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Shelter from the Storm 

Spared by Hurricane Katrina, the Folsom home of artist Jose Maria Cundin and his wife, Marion, is an unexpected showplace for contemporary art.

In 1965, when artist Jose Maria Cundin, a native of Bilbao in Spain's Basque Country and a sometime visitor to New Orleans, had his first local gallery show at the Orleans Gallery, Hurricane Betsy struck and gave him a firsthand look at how a mighty storm can disrupt life as we know it. Nevertheless, a 40-year-and-counting love affair with the city ensued.

In the late 1970s, Cundin met his wife, Marion, a native of Dublin, Ireland, here in New Orleans. And after a couple of moves in the 1990s to Miami and then Annapolis, Md., the couple and their now 22-year-old son, Ignacio, a student at American University, put down stakes on an acre-and-a-half in Folsom. A year later -- 40 years after Betsy had christened Jose Maria's artistic introduction to New Orleans -- and just one month before the Cundins planned to have a new showing of Jose Maria's work, another powerful hurricane marked the Cundins' reassociation with the unique city that time and again has called them back.

"My attachment to the city is very old," he says. "It's one of the most magical cities on one of the most magical rivers in the world. We were planning to have an open house and studio in October. The hurricane brought everything full circle."

All things considered, the Cundins' home fared extremely well. Felled trees and 24 sweltering days without electricity or water are now a memory. Today, the property, a showplace for many of his colorful sculptures and paintings (both his whimsical figuratives and his more recent abstracts) is for the most part returned to its crisp, woodsy beauty. Once part of a 40-acre nursery, the parcel of land overlooks a neighbor's pastures and lake and is affectionately named Claro de Luna (moonlight) in recognition of its luminous nighttime glow. "When the moon is full, one can read Gambit with the reflection from the shells," says Jose Maria.

At the time the Cundins purchased the property in 2004, the original single-story ranch house with vaulted, A-frame ceilings, was weathered, and both house and garden were overwhelmed by plant growth. But the real estate's pastoral environs, which offered peace and quiet while still being near the city, were exactly what they wanted.

"This was the first place we looked at on the Northshore," recalls Marion. "What really grabbed us was the piece of property." The Cundins refreshed the exterior of the 3,000-square-foot house by removing unwanted details such as shutters, eliminating obtrusive bushes, and adding carpentry accents to the facade. A drainage problem was solved by resloping the land and providing a culvert to collect excess water. The Cundins then equalized the house's interior and exterior light by painting inside and outside with similar shades of a soothing blue-gray chosen by Jose Maria, who Marion describes as the ultimate colorist.

"The color ranges from battleship gray to pale blue to lavender, depending on the light," she says. "And it's a fantastic backdrop for his work."

Jose Maria's work is the focus of the home, which includes two bedrooms and two baths, a sunroom, an art room, a transitional space, which is treated as an extension of the art room, a kitchen, and an office. Its eclectic mix of furnishings, which includes Oriental, contemporary and antique pieces, is almost incidental in relation to the powerful presence of the art. Classically trained in Bilbaos' School Of Artes y Oficios, The Museo de Reproducciones Artisticas and the Academia de Arte de Sindicatos, Jose Maria had his first show at was just 16 years old when a Bilbao gallery hung one of his large pieces. Today, his internationally recognized work, which has evolved from playful, satirical figuratives deeply rooted in Spanish tradition to color-saturated abstractions of organic shapes -- from which emerge a new type of figurative -- can be found in the permanent collections of such institutions as the New Orleans Museum of Art, Johnson & Wales University, Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, and in numerous private collections in Europe and the Americas.

"I started as a figurative (artist), but abandoned it when it became too limiting, and I moved toward the abstract," the artist says of the shift that began to occur about 17 years ago. "I wanted to explore to the utmost the formalities of color and composition. The works now are extrapolations of the former mode, more a perception than factuality. An identity comes from the convergence of figures. I have it in mind and I look for it to come through as I work. But each work brings surprises."

Six months after purchasing their home, the Cundins began a second, much-needed phase of the renovation, transforming an old barn into a light-filled studio for Jose Maria, who typically spends as many as nine hours a day working. Jose Maria designed the studio with several goals in mind: creating a structure with the indigenous look of an Acadian cottage while also creating one that would harmonize with the original house and surroundings. A roomy, relaxing porch was added to the 1,000-square-foot reconstructed space to achieve the former; pale gray hues, vaulted ceilings and ample windows were incorporated to achieve the latter. Like the house, the studio contains numerous works by Jose Maria -- including, of course, those still in progress -- and yields calming views of its idyllic, unspoiled environs.

"We host get-togethers here and people love to lunch al fresco and enjoy the splendorous beauty of this countryside," says Marion. "Jose Maria's two older sons, Fernando and Luisiana, their wives, and Jose Maria's first grandson, Javier, enjoy spending time with us here."

"Our setting in Claro de Luna has been a very felicitous one," adds Jose Maria. "We enjoy everything about it, the rural peacefulness, the expanse and clean air, the seclusion and yet neighborly existence. The locals have showered us with help, affectionate attention and sometimes, with vegetables, fruit and eggs."

click to enlarge Calming effect -- The serenity of the - landscape and the simplicity of the architecture belie the - powerful colors and social commentary of the works - inside the house and studio. Only the exterior color of - the doors, which Jose Maria calls K&B purple, give a hint - of the exuberant palette within. The house is thought to - be at least 40 years old. The studio in the background is - a year old this month. - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Calming effect -- The serenity of the landscape and the simplicity of the architecture belie the powerful colors and social commentary of the works inside the house and studio. Only the exterior color of the doors, which Jose Maria calls K&B purple, give a hint of the exuberant palette within. The house is thought to be at least 40 years old. The studio in the background is a year old this month.
click to enlarge Color and light -- Jose Maria works on one of - his recent abstracts, which he describes as "organic - compositions in a quest for a function." The light of the - studio has been integral to his changing palette. "The - light is a totally determining factor," says the artist. "I - notice that the works produced in Louisiana are more - aqueous like looking through a glass of water." - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Color and light -- Jose Maria works on one of his recent abstracts, which he describes as "organic compositions in a quest for a function." The light of the studio has been integral to his changing palette. "The light is a totally determining factor," says the artist. "I notice that the works produced in Louisiana are more aqueous like looking through a glass of water."
click to enlarge American beauty -- Twelve Extrapolations On - The American Flag hangs on a wall of the sunroom. - Below it is one of Jose Maria's many obelisks. - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • American beauty -- Twelve Extrapolations On The American Flag hangs on a wall of the sunroom. Below it is one of Jose Maria's many obelisks.
click to enlarge Room with a view -- The art room in the - center of the house, home to many of Jose Maria's - paintings and obelisks, has the feel of a gallery. The - abstract over the fireplace is titled The Apocryphal - Portrait of L. Rofocale II. The large obelisk - in the foreground, titled The Gregorian Obelisk, - represents 365 pyramids, one for each day of the - Gregorian calendar. - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Room with a view -- The art room in the center of the house, home to many of Jose Maria's paintings and obelisks, has the feel of a gallery. The abstract over the fireplace is titled The Apocryphal Portrait of L. Rofocale II. The large obelisk in the foreground, titled The Gregorian Obelisk, represents 365 pyramids, one for each day of the Gregorian calendar.
click to enlarge Artist's corner -- One corner of Jose Maria's - studio displays a mixture of his works (the painting - depicts William Tell, the Pollyanna sculpture is a logo for - a puppet theatre, and the gilded turkey wishbone is from - the Cundins' Thanksgiving last November) and of - "objects waiting for an application." - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Artist's corner -- One corner of Jose Maria's studio displays a mixture of his works (the painting depicts William Tell, the Pollyanna sculpture is a logo for a puppet theatre, and the gilded turkey wishbone is from the Cundins' Thanksgiving last November) and of "objects waiting for an application."
click to enlarge Perfect marriage -- Jose Maria and Marion - Cundin with their son Ignacio and their whippet, Muelas, - on the porch of Jose Maria's studio. Jose Maria designed - the studio, formerly an old barn, to marry with the house - and land, and had local contractors construct it. - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Perfect marriage -- Jose Maria and Marion Cundin with their son Ignacio and their whippet, Muelas, on the porch of Jose Maria's studio. Jose Maria designed the studio, formerly an old barn, to marry with the house and land, and had local contractors construct it.
click to enlarge Blind spot -- The cheeky commentary above the - Oriental chest is titled Rorschach Ink Blots (For The - Blind). Below it, is a sculpture titled Marine - Shark. - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Blind spot -- The cheeky commentary above the Oriental chest is titled Rorschach Ink Blots (For The Blind). Below it, is a sculpture titled Marine Shark.
click to enlarge Fresh greens --The painting formulated in - greens is titled St. Patrick, and was inspired by - "the goodness in Marion," a native of Ireland. Floor-to- - ceiling windows invite the outdoors in, connecting the - house to its rural setting. - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Fresh greens --The painting formulated in greens is titled St. Patrick, and was inspired by "the goodness in Marion," a native of Ireland. Floor-to- ceiling windows invite the outdoors in, connecting the house to its rural setting.
click to enlarge Smooth transition -- A transitional space - between the sunroom and art room displays a - combination of Jose Maria's sculpture and paintings. On - the left side of the round table in the center of the room - is a fanciful homage to the artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Above - the doorway is a piece titled Fragment Of The Golden - Novena. The horizontal layout and the contrasting - light and dark of the images have a quality reminiscent - of photographic negatives. - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Smooth transition -- A transitional space between the sunroom and art room displays a combination of Jose Maria's sculpture and paintings. On the left side of the round table in the center of the room is a fanciful homage to the artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Above the doorway is a piece titled Fragment Of The Golden Novena. The horizontal layout and the contrasting light and dark of the images have a quality reminiscent of photographic negatives.
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