Profile: Willie Birch (1942-)

Willie Birch is an American visual artist who works in a variety of mediums including drawing, painting, and sculpture. Birch was born in New Orleans, and currently lives and works in New Orleans. He completed his BA at Southern University in New Orleans, and received an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland.

Work

Birch lived in New York after graduate school, where he became known for papier-mâché sculptures. While in New York, during the years 1978 and 1979, he was part of the Cultural Council Foundation Artists Project, funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Reviewing an exhibition at Exit Art in New York City, Roberta Smith described his 1990s work in the New York Times as “a storytelling art carried out with immense visual expertise.” Birch moved back to New Orleans in 1994, and in 1997 he began working on a series of portraits of people in his neighborhood. Birch conceptualized the project as a protest against stereotypical images of African-Americans that he saw in the French Quarter: “Stores offered degrading posters, figurines and cards; and street performers used buffoonery to present stereotypical characters.” Birch explained that the rest of the city was very different, concluding, “These two contradictory images of New Orleans offered me the opportunity to visualize a body of work that addressed the idea of perception and how we as human beings continue to create, perpetuate, and define peoples as the ‘other,’ and what that implies in a changing society.” The resulting monotypes were printed at the Tamarind Institute.

Birch started working exclusively in black and white after 2000. The resulting large-scale drawings were featured in Prospect.1 in 2008, the triennial exhibition of contemporary art in New Orleans organized by Prospect New Orleans. He typically works in charcoal and acrylic on paper and his images often feature aspects of daily life in New Orleans as well as elements of the city’s traditional culture, including brass bands, second lines, and musicians such as Trombone Shorty. Birch was one of six artists featured in “Ten Years Gone” at the New Orleans Museum of Art on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2015. His work featured images of the plants that took over his yard while the city was closed down after the storm, as well as bronze casts of crawfish mounds, the mud dwellings built by crawfish that had been displaced to his yard by the storm.

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