Artist William Pajaud's Jazzy New Orleans, Part 1

Reporter Adolfo Guzman Lopez profiles the art and life of African-American artist William Pajaud. His vibrant watercolors celebrates the people and jazz scene of his native New Orleans.

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ED GORDON, host:

When he was a young man, William Pajaud set out to become the best African-American artist in the country. Some art scholars say he has become one of the best artists in America, period. Pajaud moved to Los Angeles after World War II. His art documented the joys and the pains of the westward journey and the growth of Los Angeles' black community. Aldolfo Guzman Lopez reports.

ALDOLFO GUZMAN LOPEZ reporting:

For William Pajaud, life and art had become one and the same.

Mr. WILLIAM PAJAUD (Artist): I've been a painter since I was seven years old, and I'm now 80, so I've been working at it a long time, and I still don't know it. I still don't know what it's all about.

LOPEZ: Pajaud was born in New Orleans. His father was a coronet player for several of the city's funeral marching bands.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAJAUD: He died going to play a funeral. He was going to play the music for a funeral in New Orleans when he died.

LOPEZ: His mother was a college professor. It was the late 1940s. With a fine arts degree in one hand, his art portfolio in the other, Pajaud brought his wife and son to Los Angeles.

Mr. PAJAUD: I was supposed to come work for Walt Disney, but I guess my name tricked him. Pajaud is not a common name among blacks, so when I walked in, why, I was told that the job had just been filled the day before.

LOPEZ: He'd been the target of racism before. As a teen, he'd survived two lynchings. So as he had done previously, he picked himself up and worked odd jobs, including one for which he used aniline dyes to paint the undergarments on a live model.

Mr. PAJAUD: She stood there and I painted her brassiere and nervous as hell and I was shaking. I came from the South, you know. I was painting. And then when I got to paint the panties, why, oh, man, I was--I thought I was in heaven, but, boy, I'm telling you, that is nothing I admire now.

LOPEZ: Pajaud was about to give up on art, but friends saw the talent and ease with which he handled the watercolor brush and pushed him to get an advertising art degree in LA. That degree opened the door to a job he held for more than 30 years, art director at the black-owned Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company at the corner of Western and Adams in LA. He was responsible for designing the company's print material. Eight years after he started, he proposed the company began collecting African-American art. By the time he retired in 1987, he'd amassed more than 250 works. Some of those artists would later be in the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian. Since retiring, Pajaud spends a lot of time painting. New Orleans is on his mind a lot these days. There's a painting in progress on an easel in his studio at home. It has the outline of a human head and shoulders taking shape on a blood-red background.

Mr. PAJAUD: I'm trying to capture my unbelievable awe that that city has been destroyed like it has, and it'll never be the same.

LOPEZ: Pajaud continues to exhibit, most recently at the M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica. He lives in a modest home in a black middle-class neighborhood in LA. Inside, his walls are filled from floor to ceiling with artwork; a lot of it from friends, some of it his own.

Mr. PAJAUD: I'm very much happy with what I have contributed. But the main thing I'm proudest of is that collection down at Golden State. I feel much prouder of that than I do of any single piece that I've ever done.

LOPEZ: William Pajaud visited the collection recently for the first time in a couple of years. He's concerned about its condition and its future. For NPR News, I'm Aldolfo Guzman Lopez in Los Angeles.

GORDON: Tomorrow, we'll see what happened to the black art collected over the years by Pajaud.

This is NPR News.

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