Nita and Zita

Reprint by permission of Howard Campbell

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...Oh well. Back to New Orleans. And now to scoop the competition. I'm thrilled to share with our group my discovery of an amazing outsider (odious term!) artist-duo, late of this wicked-but interesting city. They were members in good standing of the all over optical school. They decorated their home and everything in it with painted and applied embellishments which call to mind Mississippi's Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy or Virginia's Cedar Creek Charlie. Nita and Zita were sisters. They were also exotic or interpretive dancers ("Hawaiian, Oriental, waltz, veil dances," reads one of their old cards), and they spent their last years in a small shotgun house on Dauphine Street.

Nita and Zita had come originally from Romania and were often referred to in their old New Orleans neighborhood as "The Gypsy Ladies." They danced on Bourbon Street toward the end of their careers and gave dance and fitness lessons in one room of their home: "Nita and Zita International Dancers. Health exercise studio for 25 years till 60 years old persons for body and mind improvment [sic]. Everybody need [sic] to exercise but persons in their middle years need mild and slow exercises to have normal blood circulation."

How true. How very true. At one time their performance art was good enough that they toured internationally. Argentina, Portugal, Spain, England, France, Hungary, and Romania are among their passport entries. It is unclear just when they began to decorate their small frame house, but the pace of their visual artwork undoubtedly picked up as their stage career wound down. Their motifs decoratifs were-dare I say it? -predictable. Polka dots, spider webs (painted), and sponge decoration both controlled and random tumble over the walls, the furniture, etc. in an optical barrage. Their preferred colors were red and white, sometimes various shades of pink and white. They liked it HOT!

Their furnishings were partly of a cheap commercial type typical of the teens to the 30's (American Empire revival, pseudo William and Mary, etc.) and partly they were made from old crates and other found objects. The repulsive Grand Rapids Wiliam and Mary furniture seems to have generally been the most busily decorated. Their spider web design was used to amazing effect on these pieces.

It seems that when they weren't painting they sewed. Or sewed and glued. Whatever. They applied small scraps of cloth, sequins, beads, and small found objects to larger found objects. They dressed old dolls in various strange and skimpy costumes. They created exotic hats and headdresses. Their wardrobe of wonderfully original costumes seems to have been limitless. It's amazing that these costumes have survived in the condition that they have. Most would still be wearable. I suspect that this makes them even more interesting to certain souls in the French Quarter. Judy Percy, of Judy's collage on Chartres Street, has dealt with a great deal of Nita's and Zita's estate. Judy told me that it is a popular belief among the locals that red paint deters roaches and other varmints. There must be something to this. Is that old red paint radioactive, or what? ...

From VOICES, The annual report of the North Carolina Folk Art Society, Vol. 1: 1992. By Howard Campbell

Photo of a table decorated by Nita and Zita.        

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