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Jonathan Mayers Paints The Environmental Folktales He Wishes He’d Heard

Travis Lux
Jonathan Mayers paints Louisiana landscapes that are filled with magical beasts and mythical monsters, and tells stories about the environment and the consequences of human activities.

According to Louisiana folklore, the Rougarou is a warewolf-like character that prowls the swamps and bayous at night -- threatening to bite you if you don’t observe lent.

Painter Jonathan Mayers heard a few Rougarou stories as a kid in Baton Rouge, but wishes he’d heard more. Now, he makes up his own -- with a paintbrush -- and an environmental twist.

For Mayers, the early stages of a painting bring him outside. We’ve taken a truck to the end of a gravel road in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area; it’s part of the Honey Island Swamp on the Louisiana-Mississippi border. He’s looking for inspiration.

“I mean, I'm really just looking for, I guess, a part of the landscape that...tells me some sort of haunting story or something like that,” says Mayers.


Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
Mayers will bring this handful of goop back to the studio. He'll likely adorn a future painting frame with it. He's also experimenting with ways to incorporate sediment into the paintings.

We start down a grassy path lined by cypress and tupelo trees; three turkeys dart off in the distance. We cross a swampy bayou where a snake swims past our boots. Mayers pulls out his phone and snaps a few photos, then he dips his hand into the water and pulls up a fistful of mud. He squishes it with his fingers and brings it up to his nose for a sniff.

This is all part of getting a feel for the place. But he also wants to use this mud -- like in a painting.

“I'm going to be putting the mud and sediment...on my artwork,” he says. Rather than just acrylic paint.

He plops the mud into ziplock baggie and tucks it into his backpack. As we walk back to the truck, he’s already thinking about what story he might tell.

Credit Jonathan Mayers
This painting by Mayers from 2016 features a giant crawfish centipede. It's titled "Le Mille-pattes d’écrevisse terrorisant toujours Jennings (The Crawfish Centipede still Terrorizing Jennings)." Courtesy of the artist and Arthur Roger Gallery.

“You know, maybe I'll create a turkey monster or something like that,” he says. “Coming to reclaim the land that it was on for a while.”

Mayers is one of two artists currently in residence at Tulane’s Studio in the Woods -- down along the river, south of New Orleans. He shows me around his studio. It’s got super white walls. Tubes of acrylic paint and plastic cups full of paintbrushes are neatly arranged on tables. There are mason jars of dirt from other places he’s visited, like Maurepas Swamp, Grand Isle and Bayou Segnette.

“Any of these places where environmental disruption has happened,” says Mayers.

Often, these are places affected by oil spills or invasive species. There’s a painting resting on a easel in the middle of the room. It’s only about half-finished, but you can tell it’s a typical Louisiana swamp scene. Maurepas Swamp, Mayers says.

It’s kind of impressionistic, like Monet. In the background there are lilies, elephant ears, and a row of cypress knees. Lots of green and brown. In the foreground, the head of a giant frog with bulging eyes emerges from the water -- an invasive Cuban tree frog.

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
This painting, which is still in progress, will tell the story of invasive species in the Maurepas Swamp.

“They eat American tree frogs,” says Mayers. “So they are a predator of our indigenous frogs.”

The tree frog in the painting has fused with another of the swamp’s invasive species: swamp lettuce. It looks like it has a mane of green leaves around its neck.

“They've melded somehow, and they're destroying parts of the swamp,” Mayers explains.

But the swamp isn’t doomed. Another creature has shown up to protect it. Off to the side you can see the initial sketches of bird talons -- what will eventually be a giant prothonotary warbler.


“I don't know how to put it,” Mayers says with a chuckle. “It’s going to kind of just be a murder. The warbler is just going to be sort of destroying this invasive species.”

If Monet and Marvel had a baby, it might be Mayers. Most of his paintings these days are similar: Louisiana landscapes with scary monsters and fantastical creatures. Sometimes the creatures coexist, other times they’re getting ready for battle.

Ultimately, he’s trying to tell stories about place and culture, and teach lessons about the environment. He’s loved mythological stuff ever since he was a kid.

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
The Honey Island Swamp might well be the next setting for one of Mayers' paintings.

“I really liked haunting stories,” Mayers remembers. “Haunting creatures that were kind of scaring me to stay in bed. Or scare me to not go to certain places the Rougarou. Cause it can get you.”

Mayers heard bits and pieces of those old folktales growing up. He’d have heard more, he thinks, if his grandparents weren’t forced to stop speaking French as kids. So now, he makes up his own.

“I think for me it's a way of like, gaining that back. And then also giving that back.”

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.


As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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