As much as Lenora Champagne yearned to leave Louisiana, the lush, mystical state has never left her.
Ms. Champagne, the oldest of nine children, flew through Louisiana State University in three years, and after a stay in Greece, landed in Manhattan. Today, as a New York performance artist, she draws upon the magic of a childhood spent in the small Cajun town of Acadian, where rosaries, miraculously turned to gold, could be examined at a bank drive-in window (true story) and where a man with a face blown up in an oil rig accident once shared a jail cell with the man who stole his wife (also true).
"It's a great place to come from," she says. "That stuff is still in my dreams and my writing. The weather is part of the richness, it's in my bones."
Ms. Champagne is in Baltimore to direct an ensemble of 10 visual and performing artists for Diverse Works, the annual works-in-progress program presented by Maryland Art Place.
Using a dramatic exercise devised by Ms. Champagne, the artists have constructed an ensemble piece based on intimate memories and public events. With Ms. Champagne's guidance, the personal and the global intertwine,and larger themes concerning race, sex, history and its impact on contemporary life, emerge to weight the piece with context.
During a morning rehearsal, six cast members run through the piece, called "Water Table Fire Time" in MAP's spare, white, rectangular performance space. In one act, three participants present a mock newscast based on stories clipped from newspapers, in which tragedy, trivia, safety tips and sports scores (read without team names) are absurdly juxtaposed. Concluding the report, one newscaster intones, "The bullet is still lodged in Ebony's back," a point blank reminder of children cut down on Baltimore streets.
Planes and trains, a fascination with fire, a drug-wasted life yanked into the vortex of an auto rally, the Rodney King trial, Tipper Gore, trust, love and questions of time are touched upon during an hour's worth of rehearsal. The piece offers no pat answers or conclusions, but "grows and transforms a lot," Ms. Champagne says. The audience is "not being told didactically what something is about. . . . There are enough openings in the work that people will walk away with different main impressions," she says.
After arriving in New York in 1972 as a painter, it was nearly a decade before Ms. Champagne, 40, assembled her first performance pieces. "I spent my 20s figuring out what I wanted to do," she says.
"Women in Research," a collaborative effort with two other artists, was performed at the Franklin Furnace in 1981. Her first solo, "Getting Over Tom," premiered at the same performance space in 1982.
Prior to her debut as a performance artist, Ms. Champagne worked at New York University's law school, while obtaining her doctorate in performance studies.
Not an abrasive "in your face" performance artist, Ms. Champagne, takes a gentler tack, allowing her understated text to tell the story without anger and shock value. Unlike many colleagues in the performance art world, "I don't knock people over the head with an issue," Ms. Champagne says.
Her work has been recognized by critics in New York and elsewhere. "Eye of the Garden," a 1986 collaborative theater piece performed on the Battery Park landfill in lower Manhattan, was inspired by a series of photographs taken by an Ursuline nun in New Orleans.
A more recent piece, "Isabella Dreams the New World," is an evocative exercise in historic role reversal. In it, it is not Christopher Columbus who discovers the New World, but Queen Isabella, in the person of Irma, a Cajun woman with a vivid imagination and a Klansman for a husband.
Louisiana may remain a mystery to Ms. Champagne, but New York City and her chosen path, are equally mysterious to her family and old friends.
Ms. Champagne's parents visited her once in New York City and have seen tapes of her performances. But it was not until they saw her on a cable television program decrying the National Endowment for the Art's 1990 decision not to fund four performance artists that they realized, "this was really something because I was on TV."
Because of a funding cut by the NEA's Interdisciplinary Program, Diverse Works is presenting one, instead of the usual three directors in residence this year. MAP hopes to cover the cost of Ms. Champagne's residence with door receipts and money from another NEA program. "This is a way of being able to move onward with the program without jeopardizing the entire thing due to reductions in the budget," says Charlotte Cohen, MAP program director.
'WATER TABLE FIRE TIME'
Where: Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga St.
When: Tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m.
Call: (410) 962-8565.