In 1998 I met Big Al Taplet. Big Al is a folk artist whose ‘real job’ was a shoe shine man. He is a self-taught artist who would paint primarily signs. He needed a sign for his show shine shop and he painted one with not only words, but with illustration(s). A passerby asked if he could buy the sign and he sold it for $10. Big Al reportedly was surprised anyone would want to buy his sign. The next sign sold for $15. Ever since, Big Al has been making folk art and selling it.
I learned via the web that originally Big Al owned a small shoe shine shop in New Orleans. He used to sell his artwork from the store front. At some point he stopped having a shop for shoe shining and began selling work on the sidewalks around Jackson Square.
His artwork was sold outside of Jackson Square in New Orleans, when I met him. He’d hang his signs on the iron fence. I was drawn to many of his pieces. Some that I would have loved to buy were priced at $85. I don’t remember being priced any lower than that. Actually the prices were not on the pieces, you had to ask him what the prices were. There were some great signs that I thought would be perfect for hanging in my kitchen (because I couldn’t imagine hanging signs featuring breakfast foods anywhere else but in the kitchen).
Big Al was fun to talk to. We chatted for about ten minutes as I admired his art. He tried talking me into buying some of his artwork. He laughed a lot and was quite a character. Big Al’s art is not my husband’s cup of tea. I decided not to buy any as I thought my husband would complain if I hung it up in our home, and frankly, that he’d freak out if he found out I’d paid $85 for it. Another thing that kept me from buying it that day was I didn’t have enough cash on me at the time. I regretted this decision as early as that night, because his art stayed in my mind and I had this great image of the art hanging in my kitchen. When I went back the next day he was not there.
When I visited New Orleans again in 1999, 2001 and 2002, I was hoping to buy some of Big Al’s work. I was ready at that point to buy it despite the complaints that I’d get from my husband. I also knew my family and my husband’s family would laugh at me and put this on their mental list of why they think I am weird. Anyway when I was in New Orleans on these trips I never saw Big Al again. Frankly I was wondering if he had passed away or was no longer making art.
I also wondered about Big Al post-Hurricane Katrina. I checked online today and saw that he is indeed alive and well and still is making ‘outsider art’. Here is a site which states he is living in Texas currently.
Big Al’s work often contains misspellings. A lot of his paintings feature shoe shining themes. He also makes a lot of art with the theme of no shoes, no service and also no money, no eggs (or other breakfast foods).
Here are some sites if you would like to see his artwork, photos of the artist and articles about him.
Here is an article about Big Al in Houston after Hurricane Katrina hit.
This is a great long article about Big Al and Hurricane Katrina, and about him now that he is living in Houston
More on My Experience with Outsider Art in New Orleans
Twice while in New Orleans I’d visit a folk art gallery/shop. The work in there was amazing. The store was overstuffed. I could barely walk through the shop. Art was stacked on the floor, on the walls, and on every horizontal surface. I could have spent hours in there. Too bad at the time my son was a toddler and was in a stroller which was near impossible to navigate while in there. I saw many interesting pieces of art but again didn’t buy any as my husband would have detested them all and been angry that I had spent money on them.