This past spring, as the pandemic began, artist Andrew LaMar Hopkins realized that he probably wasn’t going to make it to France for the summer as usual. And he didn’t want to stick around in New Orleans either — COVID hit his city early and hard, and he wanted to take a break. He had always been intrigued by Savannah, Georgia — he’d recently reread Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book that has bewitched people into visiting the city for decades now — and he decided to rent a home there. Things fell into place pretty quickly; he found an apartment in an 1815 Federal house situated on a historic square dating back to 1799.
As it happens, around the same time, he got the news that the New York gallery Venus Over Manhattan wanted to represent him and offered a solo show in its new space. The show, “Créolité,” depicts domestic scenes of Creole living in daily urban life in the South before the Civil War.
“You know, I paint everybody from that period,” Hopkins tells me. “But my main focus is the free people of color, because their voice has been forgotten. It was a small group of Black people before the Civil War that were free. They were prosperous; they worked. So I am giving these people a voice.” As it turns out, a visiting friend informed him that his new place is at the center of their historic neighborhood in Savannah. He bursts out laughing at the appropriateness of this: “So they were like, ‘Come! Move into my neighborhood!’”
His passion, going back to his childhood growing up in Mobile, Alabama, has always been antiques and history. “I grew up in a house with some very good antiques; most of the women in my family worked as housekeepers for wealthy Jewish and white families in Mobile,” he says, “so the antiques I grew up with, I mean, I know that nobody in my family bought those — they were given to us by one of these families.” When kids his age were playing outside, Hopkins says, he would be in the library researching Victorian furniture and Greek Revival architecture. He started going into antiques shops by himself at around the age of 10, introducing himself to the dealers, inquiring about their finds. “I gravitated toward older people,” Hopkins says. “They had something to teach me.”
He and a boyfriend opened an antiques shop on Magazine Street in the Garden District of New Orleans, and he visited Paris for the first time on a buying trip in 1997. It was a revelation. “They did not see me as a Black gay male, as I have been in the South, but someone of interest they wanted to get to know. I felt like a whole respected human for the first time in my life. I had found a place that talked to my soul and understood my uniqueness, where everyone can appreciate my artistic side.”
After Hopkins and his partner closed their shop in 2000, he sold to private clients and did antiques shows up until around 2009, when he decided to devote himself to his art full time. “It was a struggle,” Hopkins admits. “I was a starving artist for years.” The sacrifices and effort have paid off, as Hopkins has started a new chapter in his life and art in Savannah. His 1,100-square-foot floor-through apartment speaks to the past in which he feels right at home. “I am still in the process of decorating my house, and want to do it justice finding the right pieces for the period.”
And so the house is a perfect fit for the artist. “The windows overlook the 18th-century square,” Hopkins says. “This is a wonderful place to paint. I love to paint where I live. I like to get out of bed and paint.” His neighborhood is steeped in history. “There’s a very famous church across the street from my house where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. practiced his “I Have a Dream” speech,” Hopkins notes. “And I am moving into a neighborhood that was the center of free people of color in Savannah, which relates to what I do.”
The top half of the classical stenciled and bronze molded mahogany and rosewood piano (left) made by Loud & Brothers, Philadelphia, in the 1820’s. The portrait of “John Major” is mid–19th century from Baltimore, Maryland. A French 19th century gilt-bronze and carved-wood crucifix sits on the cover of the piano key cover. “My 205-year-old place in Savannah is very light and airy,” Hopkins says. “I can look out of the 12 windows of my apartment and see the 200-year-old live-oak trees bringing nature right into my space.”
This French 1840s oil portrait (right) of a mixed-race gentleman in Hopkins’s living room could have stepped out of one of Hopkins’s own paintings.
A rare French 1850s wax mourning shrine doll (left) of a little boy with human hair, with attributes of Christ, holding a cross, made by the Ursuline nuns of France. Hopkins found this on his first trip to France in an antiques shop in the village of Le Village des Tortues. “It has been through Hurricane Katrina,” Hopkins says, and has been in storage for years before traveling between his different homes. Now, this little treasure resides with him in Savannah.
The kitchen of the apartment features the original 14-inch-wide floorboards. The table (right) is set with a 19th-century French faience plate and a confit pot holding tulips. The early 19th-century primitive cypress table is from Alabama, paired with English painted Georgian side chairs.
“Créolité: Andrew LaMar Hopkins” is on view at Venus Over Manhattan, 120 East 65th Street, through November 6.