Carol Peebles shares her side of an Uptown double with more than 500 New Orleanians. Some are old, some young. Some look you right in the eye when you come in the front door, and others appear to be lost in thought. But all of her guests have one thing in common: They exist only from about the chest up, in stunningly realistic portraits Peeble has drawn over the past 10 years.
A professional artist in classical realism whose work has appeared in both national and international exhibitions, Peebles also has been teaching art at local universities, including the University of New Orleans and Tulane University, for more than 20 years. She's been a life- and portrait-drawing instructor at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts since 1997.
Her latest project, however, is creating an extensive portrait collection not of New Orleans’ people but of its churches. Together with one of her students, New Orleans native Winston Labouisse, Peebles has been drawing the interior of a different church every Sunday for 80 weeks now.
What began as a few fun artistic outings soon become a quest. Peebles and Labouisse are determined to draw every church in the Greater New Orleans area before they’re done.
How long will that take? They have no clue.
“There’s no comprehensive list that I know of,” Peebles said. “So, we just go by what we can find on the web or Facebook, but of course not all churches have websites and Facebook accounts."
“Sometimes I’ll just be bicycling and see a church that looks interesting,” Labouisse added. “So I’ll tell Carol, and we’ll go draw it.”
The goal, Peebles said, is to capture each church’s essence, it’s spirit.
“You can feel the love in these spaces,” Peebles said, “whatever the religion or denomination. It’s just amazing how many beautiful churches we have in New Orleans, but not all are very well-attended. If this project inspired more people to go, well, that would make me very happy.”
Peebles said the drawings have been well-received by their subjects.
“Some of the churches have reached out to us, and we’ve offered them a high-resolution image of the drawing,” Peebles said. “They will use it as their profile picture on social media, in their newsletter or sometimes print it out and sell it as a fundraiser.”
The full collection of drawings created up until this fall — more than 150 pieces — will be on display in an exhibition opening Nov. 2 at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art’s Academy Gallery on Magazine Street.
This summer, Peebles will be offering her second workshop on how to draw churches. The one-day workshop in classical realism will be held at Christ Church Cathedral.
“Classical realism is about drawing what you see,” she said, “about capturing a sense of life and reality.”
In addition to bringing live models into her home and studio every week for portrait-drawing instruction for her private students, Peebles has been challenging them by taking them out into the city to draw everything from the Mississippi River, to the Creole Creamery, to the Hermann-Grima Historic House, to local churches. That's how she recently discovered her love of New Orleans churches.
“Walking into each church, there is always something that just strikes me,” she said. “And the people — we’ve just been blown away by the kindness we’ve been shown while we’re in each space. We’ve had nothing but open doors.”