Art Museums, Causes/Activism, Destinations, Mixed Media Art, New Orleanians

Powerful, political, on purpose: A Q&A with New Orleans artist Lionel Milton

Clarity, purpose, utilizing gifts drive Milton’s constant desire to create

If you live in New Orleans, you’ve seen Lionel Milton’s work. His moving and powerful art graces many a wall and canvas around the city, as well as vans for the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, the Uber headquarters, New Orleans Ice Cream Company containers, recreational centers, skate parks, concert posters and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

He is a man with clarity and purpose. His recent murals, “Empathy Loves Company” and “We Are One,” capture the pain and spirit of Black men tragically and senselessly slain. He is a man fueled by music, passion, slow-cooked food and a constant desire to create. 

Your art is arresting and distinctive. What’s your technique?

“Brushes and spray cans. Whatever materials I can find, whatever physical way I can make my art– that’s pretty much what I do. I just draw and paint, basically. No plan B. This is it. This is all I’ve ever done.” 

Were you always good at it?

“You kidding? I fail a lot, at all parts of art. I remember when I couldn’t draw hands. I remember when I couldn’t get colors. Taking the ideas that are in my mind and putting them on paper or canvas– it’s been a big challenge. All of it.” 

Used with courtesy of Lionel Milton
Used with courtesy of Lionel Milton

It seems like, every time I check in with you, you’re painting.

“What else would I be doing? I’m not a basketball player. I’m not a musician. I’m an artist. I’m drawing. I’m painting. After I eat, after I do the regular human shit, I go back to my passion, which happens to be my living. There’s 24 hours to the day. I use them wisely.”

Who do you admire, in your field?

Mode 2, he’s the best. Everything he does, his human form, his style, all of it. His whole creative career. It’s amazing.”

Used with courtesy of Lionel Milton
Used with courtesy of Lionel Milton

Do you think he ever felt like he didn’t know what he was doing?

“I don’t know the guy. I won’t speak for him but, with artwork, you’re not gonna make every shot. Any artist who said he didn’t f*** up is a liar. I keep working on my shots, my jumps, my layups, I don’t miss my free throws. I practice all the time. I have a signature style and people support that part of what I do, [but] I treat my first like my last, so I think that’s why I stay sharp at what I do. I just practice hard. I don’t cheat my gifts. I work. I create all the time. I’m always making something.” 

Your murals in front of Maison and Dragon’s Den, they’re powerful and political. Did the venues know what you were going to paint when they gave you the forum to do so?

“Jeff [Bromberger, the owner of Maison] called me up and asked me to do something there and I said, ‘As long as I can paint whatever I want,’ and that was the discussion. We’ve been friends for 25, 30 years now. There’s respect there. I showed up. He helped me prime the wall. I already had the concept of what I wanted to do. I watch the news. I follow World Star. I knew what was going on before it was everywhere. George Floyd, that hit me hard. We’re the same age. Corona. It was all there. I’m African American, so there’s danger whether you have the mask on or the mask off, it don’t matter.”

Photo by Sabrina Stone
Photo by Sabrina Stone

Monuments are being torn down everywhere, what do you think should be put in their place?

“I really don’t care. That’s the history of what happened. They can tear down Robert E. Lee and put up Bruce Lee. I like him. That’s aesthetics. You can have your opinion and keep it. We’ve got bigger, pressing issues.” 

I am very aware that the issues run far deeper and that tearing down statues is barely scraping at the surface, but these monuments were placed in highly public, easily accessible areas, so that they’d be visited, photographed, shared. What kind of art, given the same exposure, do you think would make a positive statement? 

“Can art help change stuff? Absolutely. Can art make a difference? Absolutely. I don’t think these are the same conversations but, alright, what would I like to see in these public places? Something organic and New Orleansy, something that is visually stimulating and positive and incorporates music. Something kinetic, colorful, with a musical component.” 

Photo by Sabrina Stone
Photo by Sabrina Stone

If you could put together a dream team think tank to create this multimedia piece, who would be in it?

“Good question. A team. They gotta be local? Alive?”

How about from Louisiana, dead or alive.

“Mannie Fresh, me and him work well together. He’d be my first pick. Then Jessie Hill, Buddy Bolden, Professor Longhair…”

That list of musicians came out fast. I take it you’re proud of your hometown.

“F*** yeah. Louisiana bred, NOLA boy here. There’s no other place. How could I live anywhere else? New Orleans is the last frontier of humanity. Straight up.” 

Photo used with courtesy from Lionel Milton
Photo used with courtesy from Lionel Milton

What do you like to listen to while you’re working?

“I listen to Lil Wayne a lot while I paint, a lot of Coltrane, I listen to shit tons of music while I paint. It’s ridiculous, the amount of music I listen to, from all worlds. Always discovering, and I still listen to the music I loved when I was growing up. I played music all day yesterday. I played a DJ set. I’ve got two turntables and a mixer system in my house. It’s a part of it. Honestly, I work hard but you gotta have soul, baby. [These days,] a lot of people are getting credit for a lot of work that’s soulless. A lot of red beans being cooked out there with no seasoning in it. Beaucoup rice. No seasoning. Who am I to tell them not to enjoy it if that’s their thing? If they dig it, cool but I’m in the corner eating good ass beans that I’ve cooked. That’s what I’m rocking.” 

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