The bronze statue of a languid young woman sitting on the edge of a small fountain near Decatur Street, swept away after being vandalized nine months ago, has been put back in place. The graffiti and haphazard decoration that marred the expertly stripped-down artwork, “Michelle” is as bright and spotless as the day she debuted in 1984, much to the relief of those who cherish her.
Last September, regulars in the French Quarter discovered that Michelle was missing. Some feared it was stolen at some point during the difficult days following Hurricane Ida, and possibly even sold for scrap. Fortunately, that was not the case. The truth was more mundane. During the sweltering summer, red paint had been sprayed on her throat, fake gemstones had been glued to her eyes, and glitter had been added to her eyelids. Michelle had simply been removed by the city for refurbishment by a metal restorer.
His ten months of absence had, as they say, softened the hearts of his fans. For nearly four decades, Michelle had been a minor landmark in her own right. Something about the elongated figure, dressed in summer shorts and a sheer blouse, captured the carefree spirit of the Vieux Carré. For some unknown reason, she was sometimes referred to as “the mermaid”, although there was no scaly tail involved. And she was never naked, although some remember her that way.
The statue has starred in countless tourist snaps and, more recently, cellphone selfies. She had been the quiet, unassuming symbol of the Old Quarter, happy to help set the mood for more than one marriage proposal.
The bohemian type
No one mourned Michelle’s absence more than Gayle de la Houssaye, who modeled for the statue all those years ago. De la Houssaye, now 70, is a New Orleans-born Mount Carmel Academy graduate who studied drawing and painting at the former McCrady School of Art on Bourbon Street.
De la Houssaye was always – according to his own description – a bohemian type. In the 1970s, she worked at an auction house restoring oriental rugs while learning to play the guitar. De la Hussaye lived in a weather-worn pre-war mansion on Washington Avenue, until she fell in love with a hippie carpenter who took her in an antique truck that had been converted into a kind of gypsy cart. The plan was to head west. Instead, the couple ended up in Eureka Springs Arkansas, where De la Houssaye has lived ever since.
During a visit to her former hometown in the early 1980s, a friend recommended her as a model to sculptor Paul Perret Jr., who had been commissioned to produce realistic statues for a riverside stroll in the French quarter.
According to de la Houssaye, Perret made plaster casts of her body, using petroleum jelly to ensure the plaster did not stick. This required her to remain very still while the plaster hardened. Once, she says, she ruined a day at work by sneezing before the cast finished setting, and another time her wrists went numb in the process. At the end of each session, she said, “I had Magic Marker on me and my hair was covered in plaster and Vaseline.”
De la Houssaye was paid for her participation, but above all, she says, she did it “for the love of art”.
A magic moment
De la Houssaye, who became a professional musician in her adopted home, said she posed for the statue during such a wonderful time in her life that she remembers it as “a magical moment”. Who knows, maybe some of the magic has rubbed off on the bronze.
Once in place, the statue became a regular stop for de la Houssaye’s family and friends on trips to New Orleans. “We were going to eat at the Court of the Two Sisters and go see the statue,” she said. It was a small claim to fame.
So when de la Houssaye learned the statue had gone missing last year, she said “it hit me in the pit of my stomach.”
Later, when she read that the statue had just been removed for restoration, she was relieved. “I was glad someone didn’t rip his head off,” she said.
As the months passed, with no reappearance, de la Houssay said, she was not worried. “Well,” she said, “it was after the hurricane, and they’ve got bigger fish to fry. And that’s the Big Easy; things are moving slowly.
Retired sculptor Paul Perret says he remembers de la Houssaye being a good role model. He doesn’t remember exactly that she damaged a mold, but he doesn’t doubt it. Things happen. She was probably nervous during the process, he said.
Perret, now 70, was happy to learn that the sculpture – named after his daughter Michelle – was back. As of this writing, he had yet to see it, but was particularly eager to see how the patina – the subtle coloring of bronze – had been restored.
Perret explained that after the statue was completed, he used various chemicals to color the metal a shiny brown color, with a pale blue-green hue on the blouse and a darker green on the shorts. Years ago, he said, someone had zealously cleaned the statue with a pressure washer, removing the colors it had created. Fortunately, over the years, the patina had more or less naturally reappeared.
Based on photos of the sculpture on social media, it appears the restorer, hired by the Société Française du Marché, has renewed the original skin tone and distinct colors of Michelle’s clothing.
When the statue appeared to disappear last year, Perret said he became aware of the public’s sentimental attachment to the aged work of art, through messages he received from people who had personal relationships with him. the bronze. The magnetism persisted, even when Michelle was away.
Ask the question
Amber Guevara, a 35-year-old software developer from Austin, Texas, said she and girlfriend Rebekah Poyo had been seeing each other for six months and were taking their first vacation together in New Orleans when they met the statue. Guevara said Poyo, a 29-year-old catering coordinator, is “a little girl,” just like Michelle. So, as Poyo rolled her eyes, Guevara meticulously placed her next to her bronze doppelganger.
It was 2016. Last year, just before Thanksgiving, Guevara and Poyo revisited the French Quarter. Guevara planned to propose marriage to Poyo at the site of the statue. Before the big day, she realized the statue was missing, but she went through with the plan anyway, and Poyo said yes.
Romantics might imagine that the lingering spirit of the mermaid who isn’t a mermaid somehow helped seal the deal.
As close as possible
Michelle was restored by Zito’s Plating and Polishing Works. Company spokesman Corey McCloskey said the statue required a very thorough cleaning process that also reduced some of the oxidation that had occurred over the decades. Referring to old photos, McClosky said, his company applied colors meant to renew the original look “as close as possible.”
“We had her for five months,” he said. It takes so long, he says, “when you’re dealing with such a beautiful piece.
Look for Michelle where Madison Street intersects the river wall, not far from Café du Monde.
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