Destinations, Visual Arts

Know Your NOLA: Vibrant St. Claude Avenue is a piece of art, literally

Thoroughfare is going through an art revival, with murals popping up all along the avenue

I bicycle. So, from my house — just a couple of blocks from St. Claude Avenue, there’s really only one logical way to ride — and that’s toward the river. Within a block and a half, I pass a corner store. Its siding is painted a light green. Or, it’s supposed to be a light green.

It’s actually that color only a few mornings every month. Most times I pass by, I see one of two things. Either the side of the building is covered in graffiti, or the owner is standing on a ladder, painting over the graffiti with a new coat of light green.

Graffiti tagged on the side of St. Claude Avenue corner store. The latest volley in a long battle between the owner and taggers.

It’s a frustrating cycle for me to watch, so I can’t imagine how it must feel for that owner (or the guys tagging it with graffiti, for that matter). The owner comes out and applies a fresh coat of paint in the morning. Sometime, in the middle of the night, graffiti taggers leave their mark across the side of the building. The owner arrives the next morning — probably sighs — pulls out the ladder and applies a new coat of paint. Taggers come back at night. Owner comes back in the morning. Taggers. Owners. Taggers. Owners. Taggersownerstaggersowners … it’s unlikely to ever end.

But, as you head upriver on St. Claude Avenue, there’s a different kind of art populating the sides of buildings. Murals are popping up all over the Bywater and Marigny, and businesses are actually seeking them out!

Going to Miami

Back in 2016, I traveled to southern Florida for a stay in Everglades National Park. We obviously made a stop in Miami, and a memory that sticks with me is walking around Wynwood — a neighborhood north of downtown.

It was once an industrial district, that — like so many urban neighborhoods — fell into disrepair. But, in the 21st century, Wynwood has been able to revitalize itself in a way few other places have.

 

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The driving force behind this renaissance? Street art. Outdoor walls across the neighborhood’s art district are covered in beautiful, elaborate and colorful murals; and the city’s streets are full of people there to admire them. It was just a matter of time before restaurants, bars, shops, and housing followed.

“Street art is so democratic,” explained Neal Morris, founder of the NOLA Mural Project.

“Artists can create without interference.”

But murals are also democratic for the viewer.

“You don’t need to drop tons of money at a gallery to enjoy it,” Morris said. All you have to do is look up.”

A mural, sponsored by the NOLA Mural Project, on St. Claude Avenue, upriver of Elysian Fields Avenue.

And, while some look to Wynwood as an example of what St. Claude Avenue can be, Morris sees a major difference.

“The art there is great, but that’s a wealthy philanthropist saying, ‘Come put art on my walls,’” he said. “Here, it’s individual property and business owners letting artists transform their small slice of space.’”

Art that speaks to you

“Taggers tend to show respect for other artists,” explained Kate Erny Gaar, founder of The Art Garage, located on St. Claude Avenue, less than a block from Elysian Fields. On one of the garage’s doors is a massive and popular mural of Big Freedia.

Their neighbor, Beauty Plus, a beauty supply (and-sneaky-great-for-Mardi-Gras) store on the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields, was having a tagging problem of their own. They liked the mural on Gaar’s building and asked if she knew someone who might do something similar for them.

The Big Freedia mural is just one of many on The Art Garage.

Gaar contacted CeAux, an artist famous in New Orleans for mural work, as well as for contributing to Lil Wayne’s more than 300 tattoos. On a portion of the St. Claude side of the building, he painted the face of a black woman, with two gold teeth and a large 8th Ward earring.

And the mural served its purpose. Taggers spray-painted around CeAux’s work, but not on it.

There was just one problem.

“I found out the owner of the shop — and a lot of her customers — didn’t really love the mural,” Gaar said.

Gaar met with a group of 10 women, “and the feeling was unanimous. They felt the mural wasn’t representative of the wide range of women who shopped at the store.”

So, Gaar had an idea.

“What if we surround the building with murals?” Gaar asked.

The idea was that a diverse group of as many as 15 artists, armed with only the directive to create a piece focused on females, would come up with a diverse group of women-based art.

“Not everyone’s going to like or see themselves within every piece of art. But, if we surrounded the building with art, hopefully, every woman would find something that speaks to and about them.”

Another mural being painted on St. Claude Avenue.

A duck on a horse

I biked down St. Claude Avenue on one of those August days that make you want to move someplace like Antartica or, ugh, Boston. That’s when I saw Saul working on what I would later learn was his portion of the Beauty Plus shop mural. When he finished his segment, several months later, it would be Joan of Arc imagining some science fiction battle involving robots, ninjas, a sphere-holding duck on a horse and a giant red squid (possibly) in a business suit.

But, on that August afternoon, it was just Joan of Arc, Saul and a few other artists working on their segment of the wall.

Saul, in blue shirt, working on Joan of Arc, next to the building’s original mural by CeAux.

“That’s the really nice part of murals,” Saul said. “When you’re doing something more traditional in your studio, you’re all alone. Here you can be social,” he gestured toward two female painters further down on the wall, one on a ladder.

We watched as two women passersby stopped in front of CeAux’s mural. One took out her phone and handed it to her friend, before posing for a photo.

“That’s nice, too,” Saul said. “It’s nice to see other people enjoying your work. It makes you want to do more of it.”

Building a gateway

“I want this corner to feel like the gateway into your Bywater/Marigny art adventure,” Gaar said. “Like, if you came into the neighborhood for the St. Claude Second Saturdays art crawl, you’d have to start here.”

New Orleanians pass by several completed murals on the St. Claude side of the Beauty Plus store.

Though, at this point — and it’s a good problem to have — murals are expanding in both directions on the artistic-inclined avenue.

“We have more interested artists than walls to paint on at this point,” explained Morris. If you own a building in the city — or know of a building you think would benefit from a mural — click here to check out how you can help.

Morris said that while they are looking to add murals across the city, interest is definitely snowballing along St. Claude Avenue.

“It’s not surprising — the whole neighborhood is so wonderfully diverse,” he explained. “There’s a real tolerance of artistic freedom and an eagerness to see and accept art.”

The challenge — as is the case with so many neighborhoods-on-the-rise — is to keep the area affordable for, for example, those creating the art.

Large mural on St. Claude Avenue.

Gaar has had family living in the neighborhood for generations and said it’s this corridor that taught her to love street art in the first place.

“It’s always been here” she explained. “Long before Katrina. My uncle did a lot of the paintings inside Saturn Bar and I remember sitting outside the building one afternoon. I saw some cockroaches on the sidewalk, and I thought they were real, but then I realized they were painted there.”

She traced them with her eyes, and saw they were going toward a roach-sized entrance painted onto Saturn Bar advertising “The Cockroach Club.”

“It made me laugh so hard,” Gaar said. “Art in museums didn’t do that for me. It was so funny. It was so subtle. And, to enjoy it, all you had to do was sit on that corner with your eyes open.”

Muralists are still working on surrounding the Beauty Plus building with art, so stop by and see them create. Or take a stroll down vibrant St. Claude Avenue, pick a corner, open your eyes, and enjoy the art adventures that await you.

Several artists work on the lake-side of the Beauty Plus building at night.