Simon Hardeveld isn’t going to fix what isn’t broken.
The artist whose instantly recognizable signs crop up with as much regularity as mushrooms across the New Orleans landscape assured me as much while we toured his colorfully cluttered workspace and store on Jackson Avenue. A Simon painting in 2018, with its drooping, white letters, pops of color and hand-painted frame, is going to be the same as one could have purchased from the famed Frenchman in the ’90s.
“I’ve always had a certain style since the first painting I did. I haven’t changed. 25 years, I haven’t changed,” he said, gesturing to the paintings that surround him in his workspace behind an antiques shop. “My first painting looked like this.”
Continuity and stability typically looks boring. The mental image of unchanging steadfastness is gray suits, sedans and inoffensive architecture. But we live in a city where the oldest parts of town are also the most colorful and Simon has been reflecting that with unwavering dedication for two decades. When asked about what inspired the folk art style that’s stood the test of time, he didn’t hesitate.
“New Orleans,” he said. “You come to New Orleans and look on like a grocery store, po-boy, cigarettes, cold beer and signs like this. And I thought ‘Oh, I could do this as a thing.'”
While the city is more than down to preserve a tradition or two, any outsider knows that it takes a bit of time before New Orleans will accept them. So it went with Simon, who spent five years working at his signs before he was able to do it steadily as his only profession.
“It was not overnight,” he said, laughing. “Slowly, slowly people commission me for signs. For a wedding or a baby’s name. And then one wedding, people see the sign of the wedding, their friend’s commission another one. Bing, bing, bing.”
Eventually, he was able to open a small shop on Magazine St. At that point, word got out. He opened his shop with a few of his signs featuring phrases like “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” and “Laissez les bon temps rouler.”
“I’ll tell you a story. 3 days after [I opened], we had no more paintings,” he said. “Everything was sold. So I called my wife and I said ‘Bring me some chairs we can sell’ and we started our antiques shop like this.”
That scrambled-together shop has since moved to a spot near the intersection of Magazine St. and Jackson Ave, where there’s a much more purposeful delineation between the old-world antiques inside the building and Simon’s vibrant workshop behind it. Simon took the space out back because he enjoys working outdoors, swigging from a Heineken as he keeps his own self-made traditions alive.
Simon said that he’s built up three generations of fans of his art, with entire families frequently returning to him to get their fix of local folk art.
“People who were at Tulane in 1994 when I started, now they bring their kids,” he said, showing off racks of albums where he keeps photographic evidence of the pieces he’s been commissioned to make over the years.
“People who had my paintings 15 years ago can recognize my new stuff as soon as they see it,” he said, pointing out the way that Simon’s signs have been a constant in a shifting city, keeping him busy with work decades after he made his first sign. “I don’t have time to change.”