New Orleans’s Jackson Square is a hub for artistic entrepreneurship. On any day of the week, without fail, you can find local creatives selling paintings that depict local life, lore, and culture. This year-round open-air art market fits as neatly into the city’s landscape as palm readers, fortune tellers, kids drumming on buckets, and informal trumpet solos.
But on the morning of Friday, January 31, 2020, local Jackson Square artist Cassie Tarr woke up to panicked text messages saying that her livelihood may be in danger. While the city slept, someone had stolen the artists’ carts – supplies, paintings, and all.
Tarr’s cart was not stolen or harmed. But fellow artist James Rall’s cart had been taken. Rall shared the news on his professional Instagram account. His cart, which contained his original paintings and prints, as well as 12 to 15 other artists’ carts, were gone.
“These carts contained our livelihood, all of our art,” the post read. “Our means of paying bills & buying groceries.” Rall was the first to come upon the scene that Friday morning.
Jackson Square artists often use these carts to easily transport their works to the Square and set up shop each day. “What we do is really physically demanding,” Tarr said. “Basically setting up and tearing down an outdoor gallery every day.”
When the artists close shop each night, they lock their carts up nearby in a central location, aptly named “the cartyard,” so they can easily return to work the next day.
“The carts are a tool that make transporting art and setting up every day much easier,” Tarr said. “A lot of the older artists depend on them, because maybe they can’t physically load and unload a car every day.”
Tarr has been working for days with the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) to launch a GoFundMe campaign to pay for the artists to have new carts and cover other expenses from this theft. That fundraiser went live today.
Mattie Stillwell, another local Jackson Square artist, was also spared. Stillwell came to the scene shortly after Rall and broke the news on Facebook to her colleagues.
While there have been minor incidents of theft in the past, Stillwell said that for decades, “it’s been peaceful” for decades. This theft was unprecedented, the “worst thing to happen to the artists in years.”
Stillwell said the artists know who did it and were working with the police to pinpoint the suspect. Years ago, someone pushed an artist’s cart in the Mississippi River. Two weeks before this heist, the same suspect pushed another artist’s cart into the river. “This could [have] definitely been avoided if the French Market security and police would [have] acted on it.”
On the night of January 31, James Rall’s cart was found floating in the Mississippi River. All of his art was destroyed – except for one painting of Jesus depicted as a beauty pageant queen. He called it Jesus Benét Ramsey.
“When my [c]art was pushed into the Mississippi River,” another update read, “Jesus Benét Ramsey was submerged for 16-20 hours and came out fairly clean.” A miracle story that would only be told in New Orleans.
Rall decided to auction Jesus Benét Ramsey and donate half of the proceeds to purchase a new cart for a fellow artist.
“We can only assume that the others are in the bottom of the river,” he wrote in a subsequent Instagram update. “This is a devastating loss to the Jackson Square/New Orleans art community.”
If you would like to contribute to the artists who lost their carts and supplies in this robbery, you can click here.