By Leslie D. Rose
Shortly after the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival last year, visual artist Brandon “B Mike” Odums was inspired with a can of spray paint and the canvas of the downtrodden, abandoned Florida public housing complex in the 9th Ward neighborhood of the Crescent City.
A few months later, LSU student and New Orleans native, Patrick Melon was introduced to Odums’ project, which by then had been given the name #ProjectBe. An artistic photographer, Melon began filming the work and interviewing the visual artists involved for a story that is now a 30-minute documentary called “Strong Light.” The film first screened at the Tulane University Black Arts Fest in February, but on March 30, Baton Rouge will have the opportunity to see #ProjectBe unfold through the eyes of Melon, at the Live in the Sky event being held at the Shaw Center for the Arts.
#ProjectBe started with Odums creating energetic spray paintings of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Frederick Douglas. Soon after he began sneaking into the dilapidated buildings, other visual artists and spectators joined him. The rise in popularity caught media attention, which inadvertently tipped off the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). HANO boarded up the buildings – which had been left untouched since the Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – closing away the graffiti from the public. Plans to demolish the structures – artwork in tow – are in the near future.
Art is very important to Melon, who said that he considers himself lucky to have been involved with #ProjectBe. Aside from the paintings remaining on the outside of the buildings, his “Strong Light” documentary is the only window left to this renegade art experiment.
“The space had been untouched since [Hurricane] Katrina and all these artists who eventually started gathering around just wanted to create something out of what was there, which was just a whole lot of emptiness,” Melon said. “There was a lot of paint; there was a lot of music and there was a lot of laughter – and to me, it was just something that needed to be done.”
Melon said there was such a contrast with all of the paint involved and people walking over the leftover glass from broken windows. The buildings had seen better days, but according to #ProjectBe supporters via the Instagram hashtag, the art experiment was among the best days for the abandoned housing complex. Melon recalled many spectators and artists from all walks of life gravitating to the project.
While Melon said he is unsure of what really made Odums decide to risk his safety to create work that he always knew wouldn’t last, he said he is sure of #ProjectBe’s importance to the city of New Orleans. To him, it’s finding ways to reach people who may never take the time to view and experience art, specifically the young, urban male, which is the population that both he and Odums represent.
Drawing from results found in New Orleans and in northern New Jersey, where he is studying in an exchange program this semester, Melon said he hopes urban art appreciation will begin spilling over into the Capital City. He has already started that process with an event called “Art Has a Home.”
Beginning last year as a free-for-all evening art showcase at his apartment, “Art Has a Home” was extremely successful this winter as a day event yielding about 400 patrons at the Old Bible Bookstore in Baton Rouge.
“At the last ‘Art Has a Home’, a man, who had be like 22-years-old, came up to me and said that was the first time he’s ever gone to an art show in his whole life – that’s what this is all about – reaching out and passing on these experiences,” Melon said.
At the second installment, Odums was present doing live paintings and over thirty visual artists displayed work. There was also a segment with performances by local emcees including Luke St. John.
A third installment of “Art Has a Home” is upcoming and a portion of the proceeds from the screening event will go towards the fundraising to make the art show an all day event. Melon said it will likely also include performance art. Through this event series, he said that he’s figured out the secret to making everyone want to experience art.
“What I learned is that inclusion is the most important thing,” Melon said. “I’ve been to art shows where everything is hand-selected and you can’t expect a big turnout when you hand-select a certain amount of people.”