Mourners who approached Allen Toussaint’s closed casket during his Nov. 20 memorial at the Orpheum Theater were met by a poignant image: A framed, poster-sized photograph of a smiling Toussaint, resplendent in a royal blue suit — and a massive pair of angel wings.
The vision of Toussaint as an angel struck a deep chord with many who saw it prominently displayed on the Orpheum stage and on social media. In the now-familiar image, he and his wings are set against a neutral, blank background.
But the original photo was very different,
In it, he’s flanked by a far messier tableau: a trash can, a recycling bin, a mop and a yellow bucket. Photographer Kathy Sebastian initially believed the background clutter detracted from Toussaint’s elegance. So the photo was digitally edited before its release. “I thought I should clean it up for Allen,” Sebastian said recently, “because he was too impeccable to be standing by a mop bucket.”
But thanks in large part to a famous friend of Toussaint’s, Sebastian reconsidered her original shot. She now believes it is the far more revealing of the two. “It interprets Allen in a different way,” she said. “The truth is, the world isn’t clean — but he was.”
Sebastian and Toussaint were close friends and confidants for nearly 30 years. She often accompanied him on his rambles around town, and served on the board of the charity he co-founded, New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness (NOAAHH).
Along the way, she took hundreds of photographs of Toussaint. “He loved to have his picture taken. You’d think he’d be tired of it. But he was always semi-documenting himself.”
In the terrible hours after Toussaint’s death from a heart attack following a Nov. 9 show in Spain, Sebastian got on the phone with Gwynn Torres, a fellow member of the NOAAHH board. As they talked and mourned through the night, Sebastian clicked through a computer file of her Toussaint photos. One series stopped her cold: The angel wings.
She’d snapped the photos three months earlier, on Aug. 6, at the New Orleans Art Center on St. Claude Avenue. After a late-afternoon libation at Crescent City Steaks, Sebastian had convinced Toussaint to accompany her to the gallery to see a portrait of him painted by Jeff Morgan.
The angel wings, created by performance artist Yamil Rodriguez, were also there. As part of a Valentine’s Day party for artist Ray Cole’s exhibition at the New Orleans Art Center, Rodriguez costumed himself as a “dying Cupid.” Wearing the wings and a fake arrow through his chest, he staggered and crawled around Bywater before finally expiring, elaborately, on a bed at the gallery.
When the Valentine’s event was over, gallery founder Herman Kron hung Rodriguez’s wings in front of a storage area, much to the artist’s dismay. That’s where they were when Toussaint and Sebastian arrived on Aug. 6.
Kron asked Toussaint to pose with the wings, as other visitors to the gallery had. Sebastian recalled Toussaint requesting that she take his picture as well. When Kron snapped his photograph, he mistakenly caught Sebastian’s arm in the frame. “She got a better picture than me,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to ask Allen Toussaint to do it again.”
Sebastian fired off several shots, but only one in which her friend was both smiling and holding up his arms in front of the wings, as if he were ready to take flight. That particularly whimsical, impromptu image was captured at 7:02 p.m.
Later, Sebastian downloaded the photos to her computer, and forgot about them until the night of Toussaint’s death.
In the wake of his passing, she thought his family, friends and fans might want to see him as an angel. But first, she set out to eliminate the background clutter. Torres offered to help. In the wee hours of Nov. 10, Torres digitally scrubbed the backdrop with Photoshop. (Later, trombonist Maurice Trosclair, husband of another NOAAHH board member and leader of the band the Nobles, created a cleaned-up version in which he also aligned the bottom edges of the wings.)
Sebastian posted an edited angel image on Facebook. The response was immediate, and overwhelmingly positive.
She emailed a copy to Toussaint’s son Reggie and daughter Alison. Days later, Reggie asked if the family could display the photo at his father’s memorial service. Honored, Sebastian sent him the original, with the trash cans and mop, as well as the sanitized version. The family opted for the clean background.
“That made more sense for the elegant setting” at the Orpheum, Sebastian said. “The other one, you’d have to think about longer than when you were just passing by the stage.”
Sebastian is often the liaison with entertainers for NOAAHH’s benefit concerts, including the Dec. 8 show at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre that was to have featured Paul Simon and Toussaint. After Toussaint’s death, Sebastian worked with Simon’s management to restructure the show as a tribute.
At some point, she emailed the edited angel photo to one of Simon’s managers, who passed it on to Simon. Word came back that he wanted a print; could Sebastian send a high-resolution copy?
Well, that particular image had been edited, she replied. Did they want to see the original photo?
They did. And Simon loved it even more.
After she thought about, Sebastian wasn’t surprised that Simon preferred the clutter. “Paul is a songwriter. He’s a poet. Of course he liked that one better. It tells a better story.
“That’s Allen — walking through chaos impeccably unscathed. The puddles never got to Allen. The sweat never got to Allen. That’s how he lived. Walking through the sometimes dirty, untidy world, fresh and clean in his glorious blue suit.”
The now-famous angel wings are currently part of the holiday window display at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Canal Street. They’re slated to move back to the New Orleans Art Center in January.
Kron said his partner at the New Orleans Art Center, Christina Juran, was mortified that a mop bucket and garbage cans appeared in the photo with Toussaint. The area was soon cleaned up, and a curtain was hung behind the wings.
But not before Sebastian captured her iconic image of Toussaint amid the chaos, impeccable as always.