From Congo Square to the Fair Grounds, through bad weather and good, artist Bruce Brice has been in the picture at every Jazz Fest.
This is Brice’s 45th consecutive year of showing his folk art at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a record unmatched by any other visual artist.
He has been there every year since the festival began in 1970, when his reputation as an artist also was starting to take shape.
“Like the mailman” — who is not stopped by rain or heat — “I was on the go,” Brice said of his annual appearances at the fest.
And like the festival, the now-renowned painter, 71, is still going strong.
On both Jazz Fest weekends, he is exhibiting his vibrant prints, paintings and graphics in Tent AB of the Louisiana Marketplace at the Fair Grounds.
Not only was Brice present at the 1970 fest, he also was commissioned to design that year’s poster, a bird’s-eye view of the planned event at Congo Square.
Back then, he sold his work at Jackson Square after obtaining a vendor’s license in 1969.
That was the year Brice, who started drawing as a child growing up in the Lafitte housing complex, began making his living as an artist, forsaking such jobs as porter and construction worker.
To support himself and his family as an artist all these years, he said, “is strictly a gift from God. There have been hard times, but I believe in something higher. You can’t doubt that because you will lose it.”
Even in the hard times, he somehow had enough money at the end of the month to pay the bills, he said: “It has been a wonderful thing. I was blessed.”
Brice’s 1970 Jazz Fest poster was a black-and-white work given out for free to advertise the event. These days, his colorful paintings sell for as much as $250,000; framed limited-edition prints sell for around $200 on his website (brucebrice.com).
But one thing has not changed: From the beginning, each one of Brice’s artworks has told a story, typically a tale about African-American life in New Orleans.
As he explains on his website, “My goal is to teach … to enlighten others about the rich African-American experiences, culture and traditions in this region.”
His message is aimed at all age groups.
“I paint to have something to say, not just to paint with a lot of colors. But for young children, the colors draw them in, like a beautiful flower with its colors will attract the bees,” Brice said.
His subjects include Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands, jazz funerals, parades and New Orleans neighborhoods, among others.
“People ask which is my favorite painting,” he said. But that’s a question he cannot answer.
“It’s like having children. You tell your child, ‘Each person is different, and I love you,’ ” he said.
Brice has four children and five grandchildren, but it’s his one great-granddaughter who is showing signs of being the next artist in the family. “Your kids never want to do what you’re doing,” he said.
In 1971, the year after the first Jazz Fest, Brice was a prize-winner at the Artists of the Southeast and Texas Biennial at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and his work became part of NOMA’s permanent collection. Other honors and exhibitions followed, locally, nationally and abroad.
As his reputation grew, his association with Jazz Fest continued.
At the opening of the “Outside the Tent” exhibit of work by artists participating in the 2014 festival, Brice was honored for his longtime involvement in the event.
“At that first Jazz Fest, Bruce exhibited his colorful and celebratory paintings in a large tent and held his own among such legends as Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington,” festival producers said in a news release announcing Brice’s history-making run of appearances.
“Visitors or tourists may not realize the importance of who is in their midst, while New Orleanians always recognize and cherish our local icons. Bruce Brice is a New Orleans treasure and is considered one of the city’s most respected folk artists.”
The “Outside the Tent” exhibit at the Jazz and Heritage Gallery, 1205 N. Rampart St., will be on view through Saturday. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, with limited gallery hours on festival days. Admission is free.