Alive In Truth Oral History: Michael Karem
Alive In Truth Oral History: Michael Karem

PHOTOS

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Michael Karem, Artist, French Quarter

9/20/05

I am Michael Karem. I'm talking in the Austin Convention Center on September 20th, 2005. I've been living in New Orleans going on four years now. I used to live in Denver, Colorado. So I moved to New Orleans about four years ago because of my art. I paint in oil, watercolors, mostly..I work in any media, so it depends on what I'm trying to do. It depends on the subject, the subject dictate what kind of medium I'm going to use. Some subject, you know, is like watercolors, I can use India ink, so it depends on the subject.

In New Orleans, I've been doing mostly jazz pieces, people playing jazz. Some of my paintings are very realistic, some are abstract. You have to go into it, be part of it, to see what's in it. If you have patience enough, look at it, go, you're going to see something in it. For some you don't really have to, you can just look at it, and say, 'this is this kind of [instrument] player.'

There is a place called Jackson Square which there's no place like it in the whole of the United States, except in Europe. Actually there is a place where like, as an artist, you don't have to be in a gallery. You can get a license from the City, and you can sell all the places you want to. It's first come, first served, in this square, called Jackson Square. The city of New Orleans is a tourist city, so most artists, that's how they make their living. I've been doing this for four years. I don't have to work for anybody. I pay my food and I pay my bed.

I'm planning to go back to New Orleans. The reason I'm going back is like I spent twelve hours in New Orleans in my apartment, and I didn't lose anything. I live in the French Quarter, and the French Quarter is fine. There was no flood in the French Quarter, and most of my stuff in my apartment, most of my paintings are okay. I'm going to New Orleans because I've been all over and there's no place like New Orleans for an artist. If you're a good artist, you can make a living. You don't have to be in a gallery in New Orleans, and that's why I'm going back. Right now, there won't be any market for artists, but I'm willing to work for some time until it gets back on their feet, which I know is going to be within a year, or even six months, until they start coming back. I'm just going back because of my art, because that is the only place that I think I can make a living without working for anybody, as an artist.

In New Orleans, the culture is very vibrant. I'm talking in terms of an artist, as an artist, you know. It's a very inspirational city from an artist's position. The people, you know, it's like you pull different kind of people from all over this country, people from New York, Chicago, Caribbean, African, you put them in one place, and you get the kind of feelings you get in New Orleans. I think, I guess I can describe it in one word. I like the culture. It's a very vibrant culture.

Originally I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, West Africa. I went to high school in Nigeria, and I went to college in Paris, France. Since I left France, I came to this country; I lived in New York for some time. I lived in Boston, and Boston is the best city that I like. From Boston -- I lived in Boston for five years -- from Boston I moved to Denver. While I was in Denver, I was in my art part time and I was working part-time. Actually, the reason I came to New Orleans, like most of the people that buy art from me, focus always on jazz. Most of the people that buy art from me, have been to New Orleans, they always say you should go to New Orleans, good for your art, go to New Orleans. So four years ago, I went to New Orleans to visit, and I was like, "Wow, this is where I need to be." I wandered about New Orleans. When I first moved here, at first it reminds me of Paris, it reminds me of Paris. It's just very European. And I think, I know it's going to be, if not better, it's going to be like that again. I don't know, because I know all the artists will come back.

I think a lot of people will come back. The fellows that I work with, you know, most of them are not from New Orleans, the artists that work in there, they're not from New Orleans, so I think they will come back.

Talk about how I came to Austin, well, actually, I left...I left my apartment in New Orleans about four or five days after the storm. I was advised to leave town because there would be no services for some time. So, they took me LaFourche Parish...some sheriff from LaFourche Parish took me. They took us to LaFourche and from there, I decided I didn't want to live there. I don't want to stay there. So I was taken to Baton Rouge and from Baton Rouge, I was going to buy a ticket to Houston.

And I met a lady, a carpool, from Maryland. They trucked all the way from Maryland. They just arrived, you know, they say they need three people. They have a house and they have three rooms, you know. So actually, I was going to go with them to Maryland. And on our way, and after awhile, I decided I don't want to go that too far. So I told them to drop me off somewhere and I'm going to catch, you know, take a bus. So I took a bus to Houston, and I was in the shelter there for some time which I didn't like.

It's different here from Houston. I mean the organization¬čit's more organized here. Houston's like, you know, the organize is not so...I can't describe it. I just don't like the way it was set up. I didn't like it, so I decided I'm going to leave. So I was going to go to San Antonio and there was a lady there -- I was deciding between San Antonio and Austin. And there was a lady, she said, "Go to Austin. Don't go to San Antonio."

So I said, okay, I'm going to go to Austin. This sounded like a good nice city. It's a nice city and it's just like a college town. If I ever decide to leave New Orleans, which I think I'm going to, probably I might come here, you know. I might come here.

Yeah, I have a ticket tomorrow for twelve o'clock, which I'm going to go back. If they don't let me back in, let me in, I'm going to stay at the airport until they let me in, probably a week. They're going to open it up by the end of the month or something like that.

I've been all over this country and I don't want to go anywhere else.

I think this is life, this happens in life. Life is open now, you know, you never know what's going to happen tomorrow. I've never had this kind of experience in my life before. I just hope that once it happens, I hope I don't forget it and learn from it, because every experience¬čthere's no bad experience. The only bad experience is the one that you don't learn from. If you learn from it, then...

This is the way it has taught me a lot, what it's like, what it's like if you plan something, if you plan anything for the future, always say, "If God wills." If God wills it, because we make plans, it might not work the way we plan it. So God is the final...it's decided, because I might say I'm going to be somewhere tomorrow. Tomorrow, you might not wake up tomorrow. Anything can happen. That's what life is like. Life is like, you know -- we have a lot of destruction in New Orleans now. It's going to be rebuilt and maybe in the new future, there's might be another destruction that's going to be rebuilt. It's just like our life, you know. You have different seasons. It might be good and enjoy, that's life. Nothing stays the same in this life; everything is changing.