of works that have become part of New Orleans’ visual iconography, including many in City Park, created under the auspices of the Work Progress Administration.
On Wednesday, City Park mounts a permanent tribute to Alférez when it opens The Helis Foundation Enrique Alférez Sculpture Garden in the New Orleans Botanical Garden on Victory Avenue.
Featuring 14 sculptures and casts of works by Alférez, the new attraction is funded by The Helis Foundation, which purchased many works in the collection from Alférez’s daughter Tlaloc expressly for inclusion in the sculpture garden.
The sculpture garden displays both familiar and rarely seen works by Alférez.
“We moved some of the pieces to the site from other locations in the Botanical Garden and elsewhere in the park,” said Paul Soniat, director of the Botanical Garden. “But others were donated by owners who caught wind of what we intended to do here or purchased by The Helis Foundation for a long-term loan.”
Soniat worked with landscape architect Robin Tanner, who designed the 8,000-square-foot space and the pergolas and outdoor gallery spaces that hold explanatory displays.
“Robin doesn’t really work like other designers, who will give you a scaled drawing that shows exactly what plants will be included, how many, and where they will go,” Soniat said. “Robin starts with a sketch, but the idea evolves the more he gets into it. It’s an organic process that yields something even better than what he imagined in the beginning.”
The garden is situated on the former site of the Palm Garden, where a number of mature palms, as well as a centuries-old live oak, remain.
A long pergola at the entrance provides a space for displays explaining Alférez’s life and art career.
The walls of the pergola are inset with full-size casts (made by master plasterer Jeff Porée) of figures that appear in a bas relief on one of City Park’s bridges, plus restored gates from Tad Gormley Stadium.
The focal point at the end of the pergola is Alférez’s sculpture “Nude with Shell,” set into a tiered fountain.
Paths wind through the sculpture garden separated by sinuous mounds of sculpted earth covered in Asiatic jasmine. Many of the mature “Near East” crape myrtles on the site were transplanted from other spots in the Botanical Garden.
Smaller sculptures are placed atop pedestals, often in outdoor gallery spaces under a pergola, while larger ones rest on the ground. Larger than life, “La Soladera” (The Soldier) stands at the center of a circle, inviting a 360 degree viewing.
The sculpture depicts a woman in robes holding a baby to her left breast. Only when the viewer walks around the back of the statue does the rifle clutched in her right hand become visible.
“I was struck by the sensuous nature of the sculptures and the human forms and used it to inform the landscape and paths,” said Tanner. “Several of the benches that Alférez designed are located throughout to provide places for visitors to stop and take in the view.”
Born in Mexico in 1901, Alférez was just 8 years old when he began his artistic career working in the studio where his father sculpted icons for churches.
He was 12 when he was forced into Pancho Villa’s army for a 10 year stint. After escaping to El Paso, he eventually enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924, landing in New Orleans in 1929.
For the next 70 years, Alférez was a leading figure in the art community and worked on major projects for Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, the architectural firm responsible for the existing State Capitol and for Charity Hospital.
When Alférez directed the sculpture program locally for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, he created public works in City Park, such as water fountains, benches, gates at Tad Gormley, bas reliefs on a bridge, and the Popp Fountain. Another fountain, depicting “The Four Winds,” stands at the recently restored Lakefront Airport.
One of the artist’s most controversial works, dating to 1951, will join others in the new sculpture garden after its restoration is complete.
“It’s called ‘The Family’ and it was intended for a public building on North Rampart. It was on view for only a few days because people were offended by the nudity,” said Soniat. “The Helis Foundation helped us track it down and is funding its restoration. Soon, the public will be able to see it for the first time in more than 60 years.”