The largest art gallery in Baton Rouge charges no admission.
The paintings — and there are dozens of them — are splashed across downtown buildings, northside grocery stores and the facades of run-down houses.
Some of these artworks depict iconic personalities like Gov. Huey P. Long in his crisp linen suit, while others capture Mississippi Delta blues musicians or a child curled up in a stand of trees. Still others are whimsical, brightly colored shapes or surrealist visions.
All are bold statements; some downright stop-you-in-your tracks incredible.
“I think people will come to the city to see that,” said Jacob Zumo, a Baton Rouge artist hired by the Fletcher & Roy law firm to paint a mural of basketball great “Pistol” Pete Maravich, jazz legend Louis Armstrong and Gov. Long on the firm’s Government Street office. “It’s awesome. It’s just something people can come to the city and see, landmarks coming up.”
The murals provide a cultural connection to a “vast segment of the population” that “has little if any exposure to art on a daily basis,” said Casey Phillips, executive director of the Walls Project, one of three nonprofit organizations responsible for the surge in public art.
Baton Rouge’s blank walls have attracted mural artists from Europe and New York as well as local artists and teens interested in developing their talents.
“Communities are coming together around the art to contribute to the re-imagining of their city artistically and socially,” Phillips said. “World-class artists are painting alongside children from local neighborhoods and inspiring future generations of artists.”
The mural scene jump-started in 2011 and ’12, when both the Walls Project and the Old South Baton Rouge-based Museum of Public Art both started hiring artists to paint the city.
“Cinq Ombres,” the Walls Project’s first mural produced in 2012, is a grid of colorful squares and parallelograms on Florida Boulevard downtown. Painted by local artists Saliha Staib and Clark Derbes, the Walls Project funded the mural through a Kickstarter campaign, with hundreds of donors contributing more than $30,000.
The Walls’ murals now number 29, and the group has started offering walking and biking tours of its sites.
Outside of downtown, art projects funded by the Museum of Public Art cover old houses and dilapidated concrete and cinder-block walls.
They are eye-catching, vibrant images created by artists from France and Australia. In one, two young boys in tank tops and backward caps string up laundry on a clothes line — a visual like something from an award-winning children’s book. On a large brick building covered with murals, a surrealist party scene plays out. On an old wood-frame shotgun house, a man holds up a match, its flame seeming to set fire to the porch roof.
Kevin Harris, the director of the Museum of Public Art, declined to be interviewed by The Advocate. The museum’s website says: “We believe that Public Art is a force for positive community development in ways conscious and unconscious. How the message is conveyed through imagery, text, and symbolism, effects the soul of the community … instilling a sense of hope, and history, through creative expression which unfortunately in many inner city communities, is stymied and stifled. …
“The inspiration for Public Art comes from the street corner, the barber shop, the basketball court … wherever people are. We are in touch and in tune with the community and strive to create imagery that is relevant to the needs and lives of the people whom we serve with art.”
Community activist Evelyn Ware-Jackson said Harris inspired her to create The Red Stick Project, a series of murals transforming the Melrose East neighborhood nicknamed “Mall City.”
North of Bon Carré, the former Bon Marche Mall, near the intersection of Florida Boulevard and Lobdell Avenue, many of the neighborhood’s streets bear the names of artists — Van Gogh, Titian, Rodin and Cezanne.
“People have lived there for years and never realized they are artists, the most famous artists in history,” Ware-Jackson said.
With local artists and talented students, Ware-Jackson’s project has decorated Melrose East with murals that invoke the paintings of those masters of the art world.
Since 2013 the project has produced 24 murals, including a painting of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields” on the side of a grocery store. Their rendering of Italian painter Titian’s clouds on a laundromat include portraits of neighborhood children who helped create some of the artwork.
“The main thing we wanted to do was mentor young artists,” Ware-Jackson said, “have older artists mentor the younger artists and teach them things about the art and speak some other things into their lives as they were painting.”
Ware-Jackson hopes that the murals help Melrose East dispel its reputation as a high-crime area.
“It’s a calming effect,” she said. “It brings a lot of peace and calm and, of course, the beauty of it is awesome.”