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Big Chiefs and Mother-in-Laws 

Thanks in part to Antoinette K-Doe's magic touch, artist Daniel Fuselier is making his mark on Claiborne Avenue and Mardi Gras.

Two years ago, Daniel Fuselier had no friends. "I'm just an introverted person," says the 32-year-old painter and Louisiana native. Back then, he says, he was also battling depression and had a day job driving an ice cream truck. That's when he first entered Ernie-K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge -- "to do what I normally did at bars: sit by myself and drink." He wasn't alone for long. "Mrs. Antoinette (K-Doe) is a nosy lady, and when someone new walks in, she wants to know who's in her place of business."

Though he'd created no art in the past year, Fuselier still told Mrs. K-Doe he was a painter. He happened to have old photos of his wood-panel work out in his truck; she happened to like them and began planning a mural on the north wall of her lounge. Today, anyone driving south down Claiborne Avenue will see what Fuselier describes as his "urban folk art" version of Mrs. K-Doe, her mother and her famous husband, the late Ernie K-Doe.

Returning to the Mother-in-Law day after day to work on the mural, the artist began making friends with club regulars and Mrs. K-Doe herself. "It was real nice," he says -- nice enough for him to do all that painting free-of-charge. Payment came in other forms: his new friends and accomplishments inspired Fuselier to begin painting a half-dozen new wooden panels.

Fuselier's personal work consists of the same animated realism as his first-ever mural. Here, however, he utilizes the traditional techniques of the masters -- such as meticulous under-paintings in gray or burnt sienna before color is applied -- to depict precarious scenes of children raised by animal species: "Raised by Piranhas," "Raised by Weasels," "Raised by Naked Mole Rats."

Ultimately, Fuselier left behind the ice cream truck and took a job painting Mardi Gras floats at Royal Artists' Chaos, Hermes and Proteus dens; 15 of Fuselier's giant float murals are on display this Carnival season. "[It's] the best job I could ever ask for," he says. "I'm constantly doing what I do best."

Fuselier admires the painstaking craftsmanship and innovation of Big Chief Alison "Tootie" Montana's Mardi Gras Indian suits; the 81-year-old Montana, a lather by trade, is credited for introducing three-dimensional shapes to the Indian aesthetic. "And I knew that Mrs. K-Doe knew Mr. Tootie," Fuselier says, "and that he gave beading lessons. So I bugged her to introduce me."

Mrs. K-Doe had met Montana as a child. The big chief had supposedly retired from masking in 1999, claiming that his age prevented him from carrying mountains of beads and feathers across the city on his back. But when Fuselier and Mrs. K-Doe arrived at Montana's home that first time, they found Montana sewing away on a new suit, planning on coming temporarily out of retirement. As Mrs. K-Doe left the house that day, she announced to Fuselier, "I want Tootie up on my wall!"

Another impetus for Mrs. K-Doe's decision was an ill-fated mural project on Claiborne Avenue. Despite good intentions, many in the area saw the efforts to paint historical black figures on I-10 columns as a small booby prize for the cultural harm caused by the interstate's installation in the neighborhood. "It destroyed the spirit of black Mardi Gras," Mrs. K-Doe says of I-10, but she was nonetheless happy to see Ernie K-Doe depicted on two separate columns. Funds for the project dried up before anyone could think to immortalize Montana there. "They were supposed to paint the history," Mrs. K-Doe says. "And Tootie is the history of black Mardi Gras. I felt that he should have been out there with K-Doe."

So with typical savvy, Mrs. K-Doe decided to tie all these ends together: this year, rather than follow their traditional route through the city, Montana and his Yellow Pocahontas tribe -- along with the Flaming Arrow tribe led by Big Chief Alfred Doucet, whose likeness is currently being added to the club's south wall -- have agreed to plant themselves at the Mother-in-Law for the duration of Mardi Gras day.

As for Fuselier, aside from magazine articles and an upcoming PBS documentary on Montana, his murals and float work are the only way you'll experience his art. When his "Raised By ..." series is complete, he'll give the wood panels away to friends. "Galleries are just more about the social situation," he dismisses. "And no way I'm letting someone take half my money so they can play gallery owner and sip on wine."

Yet despite that bitter sentiment, Fuselier says he is much happier now, participating in history, working his dream job and "having hundreds of thousands of people see my artwork." He finally smiles. "This is about the best period of my whole life," he says.

click to enlarge Daniel Fuselier with Ernie-K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge - proprietress Antoinette K-Doe. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Daniel Fuselier with Ernie-K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge proprietress Antoinette K-Doe.
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