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'A Vessel for Community Building:' Youth Mural Project Comes to East New Orleans Regional Library
For the past few weeks, 17-year-old Aliyah has spent almost every afternoon at East New Orleans Regional Library doing what she loves most: painting. But Aliyah isn’t working on just any piece. She and local artist and educator Journey Allen are chipping away at a large and vibrant mural that takes up most of the Read Boulevard wall of the Library.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to do something like this.”
The mural is one of four being installed in and around Joe Brown Park by youth artists and professional mentors. The project is part of an ongoing initiative to expand public art in New Orleans East, funded by a partnership between Arts New Orleans and the New Orleans Business Alliance.
Greg Lawson, senior VP of strategic neighborhood development for the New Orleans Business Alliance, said the project addresses economic concerns through art by shifting perspectives and creating a sense of place along the neighborhood’s once-thriving commercial corridors.
“Arts and culture play a powerful role in creating community change. The youth-driven art murals project in New Orleans East not only beautifies key community assets and spurs economic development activities, but also demonstrates the power of collaboration and partnership,” he said.
Aliyah is a student at Morris Jeff Community High School and said she’s honored to be a part of the project. She said art has the potential to uplift a community and she hopes her mural will show people there is positivity everywhere.
“You just have to embrace it, and put your own positivity back out in the world,” Aliyah said. “I hope [the mural] shows people that it’s not all bad out here.”
Beautification was targeted as a priority by neighborhood business and community groups, including the New Orleans East Matters Coalition, which is headed by Tangee Wall.
“The mural project has a tremendous beautification impact in the New Orleans East community,” Wall said. “The meaningful art has a beauty of its own, in expressions of the cultural diversity of not only our community, but also representative of the cultural heritage of the city of New Orleans.”
The concept for the Library’s mural was a collaboration between Allen’s signature style and Aliyah’s original design idea.
“The idea behind it is to depict what reading can do for young people. How it can inspire them to learn more about the culture and be culture bearers themselves,” Allen explained. “When it’s done, it’s going to have three children reading books. And from the books, there will be all these various aspects of New Orleans culture emerging from inside them –– colorful shotgun houses, local wildlife, musical instruments, a brass band –– things like that.”
For Aliyah, seeing the design come to life has been an incredible experience.
“It’s cool to watch it all come together and to be able to see your work like this, and to have it out here for everyone else to see, too,” she said. “It just feels good to know that I’m part of something big.”
In addition to being an artist, Allen is an educator, writer, and illustrator and has deep ties to New Orleans East. While some people might see her and Aliyah’s mural as just a pretty picture, she hopes it will have a deeper impact on the community.
“When you start engaging people and beautifying spaces in a way that reflects them and their culture, naturally other people want to know what’s happening and will gravitate towards that,” she said. “I think that having those artworks placed around, it shows that community is valued out here in the East, and that they’re investing in people.”
She said a highlight of working on the project has been getting to watch Aliyah grow in her art and confidence.
“I am very passionate about working with young people in the arts. I consider myself a master teacher, really and truly, and it has been so rewarding to work with Aliyah on a project like this,” she said. “I’ve worked on murals with youth artists before, but this is a big project. It can be intimidating to look at a blank wall that’s this big and this visible and know that it’s your canvas.”
Allen said her focus has been getting Aliyah to trust herself and not be afraid of making mistakes while also working on some fundamental skills, like how to use a projector to map out her design. Aliyah said the lessons are helpful, but the project is doing more than just improving her art.
“This experience is definitely going to benefit me in the future, as an artist,” she said. “But also, knowing that I did something positive for the city, and for the East in particular, that makes me feel really good.”
Gabrielle Tolliver coordinates Arts New Orleans’ Young Artist Movement program and said the Library’s participation emphasizes its commitment to the community.
“The East New Orleans Regional Library serves as a hub for the development and enrichment of the New Orleans East community. Through their participation in the Arts New Orleans Mural project, this Library shows its neighborhood that art making not only beautifies a space, but also serves as a vessel for community building.”
The youth mural project is expected to wrap up in the next few weeks, and an unveiling ceremony is being planned for mid-March.