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Steve Rucker's Studio

Art, Mud and Rock 'n' Roll by Angus Lind

It's late afternoon or early evening at Southport Hall and the crowd outside on the sun- drenched deck not far from the Mississippi River levee is taking in some Southern rock which means the Mudpies are in the house.

"When Mudpies are in the house, we bring the house," said lead singer and group leader Steve Rucker, pointing to a small whimsical ceramic house decorated with music notes and affixed to a stand by a steel rod. Not far away, on the top of a table is a colorful ceramic slice of pie similarly displayed.

The Mudpies, a motley crew, belt out mostly original songs named "Blackjackie Sue" (about gambling returning to New Orleans), "Picasso Clyde", "Redstick Blues", "Accept the Call", "Southern Rain", "Trucker Fear" and "Not a Perfect Man", the latter a tune, Rucker tells his audience, men can relate to: "It's time you understand/ I played my very best hand/ I'd do it all over again/ If I think I can/ I'm not a perfect man."

The 45-year-old native of Cleveland, Tenn., with a bandanna attempting to control his long locks on this day, is a ceramics professor at Loyola University, not far from completing two decades of teaching sculpture at the Uptown institution. The ceramic pie and house are creations from his Bohemian studio, which is located where Carrollton Avenue meets River Road, above Cooter Brown's, another famed New Orleans watering hole.

Hmmm. Artist lives over bar, plays music in bar. There's a message here somewhere.

Rucker's interpretations of society and whatever else - many of which adorn the walls and ceilings of Southport Hall - coupled with his music, humor and lifestyle are yet more proof that New Orleans continues to be a never-ending mother lode of unconventional characters. And this complex character has had art shows and exhibitions everywhere from the Contemporary Arts Center to the Arthur Roger Gallery in New York City.

But on this day we're talking music."The Mudpies are somewhat of a dream of mine", Rucker said over a Bud Dry between sets. "Art was my gift - I was drawing from day one but I always kept a guitar, I learn three chords and listened to the country station. My dad didn't think too much of my long hair but I wasn't a draft dodger. I always wrote stuff and sometime back in the '80s, I sat down and wrote myself a song."

He discovered that "a)it was fun and b) it wasn't that hard." He met lead guitarist Charlie Reagin about 10 or so years ago at a picnic and Reagin encouraged him to get a group going.

So they did. There have been different Mudpies configurations. The current lineup includes, in addition to Rucker and Reagin, the wonderfully named second lead guitarist, Skeet Stiller. Then on the bass and slide guitar is Jason Scott and on drums, Greg Surry.

The group's name, Mudpies, isn't exactly a mystery when the leader is a guy who plays with clay. "It comes from me being in ceramics and us rehearsing in my studio above Cooter's," Rucker said. As good as they sound and as much as they like to get it on, "we all have day jobs," he joked.

There are some interesting small-world ironies involved. Rucker rents his studio from the owner of Cooter Brown's, Larry Berestitzky. Bud Whalen, the owner of Southport Hall, and Berestitzky are longtime friends who both went to Southern Illinois (the Fightin' Salukis) University together, came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras one year long ago, and never left.

And now Rucker's art produced in the studio over Cooter's, graces the walls and ceilings of Southport Hall, which was once a gambling hall named New Southport. Located barely on the Jefferson Parish side of the Orleans-Jefferson line, it is right past the railroad tracks at the end of Oak Street on Monticello Avenue.

A finely restored barroom greets the customer after he leaves the deck. And lurking behind the barroom, where the illegal gambling once was ignored by law officers, is a mammoth rental reception and party hall with a stage for a band. On its walls, aside from gambling paraphernalia from the past, there are paintings - "gestural abstractions of my daily and weekly existence," said Rucker in his finest artspeak.

And outside, hanging from a partial roof over the deck are some interesting creations "taken out of context" from a show of his called "Hot House," which featured 49 upside-down terra cotta flower pots. The "plants" hanging at Southport have steel rods for stems with "blossoms" in the shape of dollar bills, red hot chili peppers, guns, Tylenol and mirrors.

Let's just say it keeps the crowd speculating about the artist and artists in general. With artists, like songwriters and for that matter columnists, you never know from what part of left field something is going to come.

Which is right up Rucker's alley. "Here's one called 'My TV,' " he said, introducing the song. "I was sitting around looking at my little TV and its little rabbit ears and thinking about the people who have 5,000 channels and apparently the time to watch 'em all."

In the '80s, Rucker was known for torching his artwork. "I would build things and set 'em on fire - not everything, of course. It's like my take on fire - fire can fire ceramics but it can also be a work of art." So he got a bunch of permits and burned, in public, things he had created. He hasn't burned any artwork in a while, but in the not-too-distant future, he's going to have one of his burns -of a rather large ceramic house on poles- in Oxford, Miss., in honor of Southern author Larry Brown.

And in his other life, the Mudpies leader is getting ready for a new CD. It's going to be named "By the Slice." Which is a good thing. The whole pie "might be overwhelming.

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