Doug Kennedy: Conjuring the Spirits of Southern Art
article by Mary Napoli
Long before La Salle claimed this land and consecrated it La Louisiane in honor of the French King, the soil was fertile with a haunted, shadowy history. From the murky bayous thick with mystery to the lush, charming gardens surrounding plantation homes, the ghosts of our past whisper memories of decadence and darkness. There is a mystical presence in this magical land. It may not be spoken of during mannerly luncheons or at church socials, but it most certainly exists. One heavy breath of the humid air or glimpse of Spanish moss dripping from skeletal cypress trees, and the intoxicating enchantment of Louisiana is undeniable. The uninhibited, earthy, uniqueness of this land has permeated into every ounce of artist Doug Kennedy’s being. It pours from his soul as he conjures images that pay homage to the distinctive beauty and rich culture that exists here.
When speaking of his hometown of Monroe, he smiles with that look one gets when recalling the memory of their high school love. He sees below the surface of our small town and values its eccentricities and natural charm. He is perceptive, playful, undeniably mischievous and appreciates the aspects of growing up in Monroe that may not immediately come to mind. He is inspired by memories of golden sunlight filtered through Live Oak branches, the curling tendrils of lush wisteria and the earthy fragrances of the delta soil, as well as the more wild, uninhibited qualities of our culture. Lady Louisiana is his muse. She’s part Southern belle and part voodoo queen, like a shot of moonshine chased with sweet tea.
Kennedy’s artistic talents take on many forms. He has earned significant praise for his etherial abstract paintings, continues to have success illustrating children’s books and dabbled in music once upon a time, but in the place where he grew up, he is most recognizable as the artistic talent behind Mojo of Louisiana–the art infused apparel company that has grown in popularity since its inception. Mojo Boutique is located in historic downtown West Monroe on Trenton Street and is owned by Kennedy and his siblings, twin brother John Kennedy and sister Kim Kennedy-Bryan. Before Mojo set up shop, the building served as the studio of Kennedy’s mother, who was also an artist. In 1989, Kennedy and his twin began the family business with a simple idea that evolved into the successful business it is today.
Kennedy explains, “I had just finished my graphic design degree at Louisiana Tech. Everything was done by hand then; there were no computers. I remember getting out of school and wanting to do some t-shirts, since that was a big part of fashion in the 90s. We took $75.00 and bought one silk screen and a kit. It was during the summer, and I drew this sun design for the first t-shirt…We had a friend who worked at a record store in Pecanland Mall, so we brought the shirt up there, and it sold. Our friend was like, “Hey man, y’all should do some more of these!” So, we did. We made more, and they sold…then we set up a rack of shirts in my mom’s studio on Trenton, and those sold. That’s basically how Mojo got started,”
The homegrown venture developed strong roots and grew locally, but the ingenious Kennedy boys took the shirts to another level. Doug Kennedy designed the graphics for the shirts that began as pen and ink drawings in a sketch book. They took the whimsical, edgy designs to apparel and boutique shows in Dallas and New York, where they received significant attention. At the Los Angeles Magic Show, an international apparel market, Mojo found substantial exposure and was picked up by a popular apparel company in Japan. The relationship between Japanese buyers and Mojo still exists today, and the shirts remain a fashionable item there.
Mojo’s t-shirts gained popularity quickly at home and have remained a steady part of the local culture. Inspired by the sultry, natural beauty of Louisiana and the mystical, haunted lore of New Orleans, Kennedy creates designs that are striking and completely original. Each shirt is a wearable canvas and is hand crafted by silk screen, making each piece an individual work of art. Kennedy’s imaginative pen and ink style is as intricate as the wrought iron balconies of the French Quarter and has a playful Southern Gothic essence. He designs two t-shirt lines each year that are released seasonally in the Summer and Fall. Traditional Mojo archetypes are always quick to sell, as well as shirts that feature images that give a nod to fictional vintage advertisements, like Cat Daddy’s Moonshine and Mojo’s Old Time Gospel Revival. Residents also appreciate Kennedy’s designs that wink at local nostalgia, like Howard Griffin Motorcycles, the Tonga Lounge (Drink the Zombie!), Jack Hayes Elementary Phys. Ed., and NLU circa 1972. The labyrinthine graphics range from the obscure to the obvious, but each contains a hint of backwoods humor that displays Kennedy’s love for the region.
The historical building that served as Mrs. Kennedy’s studio space slowly scaled back as Mojo steadily expanded. What began with a t-shirt line and a silk screen kit is now a fashion forward boutique that includes seasonal lines of Mojo t-shirts, as well as stylish, contemporary women’s apparel, extraordinary accessories, handbags, candles, home décor, and fragrances. The boutique’s shelves also feature the outstanding collection of children’s books–such as the imaginative Pirate Pete and Mr. Bumble series–authored by brilliant Kim Kennedy-Bryan and illustrated by her artist brother.
Mojo tapped into a new market when it introduced its own fragrance line in 2013 with the debut of Mojo Magique. The intoxicating fragrance was instantly successful and has received substantial attention in large markets. The scent was designed by notable French perfumer Jean-Marc Chaillan, who created fragrances for prominent brands, such as Burberry, Calvin Klein and Carolina Herrera. Magique opens with subtle citrus notes before revealing delicate florals like jasmine and lily of the valley and finishes with woody notes of sandalwood, cedar and patchouli. The unisex fragrance is sensual and complex and has been so successful that it spawned two additional fragrances–Shady Lady and Voodoo Child, which will become available this Spring. Shady Lady is a feminine scent with stirring notes of gardenia and rose that are enlivened by subtle hints of moss and sandalwood. InVoodoo Child, the Kennedys have created another unisex fragrance that is enticingly complicated and layered. Keeping with the mystical, magical, voodoo theme, this fragrance includes notes of orange flower and vanilla bean from Africa along with hints of cedarwood and leather. The Mojo aesthetic reveals itself in the creative packaging, designed by Kennedy. With a breath of these fragrances, one might imagine that Mojo has somehow managed to bottle the humidity of the swamp and imbued it with that sense of romantic, earthy sensuality that only exists in the South.
“When we started working with the perfumery, we went to New York with a storyboard of images with elements of Louisiana we wanted to include…All of the scents are worn close to the body and are light and fresh–not heavy. We wanted them to be wearable in the heat down here and not be overpowering,” says Kennedy.
It seems there is no end to the magic of Mojo. In addition to the bayou-inspired, wearable artwork and provocative fragrances, the Kennedys have also begun to design a line of handbags that are bewitchingly beautiful and distinctly sSouthern in an imaginative way–by crafting the bags from local alligator skins and leather. The modern designs are sophisticated, yet casual, and constructed with the greatest attention to detail and quality by the same craftsmen who produce high-end handbags for brands like Chloe and Coach. Although a release date for the bags has not been determined, it will no doubt be worth the wait.
Kennedy also has creative endeavors beyond Mojo. He is an accomplished and successful painter of abstract art. It has been a part of his life for decades, although Mojo has been at the forefront at times.
“It is a completely different, separate existence for me. The medium is looser, more organic and more physical. The artwork for Mojo is more concrete. My paintings are more about impressions and memories of light and shapes,” explains Kennedy. “It’s very of the moment. I make a mark and react against it. Each action leads to another action that either supports or connects it. ”
His work is often layers of acrylic and oils on canvas, but he also creates mixed media images on paper. Once again, the Louisiana landscape serves as his inspiration. He often chooses colors representative of nature in his native Louisiana–the muted tones found in the swampy areas shrouded with Spanish moss, the saturated pink of an azalea blossom, the rich purple hue of a blooming iris. The natural palette brims with emotion and captivates the eye. The tinted, bold shapes can be as opaque as bayou water or as transparent as the morning fog in early Fall. Representative of shadowy memories or live inspiration, the brushstrokes mingle and collide.
For the artist, the process of creation is as important as the work of art, itself. He divides his time between his studio in Austin, Texas and the region of Louisiana that continually inspires him. At his twin brother’s home in rural Calhoun, the open fields serve as an outdoor studio, and the earth as his easel. Kennedy communes with his medium in a way that is natural and intuitive. He spreads large, loose canvas panels on the ground, often several at once. This way, he can walk around each canvas as he paints and create multiple works of art in the same session, capturing a multifaceted point of view.
“Paintings that are created together have a base relationship. They are all related, but once I get them back in the studio and stretch them, the become more individual,” he reveals.
His art has been included in countless galleries across the nation and can be viewed currently in Ann Connolly Gallery in Baton Rouge, Jules’ Place in Austin and Addison Gallery of Boca Raton. In 2006, Kennedy received the prestigious honor of being chosen one of the four American artists to participate in the Art in Embassies (AIE), which has been championed by the Department of State in Washington, D.C. for over fifty years. As an AIE artist, Kennedy engaged in a cross-cultural exchange of art within international embassies and consulates to foster global creative dialogue. His work was featured in the United States Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam and later in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It’s a long way from home, but apparently those Yankees know a good thing when they see it.
The sultry Southern heat surrounds us almost constantly and finds its way into our food, our celebratory nature and our passion for our beliefs. And as sure as the temperature will once again rise, Doug Kennedy will continue to create artwork that is as intriguing as it is visually sublime. Although he is based in Texas, Kennedy has an emotional attachment for his hometown and the artwork he creates here that has only intensified over time.
“Monroe is a different place when you go away and come back. You learn to appreciate it so much more and in different ways. The light is so beautiful, and the culture is so distinctive. I’m influenced by all of it,” he says with sincerity in his voice. “There really is something special about that region. One of my friends said once, ‘What is it about you people from Monroe? Do y’all have a magnet in your ass or something?’ It’s true. People always come back.”
Stay current with Mojo of Louisiana online at www.shopmojo.com or find them on Facebook. Mojo is located at 206 Trenton Street in West Monroe, 318-387-7891.