Born and raised in Appalachia, artist Herb Roe claims kinship with south Louisiana’s isolated rural populations.
Especially the people of Courir de Mardi Gras, the traditional southwestern Cajun celebration.
But Roe doesn't just paint the costumed riders on horseback, the chicken chasing, the dancing. He lives it.
“You have to be part of it," he said with a laugh. "I run around, fall in the mud, I get whipped — they’re not as rough on me as they are on each other."
A boucherie, where a pig is butchered and just about every part turned into food, "is like going back to my childhood,” he added.
His work has an encompassing realism, the result of hundreds of photos — sometimes as many as 600 — he takes on site.
“Only a few are usable,” he said. “I look through and pick elements, and a lot of what you see is a composite, even if it looks like a single picture. It could be two taken a few seconds apart. I redraw to get perspective right.”
Roe then digitally alters the different images and sometimes draws directly on the canvas in his Lafayette studio.
“It’s very deliberative. I don’t just attack it like a monkey with a sword," he said. "You’re going for an exact thing. If I really like something, I can piece it together in an hour or two. Others take weeks or months. The actual painting goes fairly quickly.”
Roe’s painted Mardi Gras for over a decade, accruing well over 100 paintings.
His country Mardi Gras figures appear to be in motion, as in "Le fête de quémande," (the begging party), where the backdrop is misty and hazy.
What draws him to the courir (the run) is complex.
“It’s the colors, the costumes,” he said. “A lot of medieval characters survive only in these costumes. It’s Renaissance, baroque, Old World European art. Real, yet otherworldly. You’re painting what’s in front of you, but it looks like 400 years ago.”
“Completely surreal,” he added.
Many of Roe's painting are large. He worked with mural artist Robert Dafford for 15 years, leaving in 2007 to pursue his own commissions and artwork.
He has exhibited in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans as well as other galleries in the Crescent City and Baton Rouge. Many of his paintings hang in his studio, but he also sells from his website, social media and at Festival International de Louisiane.
“People want to take the culture home,” he explained.
He also does private commissions and recently painted Charlene Richard, better known as “The Little Cajun Saint.” She died at age 12 and many believe she is a saint. The Roman Catholic Church has not approved the designation.
“It fits in with the traditional things I do," Roe said. "The guy who commissioned it is an oilfield individual, blue collar. He wanted Jesus, Mary, roses — he feels a connection, one of the local believers. When he’s in town, he visits her grave site. His plans are to do a series of prints and donate to St. Jude’s. He’s still working out how.”
In “Pray for Us Sweet Charlene,” angels flank the Immaculate Heart near the top, and the piece does indeed include Jesus and Mary, a bed of roses near the bottom. Also gazing out at the viewer are the Magi and the traditional nativity animals. Because of the disparate elements, it was hard to design.
“It’s a pretty unusual composition, a classical, realistic, Renaissance-style religious painting," Roe said. "I made it look like a devotional piece, very Italianate. It’s similar to the murals I used to do with vignettes. It wasn’t my normal work, but it was fun to do something different, you know, working outside your normal range.
“Someone giving you problems to solve.”
Roe’s Lafayette studio is equipped to accommodate his long painting days, as much as 16 to 18 hours.
“Sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning,” he said. “There are 20, 30, 40, 50 hours, even 80 in a 2-foot by 2-foot painting. November through March, it’s 10 hours a day, six days a week."
A new body of work incorporates blackberries, mist-shrouded hills and some symbolic layers.
“It’s merging my childhood with the present,” he explained. “I’m still working it out, a pan-Southern kind of thing.”
As for this year’s impending Courir de Mardi Gras, Roe said his younger brother is coming.
"It’s going to be fun," he said.