Danse de Mardi Gras
Lafayette artist Herb Roe captures the vibrance of Courir de Mardi Gras in his complexly layered paintings
As Mardi Gras 2022 approaches, Cajun revelers are preparing their colorful costumes and horses for their annual “Courir de Mardi Gras” ride across the Acadian countryside of Southwest Louisiana. Lafayette artist Herb Roe will be right there with them.
Over the last two decades, Roe, born in 1974 and raised in the Appalachian regions of Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky, has produced a remarkable body of paintings that capture the almost manic joy and historical rhythms of the Cajun Mardi Gras celebration known as the Courir de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras Run. It’s a tradition dating back to medieval France and brought to Louisiana in the 18th century by Cajun exiles from Canada.
According to custom, costumed maskers, singing songs such as “La Danse de Mardi Gras,” ride on horseback from farm to farm, begging for the ingredients, including half-crazed chickens, to fill the communal gumbo pot at the end of their ride. Though the event has attracted numerous photographers, Roe is among the few painters to capture this ancient celebration.
“Over the years,” Roe says, “I’ve done scenes of riders galloping on horseback, musicians and dancers, mud wrestling and chicken chasing. I have done scenes lit by dramatic daylight in open fields and spooky scenes shrouded in rains or mists with Louisiana’s iconic live oaks peaking through.”
On these rides, Roe takes hundreds of photographs for use back in his studio where he combines images and does compositional graphite drawings before moving on to paints and canvas. There he “gradually builds complex color combinations to achieve illusions of volume, depth and light.” The results are stunning. He’s also learned a little Cajun French along the way.
Roe moved to Louisiana in the early 1990s to work with the acclaimed Lafayette muralist Robert Dafford. It didn’t take long for the Cajun people and their ways to capture his imagination. So much so, in 2007 he set out on his own to paint life in the Acadian parishes, though he continues to work with Dafford now and then.
“I love it here,” he says. “I felt at home the first time I came to the area. In a way it is similar to where I grew up in Appalachia. The Cajuns are a historically isolated rural farming people with tight-knit communities, a hardy group who love fiddle music, communal meals usually involving a pig, and a devotion to family and friends that have helped them survive. Any differences between the French Cajuns and Anglo-Scots Irish hillbillies seem to melt away when you pull out a fiddle and offer to share some pork.”
In recent years, Roe’s paintings have appeared in shows across the nation, including the impressive 2018 group show “Mythologies Louisianaises” at Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans. Since then, he has taken his art in a slightly different direction in what he describes as a “pan-Southern” synthesis of his roots in Appalachia and adult life in Louisiana. His new work, though “more allegorical and personal in nature,” explores contemporary issues such as opiate addiction, suicide, racism, climate change, the petrochemical industry and anything else that “happens to bubble up through my subconscious.”
In addition to his “pan-Southern” series, Roe continues to paint Cajun Mardi Gras scenes, even though COVID-19 forced cancellation of last year’s ride. He’s now ready to mask up for Mardi Gras 2022.
“It will be nice to dig out my costumes, meet up with my friends, and do it right,” he says. “I have the feeling this year will be epic, with everyone being so pent up during all this stuff that’s been going on.”
At least masking won’t be an issue.