Land Use

Interview: St. Roch art impresario holds forth from Tasmania on the wreckage left behind

By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Kirsha Kaechele now lives in Tasmania.

In the years after Hurricane Katrina, Kirsha Kaechele made a name for herself as a kind of art world impresario. The city’s cultural elite flocked to soirees where they consumed fine food and edgy, disaster-inspired art  — all this in St. Roch, a low-income, violence-plagued neighborhood where many on Kaechele’s guest list had rarely ventured.

Kaechele’s events ran the gamut from elaborate, invitation-only dinners to drunken art openings attended by droves of young art mavens who traveled by bicycle from the gentrifying Bywater neighborhood on the other side of St. Claude Avenue. She invited artists and friends from around the world to create art out of the wreckage left by Katrina in five decaying homes she bought near the intersection of N. Villere and Music streets. One of the houses was fixed up into a stylish gallery and living space.

In 2008, during Prospect 1, the city’s much-hyped bid for standing on the global arts festival circuit, Kaechele, through her organization KK Projects, held a $250-a-plate dinner party on the block where she operated her galleries. Movie star Uma Thurman and Nagin recovery czar Ed Blakely were among guests who ate raw oysters and organic pork loin on a hand-carved, candle-lit wooden table set out in the middle of an otherwise desolate street.

Kaechele, 35, now lives in Tasmania, an island state of Australia, with her boyfriend, David Walsh, a professional gambler who made a fortune using a high-tech system to bet on horses. In January, with Kaechele at his side, Walsh opened the Museum of New and Old Art in Tasmania as a home for his private art collection, the largest in the southern hemisphere.  His collection is stamped with the avant-garde sensibility and fascination with mortality that characterized the exhibitions in Kaechele’s now-shuttered KK Project galleries.

Since leaving New Orleans, Kaechele has let her St. Roch properties fall into neglect. She owes $38,573 in real estate taxes and code enforcement liens on the St. Roch holdings, one of which – the house at 2451 N. Villere, was recently torn down after the city cited Kaechele for “demolition by neglect.” Kaechele has torn down two others on her own initiative.

Demolition is now complete at 2451 N. Villere St., one of Kaechele's five properties in the St. Roch area.

In an email interview with The Lens, Kaechele called the demolitions part of a plan to turn four of her five lots into green space, with only the gallery left standing. Neighbors say they are happy to see the houses go. St. Roch community leaders expressed the hope, however, that Kaechele would opt to work more cooperatively than she has in the past to keep up her properties.

“The houses had gone to hell in a hand basket,” Reggie Lawson, president of the Faubourg St. Roch Improvement Association, said. “I’m glad to see them demolished. We need safe places for kids to play here. The hard part will be keeping (the property) from becoming another overgrown, dangerous lot.”

Below is a transcript of the interview with Kaechele.

The Lens: Why did you decide to clear 2451 Villere?

KK: The intention has always been for the houses to transition into green space. They’ve spent the last decades well beyond restoration, so I always knew it was their inevitable end.  But I was very interested in using them as art space until there was no further possibility. In fact, it was my intention that the demolition itself would be an art piece, a series of performances.  But after (Times-Picayune art critic Doug) MacCash’s article,  the pressure from the city was too great and I knew there was no way I’d be afforded a permit to take them down in the manner I intended.  Were I present, I probably would have used the house for one last exhibition, but finding myself across the world, I felt transitioning straight into green space was the most realistic, if uninteresting, option.  Still, we have saved all the salvageable material and there is a piece Tom Beale has planned for it.  His piece is about transformation and purification, so the poetry of the rotten house and all the bureaucracy surrounding it, reassembling into a beautiful object, remains intact.

The Lens: What is your plan for the site?

KK: Public green space. I would very much like to see the Bakery (which has been restored now for several years) in the hands of like-minded artists and/or a community project.  I am still looking for that person or group as I just lost my successor in the huge wave of difficulty that rose after Doug’s piece.  So perhaps this article can serve as an advertisement for the position. I am also currently looking for a very visionary and dependable landscaper, preferably someone with organic farming experience, to hire for the development of the green space.  I would like to see the kids garden continue, but as I am not in New Orleans, it will depend on finding the right person or group. I am essentially willing to donate all that was created over the last decade and support someone interested in continuing it.  And at the very least, I will just maintain a public, tended garden.

The Lens: What is your response to neighbors who complain about the condition of your properties?

KK: “I am with you” because I complain about them, too.  They are the epitome of decay, which on certain days, before I owned them and had to deal with their reality, I found beautiful.  The reason I engaged the houses in the first place was because they were such a horrific mess and I was inspired by the contrast that could happen between their state and the art that lived in them.  I was also interested in their eventual transition into green space. This has been very costly and a little less graceful than I anticipated, but I am proud of the work we exhibited over the last several years and of the energy brought to the street during the exhibitions.  Despite the costliness and difficulty of transitioning the properties, I am excited about their new life as public green space.  I might miss the controversy, as I’m sure everyone will now love it. Whether or not you like contemporary art, I think we can all agree on the benefits of green space.

The Lens: People have called you a lot of things, good and bad — artist, entrepreneur, and opportunist. How do you see your role in St. Roch? What would you call yourself?

KK: I see myself as a life artist.  I work with the intersection of art, architecture and ecology.  But I am most interested in the act of living.  Life is the medium I most often work in.  I understand this kind of statement is exactly what irritates my detractors, but I am not going to lie just to pacify them.  There is no point because it is absolutely true.  My role in St. Roch was living.  I liked living in St. Roch because it is more vibrant and alive than most suburbs, especially wealthy ones (with the exception of Audubon Place which is a wild place) and therefore more interesting.  It is paradoxical in that it is very difficult to live there — it is exhausting picking up endless beer cans, cigarette butts, crack bags, being perpetually burglarized, watching people you love die.  But despite the difficulty, St. Roch — primarily the people of St. Roch — makes me genuinely happy and inspired.  It is such hard work that I am partially relieved to be in clean, safe Tasmania, but if I were on my own, to the ongoing dismay of my more rational friends, I would still make the choice to be there.  Despite the dysfunction, I love St. Roch because it is a vital place with an infinitely strong community.  So, I don’t share the agenda of many positive social entrepreneurs because, minus the drugs and litter and theft and violence, I like things the way they are.

The Lens: Do you consider yourself a carpetbagger?

KK: That is really funny.  No.  I moved to New Orleans well before Katrina, to the Marigny in 2000 and St Roch in 2001 and have enjoyed very strong relationships with my neighbors and other New Orleanians, which still endure. They watched me grow up, I’ve helped them grow up, and we were all a part of everything that came of being there.  My neighbors were at every party and attended every feast, unless they worked.  By the end of the feast era we were employing 20 neighborhood people regularly.  Everyone wanted that to continue because it was a good opportunity.  But there were always free seats for those who preferred to attend.  Everyone else (all the villainous rich white people) had to pay $250  to subsidize the 40 free neighborhood attendees.  (Ed Blakely never paid so I guess the rich black people sat for free as well, but I don’t mind.  Wait!  I think he, too, is in Australia!  I’ll have to look him up!).

Anyway, I am off track, but I am not a carpetbagger.  I lived in New Orleans well before the flood and had to rebuild just like everyone else.  I am someone who lived in a place I loved and did what I do — make art and hold events for the sake of it. (Nothing was ever for profit.)  I also ended up holding neighborhood classes in my home three times a week, taking kids on field trips and starting an organic farm in which kids sold vegetables to New Orleans restaurants. I did what I love doing.

Also, it might be helpful to understand that I spent most of my life as a minority in another culture. I grew up on Guam and was always the only white person on my block. My brother grew up in Africa and had a similar experience. After I left home I lived primarily in the third world, so in many ways, St. Roch was the most natural choice.  It was where I felt at home.  I know it is unlikely, given my simultaneous taste for the finer things (David calls me Gucci Gutter), but it is entirely true.  In many ways I am genuinely most at home being the only white person on the block. It’s been the majority of my life.

The Lens: What changes have you seen in St. Roch since you came to the neighborhood – and, to make sure, was that in 2006?

KK: I moved to the neighborhood in 2001 and have seen, in one way, very little change.  Many of the same residents who lived there then still do, though most have shifted houses several times.  Those who have moved away are still very close to those who live there (everyone is related) and visit often.  The biggest change in this community has been the loss of almost every young man, some of whom I cared for very deeply.  It is very sad.  There is of course the other obvious change, which is that when I moved here, there was not a single white person living in the immediate blocks, and now there is a considerable group which, judging by momentum, will likely not be the minority for long.

The Lens: What is your hope or vision for the neighborhood?

KK: I fear it is an impossible dream but I wish St. Roch could maintain its black residents, that the community could stay intact.  The only thing I would like to see change is better resources: education, jobs and infrastructure. That would likely eliminate the only real problems as far as I am concerned: drugs and violence. Otherwise, the community is so close and fosters such strong relationships that it should be a model for other American neighborhoods.  Almost no one keeps ties as tight.  But though I wish for this more than anything and have applied my resources to help make it so, I think the more likely outcome is that the neighborhood will either gentrify and the community will be dispersed — they will still hold together in another place — or they will keep enduring, largely because the cycle of poverty, drugs and violence will continue to a degree that prevents gentrification from happening.  Again, it is very complex.  That which destroys it protects it.

The Lens: The Times-Picayune article said that you do not currently have the money to invest in the St. Roch project. Is that accurate?

Kaechele's property at 2461 N. Villere St. awaits the wrecking ball.

KK: No, it is not, along with most of what was written in the article.  There was a period when I did not have the resources to support ongoing exhibitions (despite rumors, I unfortunately don’t have a trust fund). I told Doug, post-Sonoma farm and post-Tasmania, that I was back to set things moving again and even informed him of my new funding model, sex.  (Which I told him was proving even more lucrative than drugs.)  But he was only interested in creating his version of a controversy.  A very boring, puritanical one.

The Lens: Are there any other plans for your St. Roch holdings beside the greenspace and the gallery?

KK: The plan for the former safe house, which is actually owned by my good friend, is to restore it and create artist’s living space. The ultimate decision lies with him, but we share very common goals.

Of the five, I have demolished three rotten ones, all in the area across the street that is now becoming green space.  As for the Bakery, I painstakingly restored it twice (once before and once after the flood). So,  although demolishing it would be good zen practice and would likely uncomplicate my life, this is the space I hope artists will use to create work and continue neighborhood classes. The last property is partially demolished as a garden for the Bakery, with the structure given over to a neighborhood friend and architect who is planning to use it for a project.

The Lens: Do you plan to return to New Orleans, and if so, would you live in St. Roch?

KK: If my relationship continues as wonderfully as it is, I probably won’t. He has a young daughter and can’t up and leave.  So in a way I guess I hope I won’t.  I am ready at this stage to really be with someone.  This said, I miss St. Roch, and miss personally working on the project.  If I end up with a broken heart I’ll be back.  (Luckily, all my haters are white or really act like it and therefore are primarily not in St. Roch, where I’d be healed by the love of the originals).  Otherwise, I will be back regularly for Mardi Gras and to check in.

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  • “Carpetbaggers” were a largely fictional creation of Southern racist newspaper editors during Reconstruction–disappointing to see The Lens perpetuating its usage.

  • Jules B.

    This interview makes me need blood pressure meds. What a smug, disingenuous piece of shit she is. “Acting white?” Really? Fuck you.

  • Easydog

    Get out your virtual pitchforks and torches, it’s a story about Kirsha! Regarding the use of the term ‘carpetbagger,’ it’s what a lot of pissed off people are calling her, so The Lens needs to address it. Their job is to report, not be the Language Police.

  • Derek B

    I thought The Lens was interested in truth. I’m not at all suggesting they should be language cops; the question could’ve simply been phrased differently to capture the mood of the disenchanted without furthering historical myth. For historical context:

  • Dar

    She remains full of herself and full of it. Less than 10 years in that area and raking in the art cash for her ego-led project has not left the area better than it was, instead it is worse. I remain in the carpetbagger camp when it comes to this woman.

  • migou

    KK, please spare us and other unsuspecting bourgeoisie from any more of your “art.” Inflicting your self-indulgent “living” on a long-suffering neighborhood because you find it fascinating is the height of selfishness.

  • ““Carpetbaggers” were a largely fictional creation of Southern racist newspaper editors during Reconstruction–disappointing to see The Lens perpetuating its usage.”

    Where are you getting that information, Derek? Explain to me how the term carpetbagger is racist.

  • jeffrey

    Derek, words acquire meanings over time that do not entirely conform to their original intended use. Consider the word, Creole, for example.

  • Derek B

    Right, I know I’m mostly alone on this one, but so it goes.

    @ Dambala: I included a link above to a paper by the historian Ted Tunnell published in the Journal of Southern History in 2006 that neatly details the history I refer to. I’m a little surprised you don’t remember this article as I quoted from it extensively in my blog post that I wrote a couple years ago–remember, we went round and round on this then, too? I am NOT suggesting that contemporary usage of the word is racist, but I AM trying to correct the historical myth (it’s my private own Lost Cause).

    @ Jeffrey: Yes, language is ever evolving. It’s important to me because it’s a product of the right wing noise machine of the 19th Century, just as, say, Fox News is the right wing noise machine of the 21st Century. Many of my liberal friends are quick to object to the antics of Fox News, while they hold dear the remnants of the 19th Century version of Fox News. That irony bugs me, I suppose. And oddly enough, I guess I feel like I’m speaking up for all the 19th Century carpetbaggers who got lynched.

    Anyway, as I said, I don’t think its (contemporary) usage is racist. Clearly, it’s not. But I weirdly feel an obligation to

  • Derek B

    … sorry for the poor edit of that last comment. I meant to end dramatically on “lynched.”

  • I remember the discussion but I still haven’t fully read the article because I ain’t paying 5 bucks to read it.

    If you have it, please send it to me. I think the revisionary aspect may be more on Tunnell’s behalf. I think this may be more of a chrono-centric perspective on Tunnell’s part than it was a reality from 1866 on.

    Regardless, words and the semantic construct behind them are malleable and I think Jeffrey’s point is spot on. The etiology of words associated with pivotal moments in history are always pregnant with meaning.

    You could probably take any figure or term relating to the Civil War or Reconstruction and apply a racist connotation to it in today’s perspective, i.e. Aunt Jemima. Some people found the Aunt Jemima syrup brand to be insulting (in a racist capacity). The term was originally made popular in a song lyric performed by vaudeville acts and traveling minstrel shows in the post CW era. Some scholars now think that the term may have actually been a manifestation of Yemoja, the Yoruba deity who represented the mother archetype. Commercialism aside, the syrup may be a lasting homage to the African diaspora.

    My first introduction to the term carpetbagger is always associated with the Duke and the King in “Huckleberry Finn”. I have never seen it used as a racially derogatory term nor have I seen anyone suggest it is until this Tunnel article (which I haven’t read so I can’t comment on).

    I feel the need to defend the use of the term because it’s so useful, even today. To me, carpetbaggers were the precursors to disaster capitalists and I think we saw plenty of that in the post-K environment. Naomi Klein built a career on it. In my mind it has nothing to do with race, it’s about economy, class, and the nasty side of unbridled capitalism. Therefore I use it without remorse. If someone told me they were offended by the term if I use it in conversation…I would laugh. There are a lot of words in the modern American lexicon which could invoke offense…I just don’t think carpetbagger is one of them.

  • hebert poland

    Maybe “carpetbagger” is too concise. How about “Self congratulatory entitled trust fund opportunist piece of sh*t”? I like the way it rolls off the tongue.

    And don’t bother coming back, either.

  • There could also be some distinction (in the modern use of the word) between a carpetbagger as someone who comes to exploit a place for profit and a person who merely comes to a place to make a profit. People being what they are will resent a person who moves to a place and succeeds faster than the born and bred folks living there, so it might be quite easy to apply the term “carpet bagger” to them regardless of weather they actually exploited anyone in the process or not. It’s perfectly fine to use the word so long as that element of taking advantage or exploitation is there. As for KK, there are shades of it because, she lived here and was doing good things before the flood but got in over her head while the national attention was on New Orleans after the levees broke. No flood, no screwed up art projects, no demolished houses I’m guessing. So, yeah, she exploited some.

  • Derek B

    Sorry, Dambala, I didn’t realize the link to the article required payment. I resisted the urge earlier to link to my original post that quoted from Tunnell’s piece (frankly, I’m a little embarrassed at how heated I got in the comments), but I’ll go ahead and do it. At the bottom of the post I’ve added a link where you can download a PDF of the full article (which I’ll leave up through the weekend). Give it a read, see what you think:

  • jeffrey

    Someone explain these “good things” she was doing before the flood. I’m still waiting to understand what they were.

  • She impressed me as much less a carpetbagger as simple witless ingenue. The “new funding model” is hubris on a stick, a girl in a Freudian slip.

  • Waldorf

    Can we look past the semantics and focus on what’s important– like, what a sanctimonious douche this woman is?

  • jkray

    I think kk’s st roch art project is valuable in the way it points to deep flaws in contemporary art culture, theory and practice. Kk’s projoect reminds me of the time I saw a blank canvas hanging in the modern art museum in Paris. I remember being furious, how could something so obviously worthless, which took zero effort to create, be considered valuable or even worth looking at? Yet, from a conceptual point of view, I got why it was there, it represented an idea. Similarly, I think the St roch project represented an experience/idea, but shows real holes in the value we can attribute to art driven by concepts when it is so temporarily in-situ, especially in such an economically-ravaged area.

  • Brian

    OK, she sucks. But her general suckage has provided convenient cover for many other people who suck, who “critics” like MacCash decline to critice because, hey, none of us are carpetbaggers, we’re all in this together, be nice, and, oops, sorry about ArtWorks, Colton, etc. It’s not simply a matter of a dilettante kissing everyone on the cheek and moving to Tanzania to trade sex. Who kissed her back? Aren’t they accountable?

    I’m glad the Lens is getting into the culture game, just a little wary of repeat attacks on a person who got away, rather than those still getting off. Real investigations into other failing, but continuing projects are long overdue, rather than the TP’s simple stating of the too-bad-about-that facts.

    Think about the amount of money and opportunities sucked up by KK and those other projects as a theft from the community, and ask where that money went, who it never reached, and who’s fat.

  • Jkray does have a good point about contemporary art culture. I feel the worst for artist Mel Chin in the way things turned out at KK, because he had a concept that was focused on actually helping New Orleans environmentally, and the Safe House he created at KK was one of the high points of Prospect .1. I do wish Kaechele had taken that hint in the everyday operations of KK. As an art lover, I just find it all depressingly sad.

  • Collins

    One of the few artistic renderings of a carpetbagger in New Orleans can be seen in the wonderful mural in the train station. Check it out sometime. Some of KK’s critics might organize a flashmob there in recognition of her exercising her ownership right of “abusus” of her property.

  • rpmcmurphy

    She is a smug, heartless sociopath.

  • Faye

    This is why natives are quickly coming to the conclusion that these non-native, “locals,” are destroying the native culture. An organic garden where kids can sell the produce? Really? How many help wanted ads do you see in the T-P advertising for organic farmers, great pay and benefits? Same old, “hey I look white, but I’m really black on the inside,” white people rhetoric. Ask any mama of a young black male in this neighborhood if she thinks her kid has a good future in organic produce sales. KK and her ilk need to get out and stay out. Want to make a difference? Head over to the local school and offer to tutor, read, or manage a conflict resolution program; do something besides tear down historic homes and putting children to work selling produce.

  • WalkthWalk

    Kirsha may be all the above…..and your point is? I look at it as what New Orleans gained. Look how many great and interesting things happened in New Orleans as a result of her efforts. Maybe at a lot at others expense but ya gotta hand it to her she is a force of nature. What did anyone else do except bitch and get jealous. So she failed miserably at the management game and such but she did it by her savvy and she does have an eye and it will get better. In the beginning Kirsha never said she was there to save the neighborhood and the artists were also in it for their gain so none of them are victims. She does need to grow up a lot and take responsibility but thats life and all in all its what “happened” and it was a good run. Now she has a landed a whale and believe me, she has 9 lives. Let’s wait and see what comes next from KK. I have always wished her love and happiness and one day all these experiences may someday make her a better person but that’s for her and her maker to discuss and not for me to judge. Be cool KK.

  • Muffin

    Why? Why do people keep giving this woman press? She owes New Orleans money. Is she using the proceeds from her phone sex performance piece to pay the taxes on her lots? What kind of role model does she make for a rich mans daughter. I don’t give a crap what color she is and whether she knows hat it is like to be a minority. I live in New Orleans and I pay may taxes and keep my space together.
    Also I have tried numerous times to contact Ms KK project because I would be happy to help garden and more but no one ever contacts you back. We don’t hate you Ms KK we just want you to do the right thing and pay your taxes or sell the properties. There are some awesome small bakers in the by water.

  • Wow. Writes collaborator and ardent defender Tora Lopez in her rebuttal of Doug McCash’s article: “Presenting Kirsha Kaechele as a ‘glamorous, globe-trotting creator of the project’ is sexist, sensational and vapid.” I was inclined to agree until I read the Interview mag profile of Kaechele.

    In it, Kaechele drops a number of gems, from the imperialistic, “I was born into a fabricated native environment in Topanga Canyon, in L.A. We all ran around naked and ate from the land-back to nature with strong Eastern philosophical roots,” to the grandiose, “When you are emotionally invested, it really hurts when one of the teenage boys is killed. At this point I am getting to the point where I actually helped raise them,” to the, well, sexist, sensational and vapid, “My mother is a wild, glamorous painter.” Then, there’s that photo of Kaechele, posing flirtatiously in a strapless pink leotard and white pumps next to a young inner city kid. And all those vicariously congratulatory stories about her dad. This woman sounds like the Paz de la Huerta of the art world—all narcissistic delusion and no ethical convictions to back it up.

    I’ll give Lopez the benefit of the doubt and assume she wasn’t aware of/didn’t read into this profile and was, in fact, defending Kaechele in earnest. But this is colonizing experiences pure and simple. No wonder she leapfrogs from one project to another. If you phase out the critics and commentators, and listen to a person speak for themselves, you’ll usually find what you’re looking for.

  • Well, I’m not from around here but I got family who are. Don’t know what that makes me, but I obviously don’t hide the fact.

    As far as carpetbagging, well, I was raised in Georgia, and this required repeated showings of Gone With the Wind in order to complete my cultural assimilation. This story was written in the 20th Century, made into film in the 20th Century, and has incredible cultural impact even today. Would anyone like to guess what connotation and role “carpetbaggers” have in this opus?

    As far as this artist is concerned, I find it kind of shocking how much emotion and vitriol gets invested, but I guess that’s to be expected when someone is able to get attention by claiming to be a life artist and ascribe worth to publicly turning their backs on “normal” society to hang out with the “other.” The dissonance of accepting and dismissing the status quo at the same time can be jarring, to say the least.

    Of course, when these articles were published, my initial reaction was “who?” Which, judging by the conversation, is exactly where I want it to be.