Eugenie “Ersy” Schwartz, a noted visual artist and former faculty member at the Cooper Union in New York City and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, died Wednesday in New Orleans. She was 64.
The cause was complications from a recent surgery, according to Paula Ninas, a cousin.
Known simply as Ersy among her friends, students and artistic associates, she was born in New Orleans in 1951 and attended Bard College in New York before studying sculpture at Tulane University and receiving a degree in sculpture and photography from the California Institute of the Arts.
Her education also included an apprenticeship with sculptor Enrique Alférez, known for his Art Deco-inspired work in City Park and Lakefront Airport.
Instead of following in Alférez’s footsteps stylistically, however, Schwartz became best known for meticulously detailed and whimsically surreal bronze and mixed-media sculptures that often combined elements of Carnival culture with historical motifs and symbols derived from classical mythology and Catholic tradition.
Her “Homage to the Society of Saint Anne,” a tabletop tableau consisting of dozens of bronze figures, paid tribute to the annual walking parade that snakes from the Bywater to the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday before ending on the banks of the Mississippi River, where ashes of members who have died during the previous year are “committed to the waters.”
The piece was a centerpiece of her critically lauded retrospective at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in 2011.
“Ersy proved herself both a meticulous master craftsman and a weaver of intricate narratives,” Ogden Museum curator Bradley Sumrall said. “And she did so with a skilled economy and a dark humor uniquely her own.”
Artist Josephine Sacabo, whose own show at the Ogden coincided with Ersy’s, recalled how she met her longtime close friend and colleague.
“We knew each other for almost 40 years,” Sacabo said. “New Orleans Magazine assigned me to photograph Ersy making masks of people’s faces. I went to her house on Esplanade, where she had her studio, and I arrived as Ersy was covering her model with the material she used to make her masks. I was enchanted, and we stayed close friends ever since.”
Sacabo also paid tribute to the singular nature of Ersy’s work.
“Her art was totally sincere and authentic, and she was completely committed to what she was doing,” she said. “She didn’t bend to fashion. It was a very subjective take on the world, but it was an honest and totally unique sensibility.”
Her role as a respected and beloved educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts is another component of her legacy.
“Ersy started working at NOCCA in 1999, when she returned to New Orleans to care for her mother after teaching at Cooper Union in New York City for many years,” said Mary Jane Parker, chairwoman of the visual arts department at NOCCA. “She essentially built an entire world-class sculpture department at NOCCA from the ground up.”
“She was one of the most gifted and imaginative artists in New Orleans,” Parker said. A plaque at the entrance to the art department offices at NOCCA commemorates her dedication and hard work.
In addition to works in the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum and in many private collections, Ersy is also commemorated in her most high-profile work in New Orleans: the pair of monumental gates at the side of the New Orleans Museum of Art she created in collaboration with her friend George Dureau, who died in 2014.
Like Dureau, Ersy was represented by Arthur Roger Gallery for many years.
While plans for a memorial service were still being finalized, Sacabo said that Ersy’s body was cremated and her ashes will be borne through the French Quarter and deposited in the river on Mardi Gras day in accordance with her wishes — a fitting tribute to a unique artist.
“Nobody else did what she did,” Sacabo said. “She was truly one of a kind.”
There are no immediate survivors.