In the Lower Ninth Ward, an Artist Renews His Purpose

NEW ORLEANS — The cookout in the new garden, guests agreed, upheld the cultural and convivial traditions of the Lower Ninth Ward.

Herlin Riley, a celebrated jazz drummer from the neighborhood, was grooving with his quintet beneath the canopy. Old-timers, friends since high school, held forth at a long table near the stage. The photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, important local documentarians, were present.

Tending chicken thighs and beef ribs from the trailer grill hitched to his truck, Errol Houston conferred the seal of Lower Ninth legitimacy. “What you see here is like a normal family picnic with neighbors,” he said. “There’s people here who know my aunts and uncles.”

The artist Kevin Beasley, host of the cookout, was chatting with all comers, wearing a black T-shirt adorned with drawings of 38 plant species he intended to grow in the garden. The party was an opening of sorts — the neighborhood reveal for an unfolding creative project that had begun at the invitation of the Prospect New Orleans art triennial but had taken on a life of its own.

Beasley was invited to create an artwork in New Orleans for a few months. Instead he bought this land, cleared it and began to plant a garden. By now, many local faces were familiar to him; others were not, and he listened intently to their suggestions, and also to their doubts and cautions.

The lot at the corner of Forstall Street and North Roman Street had long lain vacant and overgrown, like many here in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The neighbors assumed that its new owner was planning to build a house — another homesteader, or a speculator, or maybe someone with roots finally coming home. Instead it was Beasley, an artist from New York City: He’d gone door to door introducing himself.

Now, on this mild Saturday in December, there was a landscaped garden, unfenced and welcoming. Children were baptizing it by their play, skipping on the stone paths, rolling down the low mound built to provide gentle elevation. In the middle of the lot, Beasley had installed a pole mounted with LED lights and three Wi-Fi antennas, the only such hot spot in the area.

Rhonda Ralph, the full-time caretaker for an ill friend two blocks away, choked up a little. “It’s like a beam of light shined down from the darkness,” Ralph said. “I’m just so excited and elated.”

Beasley, 36, has set himself a high hurdle. He has begun an open-ended project in a city he did not know before, in a traumatized neighborhood. He is not making art, necessarily. The creative act is committing: staking his resources — already some $80,000 and counting — and his word. After the cookout, he was pleased but pensive, taking in the human measure of what he had started. “There’s a settling in with the weight of it,” he said. “With what it really means.”

In art circles, Beasley is successful, critically and commercially, collected by major museums. He is regarded for his resin sculptures embedded with apparel and other items, and for his performances and installations — notably at the Whitney Museum in 2018, where he hooked an ancient Alabama cotton gin motor to sound equipment and played it like an instrument. These works engage social and material history, race and labor and memory, as well as his family roots in rural Virginia.

But in the Lower Ninth, he was an unknown. In fact, until the triennial invited him to visit and start imagining a special project for its 2020 edition, he had never set foot in New Orleans.

That was three years ago. By the time the triennial, postponed one year by the pandemic, opened last October, Beasley had gone completely off-script. He had taken the commission fee, more than doubled it with his own money, and invested in this land. Visiting monthly to immerse himself in the city’s culture, he had landed on a realization: To contribute anything at all would require raising the stakes.

The triennial was rolling with it, a bit nervously. “That’s something we’ve gotten comfortable with, that this project is hard to talk about,” Nick Stillman, Prospect’s director, had said in October, as Beasley was just breaking ground. “Kevin owns the land, Kevin is toiling on the land, Kevin is shaping the land into something that is his own.”

It wasn’t the first time an artist from elsewhere had come to the post-Katrina Lower Ninth, or even — in a strange coincidence that Beasley only learned later — to Forstall and N. Roman.

In 2007, when the artist Paul Chan staged Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in two neighborhoods haunted by post-Katrina emptiness, out of 300 blocks in the Lower Ninth, he had picked this intersection for the performance. There, Holland Cotter wrote in the Times, “the surrounding terrain — no lights, no sound, almost no people — became a character itself.”

Here in the “back of town,” a few blocks from the Industrial Canal floodwall breach, the Katrina floodwaters had exceeded 10 feet; hundreds of homes were demolished, and only a fraction rebuilt. Although the Lower Ninth had overcome a previous calamitous flood, from Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Katrina was more severe, and so were the now well-documented government failures that followed.

As the Tulane University professor Andy Horowitz writes in “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015,” the storm “provided an occasion for racial and economic inequalities to be sharpened and ordained by policy and practice.” The Lower Ninth has regained one-third of its pre-Katrina population, compared to 85 percent for the city overall.

Most of the Lower Ninth was drained and developed following the construction of the canal in the 1920s. For decades it was a bustling Black neighborhood. “You had life,” said Calhoun, the photographer, who grew up here in the 1960s. “The men I grew up around were mostly dockworkers, and most owned their property. Now it seems like the juice is gone.”

Its hallowed artistic history includes Sister Gertrude Morgan, the self-taught mystic painter, as well as Fats Domino and other music luminaries; it remains home to Black Maskers (Mardi Gras Indians) like Big Chief Demond Melancon and other cultural custodians. Still, the storm’s stark aftermath created, if not a fresh slate, an assortment of post-Katrina initiatives.

Some are hyperlocal: Calhoun and McCormick founded the L9 Center for the Arts in 2007; while its gallery is now dormant, they still run youth photography workshops. The Lower Ninth Living Museum, run through the foundation of another civic leader, Leona Tate, opened in 2011.

The first edition of Prospect fanned projects into many neighborhoods in 2008, including eight in the Lower Ninth. Mark Bradford built “Mithra,” a huge ark made of plywood panels covered by tattered posters. Wangechi Mutu built a “ghost house” frame and supported its subsequent completion as a real home for Sarah Lastie, who had lost her house on the site to the flood.

Yet 16 years after Katrina, artist interest in the Lower Ninth has slowed. Prospect had run over budget in 2008, and later editions pared back in scale. New art spaces have opened, but the Lower Ninth remains at the margin. The poverty rate exceeds 34 percent; social needs dwarf the significance of any art venture.

The key difference, said Calhoun, was that Beasley had invested. “He’s not making art that’s going to come for three months,” Calhoun said. “It’s important that he owns it.”

On a sweltering October afternoon, Constance Fowler, a neighbor and community activist, had led Beasley on a walking tour of garden and park spaces near his property, she said, “so Kevin can know what he’s up against.”

Cautionary evidence abounded. One garden never got its water line, and closed. Another only got going once neighbors brought water in buckets, and eventually exhausted their patience. A pocket playground lay untended, its portico decaying and drinking-fountain inactive. A sign remained — “Dedicated to the Children of the Lower Ninth Ward” — with a corporate sponsor logo.

Interspersed with other homes and open lots were the “Brad Pitt houses,” as people call them, identifiable by their solar panels and slightly edgy design. The nonprofit Make It Right, founded by the actor, built 109 houses in this area between 2008 and 2016, based on designs from famous architects like Shigeru Ban and Frank Gehry.

The homes were then sold to new or returning residents. But they were soon beset by construction flaws and health and safety hazards. A few have been demolished, some are vacant, and the whole venture is tangled in litigation.

As they walked, Fowler showed road and drainage problems due to deficient city services. She identified houses that squatters or dealers had taken over.

Beasley got the message. “There’s real evidence of how certain efforts have failed the community,” he said. “As we’re breaking ground on my project, the carcasses of everything else are still there. There’s no room for anything to fail in that way.”

Still, Fowler was encouraging. “I see it as an opportunity,” she said. “Art is a language that can overcome barriers and ages. It can reach the culture that’s been stomped on.”

Beasley’s project is largely utilitarian. For now, he said, the garden is a resource that will provide free internet, a place to relax, and in time, vegetables from the raised planters and fruit from the citrus trees.

“I could argue that it’s a sculpture, the entire thing,” he said. “But that debate is less significant than what the thing is actually doing.”

The tasks ahead are practical. He is hiring Mastodonte, a local business that landscaped the garden, for upkeep. The garden needs signage, he said, and a liability disclaimer, and probably a full-time caretaker. Beasley intends to visit frequently and work on the site, he said — at least every two months.

Still, artistic offshoots were developing. His exquisite, detailed drawings of the Lower Ninth, based on snapshots he’d taken while scouting property, are on view through Jan. 23 at the Contemporary Arts Center. Drawing, he said, helped him form intimacy with the terrain and connected him to the lineage of artists like Willie Birch who, Beasley said, “render parts of New Orleans that may go unseen.”

He plans to share, likely on a website, documentation of his journey — listings, deeds, tax claims, property histories — to make transparent the real-estate workings in a vulnerable neighborhood shocked by disaster and eyed by speculators, and the challenges to preserving or rebuilding Black ownership.

The New Orleans artist Jean-Marcel St. Jacques had warned him, for instance, that many titles were lost in the flood, while other properties were passed down informally. The first lot Beasley picked turned out to require locating other heirs than the seller. Unwilling to “poke into” that family’s affairs, he backed out. “Just because it’s for sale doesn’t mean it’s available,” Beasley said.

The artistic directors of this edition of Prospect, Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi, said his venture had art antecedents — work concerned with property records and contracts; Land Art, perhaps; various community-facing initiatives. But only loosely. “How we interpret it might not be the central question, because it’s evolving,” Nawi said.

Indeed, Beasley remained loath to form long-term plans. He wanted to learn from the neighborhood, while still retaining authorship. “I’m thinking about how you fold into the current,” he said. “Not resisting or polluting it, but really folding into it.”

It will not be an easy task. At the cookout, India King Robins, who lives a block away and is executive director of NOVAC, a media and education nonprofit, spoke her reservations bluntly. Beasley was another new arrival, with an idea and no guarantee of follow-through.

“I want to make sure that we’re not being burdened with another space that we have to take care of,” King Robins said. “It’s great to have a space that’s going to bring green life, vegetables, protect us from flooding — that’s all awesome and appreciated. But at what expense does it come to the community if in the long run it’s their work?”

They agreed to keep in touch. “He says it’s going to be different, and I expect that from him.”

That test of character, ultimately, is the purpose Beasley has found in New Orleans. “There’s something different about putting your word on the line,” he said. He had pushed Prospect to support and surrender control of a project outside its comfort zone; that was the easy part. The more profound challenge was to himself. He was finding it bracing — and refreshing.

“I don’t remember the last time I’ve knocked on strangers’ doors to introduce myself as a person,” he said. “There’s a lot to discover about what it means to have real stakes in something that has a direct connection to the audience — to the people — and not know if it’s going to fail.”