“Gumbo Botanica”: A Teaching Mural

Driving down St. Claude or up Elysian Fields, you can’t miss the brand new, 5,000-square-foot, rainbow-hued “Gumbo Botanica” triple mural. With pastel portraits of local women, medicinal herbs, and flowers, its whimsy covers three massive, unobscured walls of a corner building at a prominent intersection. Fifteen artists spent five months creating it with an official unveiling in late March.

A location this prime comes with history. 1101 Elysian Fields Avenue has been lovingly known as the Beauty Plus building since the early aughts. It was a shop that served the community for nearly two decades, selling low-cost wigs and beauty supplies. The artwork on this building, originally by Top Mob with additions, in recent years, from Monica Rose Kelly, Ceaux, Tyla Maiden, Sasha Swan, Fat Kids from Outer Space, Saul Cruthirds, MEEK, and several other artists, has been featured in books and photographed by onlookers countless times.

In March of 2019, the beauty shop announced its closing, citing a rent increase of 300%. Beauty Plus moved out of the property in July of that year. The building has stood empty through the COVID era and is still waiting on permitting nearly five years later. The building owners, VU & TRAN, L.L.C., a small Vietnamese family company of restaurateurs, bought the property back in 2003. They also own Crystal Palace on the Westbank and wanted to fill this centrally located space with an affordable international food hall serving predominantly Asian cuisine. “It’s going to be a food court of different nationalities, so I wanted herbs, plants, and spices from all over the world to be incorporated [into the mural]. The inside is painted too; it’s more of an earthy, neutral atmosphere with greenery,” owner Nga Vu told me.

In late summer of 2022, the owners made the controversial choice to paint over the building’s pre-existing murals, which sparked widespread uproar from the community. They removed public artwork without a discussion, which was seen as a dark harbinger of gentrification. This move was especially bad as it came on the heels of a nearly $10 million upgrade to the complex across the street that includes Robért Fresh Market and a Starbucks. Journalists and community members found themselves asking, “Where did all the murals go?” As Tyler Van Dyke of NOLA Art Walk tours explained, “Due to the Frankie & Johnny’s building near Hanks also getting buffed out right around the same time, it seemed like a lot of beautiful art was being removed quickly.”

“The owners didn’t understand that the community would have such a reaction when they painted over those murals,” said Journey Allen, director of youth education at Arts New Orleans. Allen has taken the lead on bringing art students into the new mural project, believing that public creative expression is a civic right, “We came into a space that had been whited out and shouldn’t have been, so we were teaching the owners. We wanted to restore the beauty that had already been there.”

I sat down with Monica Rose Kelly, the lead artist on “Gumbo Botanica” and one of the former artists on the building, to learn how the new project began. According to her, the current vision came out of the pain of seeing their work so casually destroyed. “I was really devastated when I saw that the [original] murals were painted over. They were beautiful, all by local artists, and really beloved by the community,” she said. “I thought, ‘We absolutely need to initiate a new mural project.’” So she contacted the owners, who responded positively. Then she reached out to several local organizations for funding.

The process was not without its controversies, however. A month before the start of the new mural, in August of 2023, a podium was set up in front of 1101 Elysian Fields, where Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the creation of a Graffiti Abatement program, for which the City allocated $500,000. An influx of half a million dollars into the community, to be used for creating new public artwork and beautifying blighted buildings, was a thrilling concept. Unfortunately, the majority of the funds have already been allotted to a single Covington-based private company, Safe Wash Solutions, which has been contracted to whitewash, as stated by the Graffiti Abatement announcement, “any sign, inscription, design, drawing, diagram, etching, sketch, symbol, lettering, name or marking which is scratched, painted or sprayed on any surface, regardless of the material of that structural component, in such a location and in such a manner so as to deface the property.”

Google street view of 1101 Elysian Fields

With such a large rhetorical umbrella, it seemed inevitable that public art would be among the casualties of Safe Wash Solutions’ war on graffiti. Already, it has resulted in the removal of two beloved images on Elysian Fields Avenue, outside of The Mothership Marigny: Hugo Gyrl’s “You Gay Girl” and Ian Wilkinson’s Meschiya Lake mural. That the mayor gave her speech in front of the future site of “Gumbo Botanica” marred its reputation and made viewers assume that the government was funding the art. That hurt the crowdfunding campaign the artists had opened to cover expenses, which were sizable for a 5,000 square foot mural, totalling around $31,000.

Nevertheless, the mural project was able to garner enough institutional and community support to move forward. Once Kelly secured seed funding through Arts New Orleans, Spectrum Arts NOLA, the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund, and the building owners, she said the first step with the young painters was to take a look at the heavy logistics involved in such a project. “We went on a field trip to the mural site, where the students measured the entire building, all the fences, and then calculated the square footage of the mural,” she said, noting how much their learning process required as much left brain as right—at least in the beginning. “They learned how to price a mural and estimate the cost of supplies, as well as use actual paint chips from suppliers to determine their color schemes.”

Allen had already worked with the youth artists on previous projects, so she was confident about giving the students the reins and allowing them to be part of the design team, as well as giving them the space to physically paint many of the florals and a large portion of the Elysian Fields-facing wall. Several of the students also became the subjects of the paintings, which Allen saw amplify their confidence. “It’s been the full circle experience of creating the designs and then seeing yourself or your peers elevated.”

Deshawne Cornelius standing under her portrait, as painted by Lillian Aguinaga
Photo by Tammie Quintana

Then, at Young Artist Movement (YAM) studios, a former student of Kelly’s and now a working artist in her own right, Tyla Maiden, provided digital workshop classes in Procreate and Adobe Photoshop. This allowed all 15 artists to contribute their ideas, swap them back and forth, put them together, and lay out a cohesive design. It also limited the amount of time they had to spend exposed to the elements on the site and it taught them how to present pieces to potential clients in a professional format.

Gabrielle Tolliver trained the students in Polytab technique, which has become popular in many cities (though relatively new to the walls of New Orleans), as it enables artists to work in a warehouse, sheltered from the elements. In this process, parachute cloth is laid on the ground, painted, then attached to the exterior walls. The students were specifically taught how to cut and install the weather-resistant cloth and have already been hired for a new project utilizing those skills. Tolliver’s approach is even more unusual, as she dilutes acrylic paint and pours the colors freely, letting them choose where they puddle, giving a soft, watercolor-like quality to the end result.

All of the adult painters—Allen, Tolliver, Kelly, Maiden, Swan, and Lillian Aguinaga—taught the young artists different skills and assisted them throughout the working process, which, at times, was brutal. Aguinaga, who put in hundreds of hours of work over the span of the five-month duration, explained, “The two front walls get so much sun and wind. I was close to heatstroke at one point [in September] and then, by January, it turned freezing and I felt cold in my bones.” The youth painters were provided with cooling hats, sun screen, water, snacks, and Gatorade, but Louisiana reached temperatures so high that the roof started leaking tar onto the mural, which meant that the artists had to get on the lift and seal it up with primer so it didn’t destroy the art.

Youth artist Lamaj Mathis with mentor Gabrielle Tolliver
Photo by Tammie Quintana

 Throughout the months they worked, the community rallied around the artists, donating food and water and cheering them on, but it was still a physically draining experience. “The heat was hard on all of us, to the point where we had to be working at night,” said Kelly. The adult artists were able to work much faster in the cooler temperatures that came once the sun went down, but working at night came with its own challenges, as there was less visibility and the building was locked, which meant no access to facilities. Luckily, Siberia, the music venue down the block, offered their bathrooms and power supply to the artists after hours.

There were other unforeseen challenges as well. Fifteen-year-old Alella Binalla still contributed to the piece, despite breaking her leg right before the start of the project. “Everyone deserves opportunities to get out and put their hands on something big and colorful that everybody can enjoy,” she said. Binalla explained to me that being allowed to work, being active, around friends, and surrounded by the bright colors kept her in a good head space while healing. She also firmly believes that murals like this are “so much better than white walls everywhere. What are we trying to build with those? A city of canvases or mental institutions?”

Alella Binalla painting with a broken leg
Photo by Monica Rose Kelly

What Doreen Piano, associate professor and director of women and gender studies at UNO, told me about the importance of this form of expression on the streets aligns with what the artists have all said to me about the feelings of confidence and ownership that this piece has inspired in them. “What I like about graffiti is it’s telling us stories about an urban space and it reflects the conflicts of gentrification,” Piano said. “It’s all this edging and elbowing into territory, which is exactly what graffiti is about, staking one’s claim to some public space, regardless of how temporary it is.”

Alella’s 18-year-old sister, Anika Binalla, not only contributed to the artwork but is also one of the prominently featured faces on the St. Claude wall. Seeing herself up there makes her feel powerful—she is literally taking up space—as well as representing the community she was born in. “When they asked me if I wanted my face to be on the mural, I said ‘Yeah,’ but I didn’t expect it to be that big,” Binalla said. “Everyone’s gonna drive past it. It has my spirit.” Several Instagram accounts have already posted photos of her portrait before the mural has even been completed. Eventually, people will be asking who she is and what she has to say and she’s already preparing what she will tell them: “My reason for being an artist is because I want to show people that you don’t have to wait to do what you want to do. You don’t have to hide yourself.”

While there are some public funds going towards mural work around the city, like the recent Gallier Hall project and the art at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, it isn’t enough yet to have a significant impact. Funneling more money towards artists to replace blighted walls with teaching projects like this would have all sorts of positive effects, reaching far beyond what white walls could ever do. Allen believes that the results of giving students paid opportunities to paint New Orleans would impact so many more areas than just infrastructure. “I know it would impact the crime numbers because kids would have something to run to, to express themselves and to witness themselves being uplifted,” Allen said, adding, “But it has to be a full on community effort, not one spark here, one spark there. Imagine being in a city that uses young people to beautify, really and truly… painting the town: ‘Come see the work that our young people are doing’ instead of, ‘Watch out for young people, they can be dangerous.’”

Not too long ago, Gabrielle Tolliver was a student herself, in YAM, where she now mentors. She emphasized the power that she knows funding programs like this will have on others, because she has experienced the results. “Being able to have these projects helps [students] build these communities within themselves and allows the expression of that community to be shared with the public,” she said. “I saw how it helped me grow as an artist and a person.”

Gabrielle Tolliver with Polytab panels
Photo by Monica Rose Kelly

Public art shouldn’t be privatized,” insists Professor Piano. “Owners of buildings shouldn’t have full control, maybe just setting some parameters about aesthetics, but it should be up to the artist to determine what goes on the walls, or it all becomes advertisements.” Piano has watched Brandan “BMIKE” Odums go from being regarded as a menace to being lauded by the city over the last decade of his career. She posited that creating a campaign that recognizes and legitimizes what street artists are doing might be the next step in carving out space for public art and receiving funding.

Supporting teaching mural projects like “Gumbo Botanica” could aid in so many of the areas that the local government is striving to address. In terms of infrastructure and abatement, it would cover graffiti in a more sustainable way than whitewashing. Providing classes from professional artists would contribute to students’ arts education, while also giving them practical skills in areas like graphic design, visual marketing, and collaborative work towards united goals. Keeping students busy after school and compensating them for their time is a crime-deterrent. And giving young people walls on which to express themselves helps them to put a visual stamp on their community, allowing them to feel ownership of their environment, to take pride in their abilities, and to build confidence in their individual voices.

The dedication ceremony for “Gumbo Botanica” will be hosted by People for Public Art on Saturday, March 30, at the site of the mural on 1101 Elysian Fields Ave. For more info go to peopleforpublicart.com/gumbobotanica.

Top photo, top row, left to right: Mentor artists Journey Allen, Monica Rose Kelly, Lillian Aguinaga, Tyla Maiden, Gabrielle Tolliver, Sasha Swan
Bottom row, left to right: student artists Lamaj Mathis, Rhiana Brumfield, A’Brealle Sotello, Deshawne Cornelius, Alella Binalla, Mikale Gobernado, Faith Johnson, and Anika Binalla. Not pictured: Jaida Brumfield.

Bottom photo: Claude the Alligator by Tyla Maiden

Top and bottom photos by Tammie Quintana

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