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

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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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