Jonathan Mayers Paints The Environmental Folktales He Wishes He’d Heard
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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 outside...like 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.