Book Talk, signing
➤ WHAT: Author Katheryn Krotzer Laborde discusses and signs her new book, “The Story Behind the Painting,” about Frederick J. Brown’s “The Assumption of Mary” painting hanging in the Xavier University of Louisiana’s library.
➤ WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m., East Bank Regional Library, 4747 West Napoleon Ave., Metairie.
Walk into Xavier University’s Library Resource Center and something jumps out immediately – a floor-to-ceiling painting with arms outstretched to the sky.
That image fascinated writer Katheryn Krotzer Laborde at first glance in 2001 when she was hired as an instructor at Xavier University.
She originally mistook the main figure for Mahalia Jackson, only to discover it was an expressionist work of “The Assumption of Mary” by painter Frederick J. Brown.
As she continued to delve into who the “chorus” of figures surrounding the dominant figures of Mary, St. Katharine Drexel (the founder of Xavier University) and Pope John Paul II were – she realized nobody knew who was depicted in the painting.
“The sea of faces is so mesmerizing,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat there and stared at it.”
A seed was planted to explain – in a book – why the painting existed and who the people were.
By 2007, she began to think seriously about the project and conducted her first interview with Dr. Norman Francis, Xavier University’s president.
Simultaneously, she was working on completing “Do Not Open: The Discarded Refrigerators of Post-Katrina New Orleans” – published in 2010 by McFarland Publishers – and she didn’t interview Brown until November 2009.
Elements collided perfectly
Fateful moments brought the project together, beginning with the painting itself.
First, Brown, a famed expressionist with an architecture background, was in town for Jazz Fest in 1991 visiting his friend, Tim Francis, son of Dr. Francis. Tim Francis and Brown took a break from the fest to stop by Xavier just as the new library was being built. Francis suggested he donate a painting for it. By chance, Dr. Francis was on campus that day, and Brown offered to paint an original work that would eventually fill an entire wall of the library. It measures 28 feet wide, 33 feet tall and weighs 6,500 pounds.
The canvas was so large that Brown had to stand on a cherry picker to paint, thus restricting him from reviewing his work as he went along.
In classical paintings of the Assumption, there’s usually a heavenly choir depicted, Laborde said.
Brown made the choir a jazz band, a nod to New Orleans that incorporated subjects he was familiar painting – jazz and blues musicians, religious figures and Native Americans.
“I think he was walking around (Jazz Fest), he had the library in his head and it all comes together,” she said.
Brown chose people to paint who had given their lives to excellence, he said in the book. He painted slaves, St. Katharine Drexel, professors and workers on Xavier’s campus, the pope and musicians.
Some of those depicted are obvious, such as Louis Armstrong, but it’s expressionism, so others are not, Laborde said.
In the book, Laborde includes an easy guide to who’s who by numbering the faces, then isolating them in photographs by Jim Thiebald and offering a short biography.
When Laborde called Brown for an interview in 2009 (expecting to travel to Arizona where he lived), he was in town and willing to meet at Xavier. She talked to him three times during a week-long stretch, cementing the identification of the figures he painted.
During one of those encounters – a photo shoot with the painting and Dr. Francis – Laborde discovered that photographer Irving Johnson had photos of the original installation process in 1993. After seeing the photos, she finally understood how the massive work was erected.
“I find the installation fascinating,” Laborde said. “It was an engineering feat,” masterminded by the late artist and Xavier University professor John T. Scott.
Laborde, who has an English degree and a master in fine arts, said she is changed by everything she writes, and the Assumption painting opened her eyes as a mother to what Mary endured.
“First of all, being able to see his explanation of the Assumption of Mary being raised to another level of consciousness. As a mother, I really understand that … His vision of what a woman went through really moved me.”
The painting has it supporters and detractors, but Laborde has come to appreciate it more with each viewing.
She is currently an associate professor of English at Xavier and managing editor of Xavier University Review Press. She has written the book "Do Not Open: The Discarded Refrigerators of Post-Katrina New Orleans," is expanding into a book “His Name was Mu Bob Wang” on the Katrina storm evacuation, and is also developing a story, “Concrete Mary” about people with Mary statues in their yards (she has one).
Laborde’s book is available on Amazon and at www.xula.edu/review.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Book Talk, signing