By Marta Jewson
Teenage arts organizations from New Orleans and New York recently worked with Central City residents to create a mural they hope will have a positive impact on the neighborhood. Five young women from the Lower Eastside Girls Club in New York City came to New Orleans to collaborate with Young Aspirations|Young Artists (YA/YA), the local non-profit arts training organization, to paint a mural with an anti-violence message.
They painted two panels posted at the corner of South Saratoga and Seventh streets. The brightly colored paintings depict the downtown skyline, a diverse group of people, green space and a hopscotch path. The words “get involved” are painted over the skyline.
LEGC director Lyn Pentecost approached YA/YA with the idea for the mural and YA/YA’s Artspeaks program coordinator Tamar Toledano reached out to local organizations and residents. Over the past four years a handful of YA/YA students have gone to New York, and some LEGC members have traveled to New Orleans. Pentecost says YA/YA has always been a model for LEGC, especially its focus on entrepreneurial skills.
Pentecost says the girls on this trip have completed the club’s “course in caring,” which entails monthly community service activities. “The final project would be caring for people living in another town,” Pentecost told the girls. “That’s why we’re here, because we care.”
Nova Bajomonti has been in the girls club for a year. The young artist jumped on the chance to visit New Orleans.
“I love [Girls Club] because they have provided me with many opportunities, like community service, jobs, and gaining a better perspective on the arts,” she says. She adds that she is more involved in her community because of these opportunities. Regarding her trip to New Orleans, she says she loves the city and especially “the buildings, because they are so bright and colorful.”
Toledano worked with the Faubourg Delachaise Neighborhood Association to find a location and create a forum to hear resident’s ideas about addressing the problem of violence. Senior YA/YA guild artist Monica Tyran designed the mural with the community’s ideas in mind. Tyran began working with YA/YA in 2004 as a youth artist and is now a program coordinator.
“Before YA/YA even began drafting the mural they came to the neighborhood for a list of suggestions and ideas that residents wanted reflected in an anti-violence mural,” says Leah Varsano, community organizer for the Faubourg Delachaise Neighborhood Association. She adds that the residents got the chance to comment on each stage of the drafting process as well.
“Something was missing,” says resident Deanna Rudison. “I said, why not put ‘Get involved,’ so we can get all the residents in the neighborhood to step up to the plate and get involved with the neighborhood.”
So the young artists incorporated her suggestion. The words “Get involved” are painted on the mural above a road that passes under the downtown skyline.
The two murals hang on a five-foot-high chain-link fence surrounding an overgrown block. The block used to house an incinerator. It’s been more than 30 years since the block was occupied, Rudison says. She adds that the neighborhood association is working with the city to obtain the land order to build a community center.
Rudison envisions a center where the local Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs can bring their suits and teach children the technical and creative skills that are involved in making the outfits. She hopes the new mural will encourage other local young artists to expand upon it and possibly wrap the entire block in art.
Both YA/YA and the Lower Eastside Girls Club are designed to empower young people by providing educational experiences and developing entrepreneurial skills. YA/YA was founded by Jana Napoli in 1988 when the New Orleans artist invited a group of students to work on an art project with her. She saw the students needed an outlet for their energy. Through art, she gave them an opportunity not only to channel their energy, but to become empowered in their community by selling their work.
The Lower Eastside Girls Club was created with a similar purpose. It was founded in 1996 to address the historic lack of services available to girls on the Lower East Side, where the Boys Club had remained a “boys only” organization even after the majority of boys and girls clubs had merged in the U.S.
In Central City, retired New Orleans Police Officer Carlton Lawless stopped by while students were painting. He told the young women he would like to see the Superdome in the skyline of the mural. They handed him a brush and he painted alongside the students who were putting the finishing touches on the mural.
Members of the two-year-old Faubourg Delachaise Neighborhood Association are optimistic about continuing to improve their neighborhood. Rudison hopes more residents will become inspired and involved.
“I feel this has been a really ethical project, a project driven with a conscious,” said Varsano. “It’s not only that they’re here, but the way they’ve come here and the way they’ve approached this project that has just been really incredible.”