In a small room in his North Rampart Street camelback, Ashton Ramsey creates wearable folk art that makes people take notice. Sometimes the goal of this 67-year-old family man is simply to make children giggle with delight as he sports his whimsical paper hats and funny eyeglasses. On more serious occasions, this admitted "political animal" shows his mindset by protesting past and present events with hats, apparel and poster boards that address such issues as black-on-black crime and the appalling condition of area schools. When a musician or community figure passes away, Ramsey honors them by donning a special "biography poster board" that depicts their lives in pictures and words. Honorees of these tribute collages, which hang on a cord from Ramsey's neck, include such disparate notables as Ernie K-Doe and Avery Alexander.
"He cuts things out from magazines and newspapers," gushes Ramsey's grandson, Thaddeaus, as his grandfather removes hats from a wall for closer inspection. Ramsey -- a tall, lanky man whose crop of white hair can be spotted from afar at Sunday afternoon second lines, Mardi Gras Indian events and other community activities -- begins to model hats of all shapes, sizes and themes. They range from colorful holiday chapeaux -- Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter and, of course, Mardi Gras -- to an "educational" hat emblazoned with words like "pride," "goals," "effort" and "excellence" to remind children of the importance of these qualities. Meanwhile, Thaddeaus and his sister Page trot out some of Ramsey's many poster boards to proudly show off his work.
"People get a good laugh out of it, that's the main thing," Ramsey says of his creations. The beginnings of his interest in art and decoration can be traced back to the late 1940s, when he helped his brother, Walter Ramsey, sew his Mardi Gras Indian suits. Without the time or money to mask Indian himself, Ramsey found an alternative way to express himself through his unique outfits and accessories. "The only thing on my costumes that cost money is the glue," says Ramsey, adding that the concept of his work is similar to Indian tradition. "Except without all the hurt," he continues, "because when you're sewing you've got pricks from pushing that needle."
Ramsey's artistic bent was reinforced during the mid-1970s when he played cowbell with the Original Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band, which was the predecessor of the world-renowned Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Ramsey designed adornments like streamers that he wore at their parades and performances. "I always made something that would make me outstanding," says Ramsey, who sees the street culture of the Mardi Gras Indians and second-line parades as "one world." "Really, Indian music evolved into second-line music," he explains.
Born in New Orleans and raised in the Seventh Ward, Ramsey has followed the Sunday afternoon social aid and pleasure club parades most of his life. While he was never a member of a marching club, he's recognized as a regular second-liner. This Sunday he takes the place of honor as grand marshal for the Sudan organization's parade. "I am a second- liner. That's what I do," declares Ramsey. "I've been in all kinds -- ones where it was so hot people were passing out and ones that were so cold people were standing in the street cryin'.
"It's a change of pace," Ramsey continues enthusiastically. "You go places and see people enjoying themselves. You see people in wheelchairs dancing. It's just the excitement of being around a second line."
A jack of all trades who owned his own gardening business and applied his creativity to interior design and carpentry, Ramsey presently acts as breakfast monitor at Lorraine V. Hansberry Elementary School and also volunteers there three hours a day. Being around the children inspires many of his fanciful hats, and he enjoys the students as a truly appreciative audience. Kids and adults alike, however, get a kick out of suits like Ramsey's white elephant suit, a ponderous costume that took a jab at Harrah's Casino. The controversial cardboard outfit, which took several months to construct, mocked the company with words cut from newspapers and magazines saying "Abandoned Building for Sale," and items like a $3 bill. Another one of his creations, a decorated suit and hat that is all about hair, boasts barrettes, combs and rollers and illustrates distinguished hair styles from icons such as Lucille Ball and Fred Flintstone. It is on display at the Mardi Gras exhibit in the Presbytere.
"This box here is a treasure itself," says Ramsey as he digs through a shoebox full of pictures, letters, shiny pieces of paper and the like. As Ramsey sits among his hats, political poster boards and suits of buttons and bows, he looks at these items and envisions their potential. Someday, they will become part of a costume as full of life, laughter and meaning as their creator. -->