A native New Orleanian, Viola Johnson Blunt worked for years as an administrator in New Orleans public schools. Although she retired after 35 years in the job, she returned to the workforce in 2008 and joined Ashé Cultural Arts Center, a local nonprofit visual and performing arts space, as a communications specialist.
Returning to work might seem surprising. But, says Blunt, working at Ashé Cultural Arts doesn’t feel like work at all. “It’s a place where work is sometimes the equivalent of play,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot about my culture while working at Ashé; I am exposed to people and information that make working there worthwhile. At Ashé, culture is called ‘the other Vitamin C,’” she says.
And maybe that’s why you always see her smiling and happy. Working for a cultural institution with hard-working, fun-loving staff keeps Blunt full of vitality. She credits executive director and cultural bearer, Carol BeBelle, with creating a vision and opportunity for her.
‘At Ashé, culture is called ‘the other Vitamin C.’ ‘ — Viola Johnson Blunt
“There’s never a dull moment at Ashé,” she says.
Blunt’s two sons, seven grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren mean there’s probably never a dull moment at home, either, but Blunt says she still finds time to enjoy the city she loves (while also making a difference). Read on for Blunt’s favorite things to and see in her native city.
20 Questions with Viola T. Johnson Blunt
1. Who is your favorite New Orleanian, dead or alive, real or imagined?
Chef Leah Chase. Although I have many favorite New Orleanians, this lady stays at the top of the list. Her ability to become a self-made giant in the food and restaurant industry is inspiring. She continues to cook in her thriving business, travel to promote her restaurant, and stir up a mean pot of gumbo. All that, and she’s down-right folksy.
2. What first brought you to New Orleans?
[I was born here.]
3. In your opinion, what’s the best neighborhood in New Orleans?
Gentilly. It’s an area that still functions as a neighborhood, one where folks still wave, speak, and hold sidewalk conversations. Gentilly is far reaching, so you can find almost everything within its boundaries — good schools and universities, historic Pontchartrain Park, a brand-new golf course, Gentilly Fest, grocery stores, good restaurants, and adequate public transportation. Many people were happy to return to the neighborhood and rebuild post-Katrina. As you drive through the Gentilly, you can see its charm in the architecture and landscape.
4. If it’s a beautiful day, where are you going to spend it?
The French Quarter.
5. Describe the best meal you’ve eaten in New Orleans.
That would be the seafood platter at Brigtsen’s in the Riverbend. It’s a delicious plate of uniquely prepared fish, oysters, and shrimp — some grilled, some baked — with sauces and flavors that surprise your taste buds in a wonderful way.
6. Where’s your favorite brunch spot?
Sha’Jollies in New Orleans East, where they serve food that reminds you of your mama’s cooking. The buffet is a spread of home-style Sunday-after-church food, with everything from gumbo to baked macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, something green, fish, dessert, and more. And to top off all of that, a combo performs during brunch. The music is so good that it’s not uncommon to see patrons get up and dance.
7. What is your favorite type of po-boy? Where do you get it?
My favorite po-boy is shrimp; I usually get it at Neyow’s.
8. You’ve got friends visiting, and it’s their first time in New Orleans—where are you taking them?
To kick off the afternoon, they’ll have to try the chargrilled oysters at Neyow’s. Afterward, I’ll take them to Ashé Cultural Arts Center to shop for clothing, jewelry, music, or souvenirs. There’s always something exciting happening at Ashé, so perhaps we’ll stick around, or return, for a play or a concert. Then we’ll absolutely make a visit to the French Quarter.
9. What’s your favorite neighborhood bar?
A bar, hmmm. I’ll have to say Bertha’s Place in Treme. It fits the song, The Smaller the Club, The Bigger the Party. It’s a small, but comfortable down-home party place. You’ll run into friends, family, business owners, local politicians and musicians. The music is old-school with some top-40 tunes thrown in now and then. If you like to dance, and I do, it’s certainly a place that might be of interest. Plus, the kitchen in Bertha’s is always rolling out good food.
‘Would you believe it if I told you I fall in love with [New Orleans] every day? Well, that’s true.’ — Viola Johnson Blunt
10. What is your favorite New Orleans cocktail, and where do you go to get it?
The mint julep from Pat O’Brien’s.
11. What’s your favorite dessert or sweet treat in the city?
Hands-down, I love the white chocolate bread pudding at Palace Café.
12. Best spot to see live music?
Anywhere on Frenchmen Street.
13. Favorite New Orleans musician or band?
Bamboula 2000, led by master drummer Luther Gray.
14. Favorite New Orleans festival?
15. What’s your ideal New Orleans date night?
Date nights for my husband and I are on Fridays. It’s structured — yes, I said structured. We alternate weeks where he chooses one week, and I the next, we keep it interesting by rotating places.
My ideal date night starts with the anticipation of a restaurant neither of us has ever tried. After dinner, we’ll go to see live music, attend a play or catch a movie we’ve both wanted to see. Afterward, it’s home to Remy, our cocker spaniel, a glass of wine, cards or TV, and cuddling. But actually, every date night is ideal because we get to spend quality time together.
16. What are your favorite local shops?
Diaspora Boutique at Ashé and Prima Donna’s Closet.
17. What is your favorite New Orleans museum?
18. Where do you go to watch the Saints play?
Usually at my husband’s best friend’s house.
19. Describe New Orleans in one word.
20. When was the last time you fell in love with New Orleans, and why?
Would you believe it if I told you I fall in love with her every day? Well, that’s true. It’s a place I love to wake up to. New Orleans is taken for granted by many locals. But I fell particularly hard in 2005. Although I knew that I loved my city, it was more apparent when I watched its neighborhoods get buried underwater. Folks in Connecticut, where I evacuated to, couldn’t understand why I wanted to return. It’s the caressing of the breeze coming off the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain, the call of the trumpet beckoning me to second line, the sounds of neighbors coming and going.
It’s the only place I’ve ever been where folks always greet each other, every time they see each other. No place else comes close in matching that inbred hospitality. New Orleans is a city where we shout “Who Dat say” no matter how well, or how bad, the Saints are doing. New Orleans is my home. And although there have been lots of changes over the past ten years, I still hold dear the memories of how it used to be while I explore and discover the new. I show her off. I talk about her. After all, for those of us who were born here and continue to live here, we are New Orleans.