This past May, while I was working in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, I took a few days off to attend the Community Built Association's 20th Anniversary Conference in New Orleans. Cruising down U.S. 271, my car was loaded with paint, brushes and drawing materials because, as a part of the conference, I was going to lead a mural workshop at the Lower 9th Ward Village - a small community center that emerged after Katrina to bring neighbors together and help with basic needs. The driving force behind the Village is Mack McClendon who has made it his mission to reconnect Lower 9th Ward residents with relatives and friends who left during the storm. To help in this effort, Mack wanted us artists to work with local folks to create a map that symbolized the Katrina diaspora, or in Mack’s words “Where’s your neighbor?”
At the back of the Village’s warehouse, which was being set-up for a fundraising auction, ten people gathered around a make-shift table to brainstorm. The idea was to create a visually captivating map that would remind people that many neighborhood residents, for different reasons, were still not home. Some died. Some fled the storm, found new homes and did not intend to move back. Some wanted to come back but didn't have the resources. And others had returned to the area but could not reoccupy their homes in the Lower 9th.
Making a map of the U.S. would be easy enough and we had a pretty good idea of how people spread out after the storm, but the mural team wanted to embellish the artwork with more than just the facts. We scrounged around the warehouse and nearby alleyways for materials and inspiration.
Mack brought us a coil of telephone wire. Someone else found an old doorknob. Perfect. The doorknob, emblazoned with a Fleur-de-lis, was attached to the mural and became New Orleans. The telephone wire, after we stripped it down and divided its many intertwined colors, was tied from the door knob out towards cities where people took refuge, each color indicating a different predicament or intention - red for not coming home, yellow for wanting to come home, green for back in their home, and black for back in New Orleans but unable to to reoccupy their house. Five hours of painting and wire stretching later and the mural-map was finished and ready to be installed in front of the community center. But how would the greater neighborhood (people who didn’t frequent the Village) know about this effort?
Somehow we had to spread this small painting out into the streets where more people could see it. The next day, and my last on this visit, we used scraps of plywood and old roofing to reproduce details of the larger map.
When they were dry, our crew scattered out onto the nearby streets and hung, wired, and placed the panels on fences, old street signs, and abandoned buildings. Hopefully, the would be curious enough to catch people's attention and lead them to the Village.
Someone drove by and asked what we were doing and, after they heard our story, asked if they could have one of the paintings for their house. We followed him down the street to his house where this small portion of a map of the Katrina diaspora was hung carefully and with pride on the wall of the front porch. Other neighbors inquired about the brightly colored paintings, and within an hour or so all twenty small panels had found homes.
This little mural/map (and its satellites) of “Where’s Your Neighbor?” was just a beginning I told Mack. A lot more could be done, and now it appears it will be. Just the other day someone sent me this article. It looks like the New Orleans artist group NoLA Rising is proposing a giant mural with a reproduction of our little mural/map as its centerpiece.