Jessie Lukens:
Lady Adventurer

By Robert C. Adler and Henry H. Mitchell, February 1975.

Jessie Lukens

Jessica Dolores Rowdem Lukens has crowded many lifetimes into the one she has been living for the past forty-two years. Born near Fort Worth, Texas, the attitudes and life-style on a farm in the 1940's did not appeal to her, so at age eighteen she began an odyssey that has not yet ended.

Young Jessie won a beauty contest (Miss Press Photographer) and a round-trip ticket to Atlantic City. She sold the return half of the ticket and headed for New York, where she found work in the garment district as a model. She also entered the New York City Art Students League to study anatomy.

Shortly after that, she became a chorus girl and traveled to Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, where she danced in shows with Ben Blue, the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra, and a relatively unknown duo named Rowan and Martin. Her next stop was San Fransisco and two years working as a model.

Growing restless, she left for Cuba, where she met and married Don Rafael de Cardenes, who fathered her two sons, Rafael and Guido. When Castro came to power Jess, her two baby boys, and her husband fled to Puerto Rico. Five years later she found herself unmarried again, and returned with her two children to Texas.

After selling some property she went to New York and reentered the Art Students League, this time studying sculpture (winning a merit award). In New York she met and married “one of the highest paid directors of photography in New York,” Victor Lukens (of the Lukens steel family). Jessica recounts that he was also an ex-racecar driver and had cohabited with Steve McQueen's mother, helping to raise the young McQueen (sending him to acting school).

With Victor she first saw Paris on an expense account. “It was first class all the way.” Europe appealed to her. In 1966 she and the boys left the States and Victor, traveling through Spain and Italy. They eventually landed in Paris. France was to be Jessie's home for the next five years. She applied to and was accepted into Paris' prestigious École des Beaux Arts on her merits as a sculptress. She took a job as a substitute teacher at an exclusive private school, then taught herself to paint and worked for several years on the Place du Tertre, Paris' version of Jackson Square.

Eventually, for economic reasons, she sent her boys to their father in Puerto Rico and soon after left for the Canary Islands. After painting for two years in Las Palmas, she returned to the United States in 1973 and settled in New Orleans, where she was joined by her younger son Guido. She purchased a license and is now an artist on Jackson Square.

Community Standard: When you were a child did you dream of faraway places?

Jessie: Yes, very much so. I dreamed of no place in particular, but everyplace. I've always been interested in travel and I've always wanted to visit everyplace and do everything.

Community Standard: What was so wrong about Texas that you didn't want to stay there?

Jessie: What's wrong with anyplace? If you want to travel, you don't stay in one spot.

Community Standard: Did you ever want to settle down and be a housewife?

Jessie: I've already done that. I don't think that anyone who has had different experiences and gone to all different places on their own could even think about settling down. Settling down to me is just wherever I am for the time being.

Community Standard: Are you ever lonely?

Jessie: Not really.

Community Standard: Do you ever feel frustrated?

Jessie: Well, everybody feels frustrated, about what they're doing, what they're not doing, what they would like to do. I was once much more ambitious. I was really convinced that I was going to make my mark, especially as a sculptress. I had very high expectations as a painter also, but circumstances and different things sort of cooled some of that. I'm left a little bit happier, I would say, than someone who is consumed by a burning desire for something that is not possibly attainable. That kind of desire could only eat into your soul and make you continually unhappy. I think it's sort of a nice feeling, letting go of the high and mighty aspirations and just enjoying what you're doing when you're doing it. The thing is in the doing and not in the end result.

I've mellowed in that sense. I enjoy working in the sunshine, and if I sell something I'm very happy. I know that thousands of my paintings are hanging in people's homes and most of them are quite educated, intelligent people. I'm not talking about wealthy people, because that doesn't mean anything to me — just people with good taste.

Jessie Lukens

“I've always wanted to visit everyplace and do everything.”

Community Standard: What kind of sculpture do you do?

Jessie: Modern. I never tried to copy anyone but it would be called the Modigliani or the Brancusi style, in the feeling of elongation and elimination of unnecessary details. That appealed much more to me than all this frou-frou.

Community Standard: It's been several years since you have done any work in sculpture. Do you plan to return to it soon?

Jessie: I don't think it will be any time soon. I still have ambition; I still am very form-conscious. I still have ideas; I just haven't had the opportunity to execute them. If I ever am in the position where I can do what I want to do and have the funds to do it with, I definitely would return to sculpting … no question about that.

Community Standard: You were once married to a well-known filmmaker. Why have you been struggling to get by?

Jessie: My husband had gone bankrupt. He had started his own film company and small comapnies in New York don't last too long unless they have a lot of capital behind them.

Community Standard: When you were with Victor he became involved in the film Black Like Me. What was his role and how did you feel about that film?

Jessie: He was called in as camera man, or director of photography, whatever you want to call it. There had been lots of hassles with other camera men. The director wasn't really a director; he was an editor. The whole thing turned out to be a complete fiasco. Victor didn't want his name on the credits.

Community Standard: The primary locale in the blook Black Like Me was New Orleans. Was the movie filmed in New Orleans?

Jessie: It was filmed in Washington, D.C.

Community Standard: When you lived in Paris you worked for awhile as teacher. What did you teach?

Jessie: I conducted art classes. My children were in that school and the Shriver kids and many other kids of prominent families in France. My classes didn't start until two o'clock in the afternoon, so I was at the Beaux Arts all morning.

Community Standard: Sargent Shriver was the American ambassador to France at that time. What were the Shriver children like?

Jessie: Like any other kids. I didn't even single them out. I wasn't even aware that they were the Shriver children until the kids told me they were. To me they were just like any other kids in the class. On the whole, they were just a bunch of spoiled brats. They didn't impress me at all. I was just conducting a class.

Community Standard: You worked for several years on the Place du Tertre, an area in Paris where artists exhibit their work. What was it like working there?

Jessie: I would have to get up to the Place at four-thirty, five in the morning. During the Easter season I would get there at three-thirty when people were still dancing in the cafés and at four there were no more spaces. Here [Jackson Square], of course, people draw for spots.

With the flics [police], if you weren't right by your easel with your work, they could pack your stuff off to the police station and you'd have to spend a maximum of ten hours to get your stuff back.

Community Standard: Do you feel the artists on Jackson Square are friendlier than the artists on the Place du Tertre?

Jessie: After being through the hassles of Paris and the hostilities toward Americans, I have found that Americans are very friendly. Of course, everyone can get into little family squabbles, but, on the whole, I find everyone is very nice.

Community Standard: What style of painting do you have?

Jessie: I would call it unsophisticated, naive, primitive.

Community Standard: Would you say you paint for the public or for yourself?

Jessie: First of all I have to paint for myself because I can't paint something I don't like. I can see a scene or something I find a nice composition in, that I still think might be commercial enough that I could sell; I am working for a living as a painter. I do paint for myself, because I don't know how to do something I don't like.

Jessie Lukens

Jessie's son Guido … “I'm happy that he's into music.”

Community Standard: Recently your seventeen-year-old son Guido has joined you here in New Orleans after a separation of several years. Do you feel that you have lost something during that absence?

Jessie: No, but it has been sort of a difficult adjustment after so many years of being alone on my own. You become accustomed to being on your own. Of course, you think about people that you love, but the immediate thing is what is happening with you at the moment. It is a readjustment period. I would think it would be for everyone.

Community Standard: Are there things about him of which you disapprove?

Jessie: Naturally, but there are many things I'm very happy about. I'm happy that he's into music, art, and into reading. You have to equate the small things that you don't approve of with the things that are really important… Nobody's perfect.

Community Standard: Is there anything in your life you wish you could change?

Jessie: I really don't know. There are a lot of stupid things I did in my life, but everything you do leads to something else. You just have to go along with whatever has passed and take it from there. You can say, “I should have done this, I should have done that.” It's done, now take it from there. You either learn a lesson or you don't.

Community Standard: Do you still dream of faraway places?

Jessie: I dream of faraway places when I'm ready to go someplace.