Of Cages and Wings: Artist Jim Sohr

Renowned as a city of revelry, New Orleans is currently regarded as a tolerant bastion of ‘blue’ in a ‘red sea’ enveloping not only the South, but much of the heartland of 21st century America. Yet the culture in New Orleans has not always been so forgiving. Imagine how different the city (and the rest of the deep South) was more than sixty years ago with strident Jim Crow laws firmly in place forbidding the intermingling of blacks and whites, and punishing those who dared to defy social conventions of the day.

As Steven Knopper described it in Rolling Stone, “In 1957, cops interrupted a biracial jam session at New Orleans’ Preservation Hall and arrested all the musicians. The judge told an assembled courthouse crowd, according to several who were in the audience, ‘We don’t want Yankees coming down to New Orleans mixing cream with our coffee’.”

Local authorities remained obstinate in the face of federally mandated desegregation, even as six-year-old Ruby Bridges had to be escorted by four federal marshals into an all-white school in 1960. New Orleans and its staunchly defiant ‘old guard’ had to be dragged – kicking and screaming – into the modern era.

Still, a community of artists, writers, and intellectuals thrived in the French Quarter. A progressive social scene remained as firmly ensconced in cafes and clubs scattered throughout the Quarter as when William Faulkner had described it years prior: “a haven for painters and writers… [to] discuss the world and politics and art and death.”

“When I was 20, I threw everything in my car and left Wisconsin for good and drove to the French Quarter.”

Only one semester short of a university degree in psychology, Jim Sohr came to New Orleans, seeking to escape the strait-laced God-fearing culture of the American Midwest. Attracted to the multi-cultural community atmosphere of New Orleans, he ultimately landed at the Quorum Club on Esplanade and Chartres, enjoying the company of a diverse, intellectually vibrant, budding Bohemian community frequenting that establishment.

In an otherwise non-descript coffee shop on the outskirts of the French Quarter, people met to play music and pass the hat, recite poetry, as well as discuss the emerging socio-political issues of the day, including Civil Rights and the growing controversy surrounding the Vietnam war. They were not unlike their counterparts in Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s North Beach.

But this was still the deep South, and the Quorum Club was a place where whites and blacks, men and women, sat together at the same tables, sipping coffee, engaged in conversation, debating issues of the day and sharing their life experiences. Therefore, it is no surprise the local authorities took great interest in the activities there

“They didn’t like that at all,” Sohr reminisces. “They saw blacks and whites mixing as something that might grow and take root. When I came down here in the early 60s, New Orleans truly exemplified the ‘old South’. Black people could not go into the French Quarter, were not allowed on Bourbon Street, and even had to have their own cab drivers!”

In 1964, police conducted what is now an infamous raid, arresting 76 people present, including patrons and employees. The authorities maintained they expected to find drugs. “Marijuana was around, sometimes in quantity and commonly used by some of the Quorum clientele but, curiously, no drugs were found at that time,” Sohr says, with a grin.

In the minds of civic leaders, the raid, an act of blatant harassment, was justified as whites and blacks were forbidden to mingle with one another. Even in police custody, black and white men were separated from one another, as were the women. But “Dutch” Morial, a respected civil rights leader (and, later, the first black mayor in New Orleans) successfully defended them, defying the “conformity of this rigid Southern social structure”, with all charges eventually dismissed.

Soon afterwards, Sohr became a manager at the Quorum, and as such, became a high profile target for police scrutiny. Asked by an undercover agent to sell a couple of joints worth of marijuana to a specific Quorum client, he refused, expressing a preference to give it away for free rather than sell. Finally, the agent convinced him otherwise, providing him with a small amount, “and that was it; they got me!” Arrested in 1967, he fled to San Francisco before trial, immersing himself in the Haight-Ashbury art and culture.

Sohr got arrested there as part of a periodic street-sweep of “the hippies”, and while California had no interest in prosecuting him, Louisiana wanted him back. He was extradited, tried, and sent to Angola for trafficking in a half a matchbox – a few grams — of marijuana.

“On occasion, marijuana offenses were considered more serious than even murder! People did 10 years and six months for murder, but some guys had been sentenced to 50 years for a single joint. I’m not making this stuff up!” He was fortunate though, he says, and confined for “only” seven years.

Angola, circa early 1960s. Courtesy LA State Archives

The site of a former plantation, named after the African country that had been the homeland of many of that plantation’s slaves, the ground on which the Louisiana State Penitentiary stands today is larger than Manhattan. Yet as studies then and now have shown, in the 1930’s prison conditions at Angola were as close “to slavery as any person could come.”

Not much had changed by Sohr’s arrival there in the 1960s. As a Columbia University study described it: ”Angola once more fell on hard times, christened ‘the bloodiest prison in the South’ because of the high rate of inmate assaults,” with one in every ten inmates suffering stab wounds or killed. In 1971, its deserved reputation as “medieval, squalid and horrifying”1 was formally addressed by the American Bar Association.

Rehabilitation was hardly a priority, Sohr recalls, but “there were church groups that came up to visit us, in addition to Alcoholics and Narcotic Anonymous groups formed by the convicts. But most of that was a hype to get out of prison early.”

“Most of the convicts went to the fields, to cut sugar cane,” Sohr says, recalling the primitive conditions with an obvious hint of lingering distaste. As a former university student, he was qualified for a position in one of the very few prison sponsored rehabilitation programs existing at that time. And so to avoid hard labor, he gained favor with a modest but well-placed gift for the man in charge (he won’t say now what that was), and was posted to the education department.

Sohr’s tone changes, then, from disquiet to quiet joy.

“Walking down a hall one day,” he fondly recalls with wonder in his voice, “I saw the art room.” And that’s where it all started.

“I met other artists there, but the only one I thought who was so much better than me was Harold Swan. I was serious about art, as was Swan, but most of the other inmates were there to escape working in the fields.” His interest and expertise grew, as he learned much from Swan, including the technique of under-painting – the application of two layers of color to achieve a brighter, more vibrant palette.

Sold once and subsequently re-acquired from a collector, the first painting he ever completed in jail may very well be one of his most memorable: a self-portrait depicting a man with a peg leg, handicapped and unable to run or escape the uncomfortable confines of prison. But in the man’s hands are seen three birds, representing the ultimate freedom. With the ability to ascend to the heavens, these birds offered hope of release from the terrestrial travails suffered in jail.

The artworks he created in prison often depicted that longing for freedoms denied, as Sohr’s skills evolved and he experimented with different subject matter.

“Separated by Bars” by Jim Sohr

“Once, when a church group came up to Angola, they refused to hold services in a room that had a painting of mine hanging on the walls because it had women’s breasts. At the time, I told anyone who would listen that God must like breasts because He made so many!” Sohr says with a laugh. “But over time I’ve learned to avoid depicting sex, religion and race in my paintings. It only brings trouble.”

Now in his 80s, Jim Sohr lives comfortably outside of New Orleans, surrounded by his art and creating more all the time. He and his art are still evolving, and as he often says, “It is all I want to do.”

His memories of Angola are tinged with neither regret nor feelings of retribution, yet as he has re-created himself on canvas over the decades, his mind and eye inevitably return to birds as a recurring theme. Unsurprising, as over millennia, mythology and art throughout the world have evoked the imagery of aviary entities as intermediaries with the heavens above.

And Sohr’s strong feelings for what his birds represent endures.

Editor’s note: Jim Sohr’s work is often on display at the New Orleans Art Center, 3330 St. Claude Ave. You might even run into him there… and if you’re interested, there’s this mini-documentary by Mary Rickard: “I Just Want a Straight Line: The Artistry of Jim Sohr.”

About the author: Thomas Cole is a dealer in antique textile art from Asia as well as an acclaimed photographer, recently introducing a book featuring images of New Orleans, Standing In The Shadows: New Orleans in Focus. (www.tcoletribalrugs.com)