Lost in Time: An Interview with Sean Yseult

Brooke Sauvage speaks to Sean Yseult about her current show at Boyd | Satellite and her various careers as an artist, musician, and bar owner.

Sean Yseult, Sazerac, After Hours, 2018. Limited-edition print. Courtesy the artist and Boyd | Satellite, New Orleans.

Editor's Note

I met Sean Yseult in the dimly lit interior of Napoleon House, greeted by liveried waitstaff who came around to take my drink order over the twinkling crescendo of old-time, operatic music. In “They All Axed for You,” on view at Boyd | Satellite gallery, Yseult imaginatively liberates the animals of Audubon Zoo and invites them into digitally collaged photographs of New Orleans’ most iconic spots. The show also displays her wallpaper designs and rock photography from her days as a bassist in White Zombie. Throughout these wonderfully disparate works, Yseult has crafted a vision that resembles a metaphysical assemblage, woven from the colorful patchwork of her life experiences.

—Brooke Sauvage

Brooke Sauvage: So, why Napoleon House? Do you know any good ghosts around here?

Sean Yseult: This is one of the first places [in New Orleans] that I fell in love with. It’s so old; the history is so amazing. The walls alone would bring me here but the fact that they also play opera music constantly…I don’t know, I always felt very at home here. I also feature Napoleon House in my photo show. It’s one of the first places I came to photograph [for the series]. I tried to place some zoo animals inside and I found some really great, odd monkeys, very bizarre looking. Somebody asked me, are those actually monkeys? I had to look them up online to make sure that yes, they are.

BS: How did you photograph the animals? Did you take those in person?

SY: First I shot my background, my environments [around New Orleans], so that I’d have these little images of the locations and then I’d go and try to capture the animals at the right angle and the right perspective. I went, as the Meters song goes, down to the Audubon Zoo. I paid my admission and went in with my great big Canon 5D camera, with a huge zoom lens, and I took photos for hours and hours.

BS: Were you like, “Hey Mr. Giraffe, can you move just a little bit to the left?”

SY: They’re really hard to direct. (laughs) They don’t take direction well. Sometimes I’d stand for hours at one stop just trying to get the photo. Most of the animals are from the Audubon Zoo, but I had to fill in a little bit—I kind of ran out of animals there. The snow leopard I shot at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. I was there for a couple hours because he would take this long roundabout walk through this jungly area and then for a moment he’d pass through [a space where I could photograph him]. I wanted this one snow leopard walking at a particular angle so that I could superimpose him on top of the graves in Lafayette No. 1 [cemetery]. I had to wait for him to take this full pass, which took about 20 or 30 minutes, and only for a minute would he be at that angle. It was tedious but it was a labor of love. I enjoyed it.

BS: One of the things I was struck by in looking at your work was the breadth of your experiences in the arts. You’ve studied ballet; you have a BFA in photography and design from Parsons School of Design; you played bass in White Zombie for upwards of 10 years; you published a book, I’m in the Band; and you’ve exhibited your photos in New York, Los Angeles, and beyond. Growing up, we’re taught to focus on one thing: You go to school to be a doctor, you graduate, and then you’re a doctor for the rest of your life. In that sense, what does being an artist mean to you? What do you make of this pressure that exists to focus on one thing?

SY: It's funny you mention that. It’s something I’ve battled with my whole life. I’m a little tortured by the fact that I don’t just pick one thing and do it to the most excellent point that I can. I’ve finally grown to accept that I love all of these different things and I have to keep doing all of them. I have to design, I have to take photos, I have to make music. I just keep bouncing back and forth. I figure by the time I’m 80 or 90 maybe I’ll have reached the pinnacle of all of these things. (laughs) It was definitely impressed upon me though by all the great teachers I’ve had since childhood that if I was going to become great I’d have to quit all the other things I was studying. Since the age of six, outside of school, I’ve been taking ballet, piano, violin classes, and I was always drawing. My piano teacher was like, You have to quit all of those. So, at the age of 12, she gave me a nervous breakdown and we had a big fight and I quit piano. I showed her! (laughs)

And then I just focused on ballet. I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts for ballet and that’s all I did for six solid years. In my last year of school, I broke my foot so I was forced to switch majors. My foot was in a cast for months. It was summer session right before my last year. I was already there and I was like, well, I’m interested in visual arts. So, I took visual arts for the summer and they offered me a scholarship to stay because I did really well in photography and design. Then I got a scholarship to Parsons and I was like, well, I’m on another new path now. It’s been crazy twists and turns in my life. While I was at Parsons, I started going to CBGB and punk shows and seeing the Cramps and the Ramones and all these cool bands and then I wanted to get back into music. So I just have to follow the path that seems like the best way to go at the moment.

Sean Yseult, Giraffes in St. Louis Cathedral, 2018. Limited-edition print. Courtesy the artist and Boyd | Satellite, New Orleans.

BS: I’m always looking for a way to intermarry all of my different creative pursuits. It seems like art is a study of humanism, and no matter the media, we’re talking about the same things: what it means to be a human. So it comes down to different techniques. But they’re not as divergent as we think they are.

SY: This show is actually doing that for me [bringing together all of my different interests], but I was against it. I told a lot of my friends, you know, the gallery wants wallpaper installations and they want my books there and they want to have my rock shots in the background. I always felt like I had to separate all of these worlds. It just seems too crazy, like they don’t match up. All of my friends down here and in New York were like, No, no, they all work together. It’s all you. You should accept it and embrace it. So I’m trying to do that for this show, since the gallery asked me for it.

BS: I’ve been listening to a lot of lectures by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, who speaks often about the art of mindful living. You seem like a person who’s lived a lot of good stories by being in the right place at the right time. You seem to understand how to follow the path, to follow your antenna, your intuition.

SY: I think back to my days in New York, when we started White Zombie, and we were still just living in basements filled with rats in the Lower East Side. At one point we got signed to Geffen Records. They weren’t giving us rockstar money or advances or anything and I realized, We need to move to L.A. None of us wanted to move to L.A.—I didn’t want to move to L.A.—but I said, “I think we need to move.” I got everybody on board and we packed up our van like the Beverly Hillbillies and drove across country. We got there and they gave us a little bit of money—$5000 for the four of us, for the whole year. So I was like, Okay, we’re gonna get this little apartment. We’re gonna cram in here. After we moved, our rep at Geffen in New York City left and went back to his other label. We would have been dropped if we hadn’t moved to L.A. and ingratiated ourselves with everyone in the office. That was an important instinct to follow. They didn’t know who the hell we were. I don’t think they really cared that much until we got in their face every day.

BS: These images for the show came to you in a dream. What do you see as being the significance of dreams?

SY: I have dreams I remember that I wrote down when I was six years old that directed me to make photo shows like this. You hear things, things pop up in your head, and it inspires me to be creative. A lot of times it’s a riff, so I write a song. But sometimes it’s an image. I really don’t know the significance of dreams. I enjoy them. I can still visualize ones going back decades to my childhood. They’re a part of my life as much as my real life. Some of them are terrifying, most of them are lovely, some of them are absurd, like these animals in odd places. Sometimes I feel the need to get them on paper, too. It’s inspiring for me that way. Sometimes normal life is not enough.

Sean Yseult, Penguin Party at the Camellia, 2018. Limited-edition print. Courtesy the artist and Boyd | Satellite, New Orleans.

BS: Your photos evoke a fantastical quality in that they’re a blend of unlikely elements: zoo animals and cathedrals, Camellia Grill, or City Park; plus the name “They All Axed for You,” which is a reference to the Meters with your own punk-rock play on words. How does that clash of old and new inform your celebration of New Orleans in its tricentennial?

SY: There are so many things I love about New Orleans. I love being in the Napoleon House. It takes you back a couple hundred years. I love the Sazerac Bar, with all the trophies. I loved photographing my favorite spots in New Orleans. I worked on the show for almost two years. When I finally finished it and friends were starting to see images, they said, Oh, these are kind of ominous, you know. They seem post-apocalyptic. There’s no people in them. I thought about it: If I take a photo anywhere in New Orleans, it has to be lost in time for me. That’s the essence of this city, the timelessness.

When I started photographing here, I had an old black-and-white Polaroid land camera, back when they were still making film. Every time I pulled a picture out, it looked like the 1890s, just gorgeous. I’d always make sure there were no cars, no other humans, in the shot. I kept making sure you could never date anything I did.

BS: New Orleans is almost kind of like a dream, you know.

SY: It is. I also notice there are the highlifes and the lowlifes here—the Sazerac Bar and the Saint. People mix it up. I’ll be in the Sazerac and there’ll be some fancy people in tuxedos at the Saint. It’s an interesting town in that regard.

BS: I didn’t realize until recently that you opened the Saint.

SY: Yes my husband and I—I married Chris Lee of [the band] Supagroup—we created the Saint in 2002. It was called the St. Mary’s Bar and we took it over and did our decorating and renovation and all kinds of stuff. We created a crazy late-night dive bar. We had a good time there. We actually sold it a few years back. We ran it for a number of years and had a good time with it. We also realized—we’re both creative people—that the bar was taking our lives over, stopping us from various projects. So we had to let it go.

BS: What prompted you to return to photography?

SY: I’ve always kept notebooks, even back in my White Zombie days and in college. I was putting so much time and energy into my photography and design work at Parsons and all of a sudden this band was also going on and we had gotten signed to a small label. So I wrote [in my notebook]: I really want to do photography and design but I can always do that when I’m older. I should do this band now. If I do it now, then later I can get back to photography and design. And that’s what I did! You can’t live on the road when you’re old. I mean, if you’re Mick and Keith and you’ve got a private plane, you can. (laughs)

BS: What other tricks do you have up your sleeve? Do you see your art evolving into something else down the road?

SY: I have about three or four more photo shows that I want to create. I’m also working on my design company. I used to just do scarves but now I’m doing pillows and wallpaper and things. I want to create more designs. I’m also going to work on this soundtrack-style record that’s just instrumental work that I’m doing.

BS: One last question: What are you doing later? Do you want to go to Audubon Zoo and liberate all the animals with me?

SY: Yes, you got dynamite to open the cages? Let’s go!

Editor's Note

Sean Yseult’s “They All Axed for You” is on view through October 30, 2018, at Boyd | Satellite (440 Julia Street) in New Orleans.