The Algiers Folk Art Zone & Blues Museum, which is located directly across from the Mississippi River levee at 207 Leboeuf Street, was founded by Charles Gillam in 2000. A self-taught sculptor, wood-carver, and mixed media artist, Gillam was born in 1945 and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward. He traces his earliest experiences creating folk art back to his childhood when he and his brother worked shining shoes in the French Quarter. After stints in the military and the Black Panthers, Gillam devoted himself to creating folk art from found objects and materials like wire, grating, and Mississippi River driftwood. His work gained broader exposure in the early 1990s when the New Orleans House of Blues club commissioned Gillam to carve a bust of the iconic Delta blues man, Charley Patton. His hand-carved doors and other blues-related works were also purchased for display in other House of Blues locations.
The Folk Art Zone & Blues Museum consists of two houses joined by a carnivalesque courtyard filled with Gillam’s colorful creations that celebrate African American history and culture with a definite emphasis on the blues and New Orleans music and street life. Gillam explains: “Discarded materials from Hurricane Katrina, old cabinet doors that people have discarded, I turn them back into works of art by taking them apart and using the wood and creating the images and characters of New Orleans. When I carve these characters, it seems like they just tell me how to pull them out from that wood.” Gillam’s dedication to creating a folk art environment that repurposes materials is testified to by the roofing shingles that came off one of his buildings that were used to pave the courtyard and are now adorned with his mural art.
Inside the blues museum the walls are lined with concrete busts of blues men — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, Roosevelt Sykes; blues divas — Billie Holiday, Sippie Wallace, Koko Taylor, Etta James, Memphis Minnie; and New Orleans greats — Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, James Booker, Allen Toussaint. In addition, Gillam’s museum displays work by an array of folk artists, including Lonnie Holley, Gregory “Mr. Imagination” Womack, Roy Ferdinand, A.J. Boudreaux, and Big Al Taplet. Of course, a visit to the Algiers Folk Art Zone & Blues Museum also means a guided tour by the effervescent host that combines history, culture, and art. Gillam also uses his Folk Art Zone for educational workshops, and each fall he and his wife Susan, who is also an artist, host the Algiers Folk Art Festival.