The rugged streets of New Orleans took transplanted artist John Bukaty by surprise.
“When I first moved down here, I was like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me? Do you know how bad the streets are?’” he recalled.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, we know. We’re just used to it.’
Bukaty, 41, is a native of Kansas City who’d lived in Colorado. He graduated from the University of Kansas, where he played football, like his dad, the late NFL fullback Fred Bukaty.
He started off as as an event painter, creating images for bands, teams and corporate events, and in 2009 Bukaty flew to India and made 100 paintings in 100 days.
And he found New Orleans jarring in more ways than one.
“For the first month, I’d hit (a pothole) and my nerves would hit my neck, and I was pissed,” he said.
The painter and sculptor decided to channel his ire into art.
On Saturday, he’ll open an exhibit inspired by the bumps and canyons of the city’s streets at his gallery, 841 Carondelet St.
“NOLA Pot Holes: Impressions of Street Art” presents casts of the cracking streets, from dinner-plate to doorway-sized, like missing puzzle pieces. Their size and destructive capability are on display — but so is their underground, unseen side.
To make his casts, Bukaty put cones around potholes, lined the crevasses with a plastic sheet and poured in plaster. “What’s funny is that while we were doing the potholes, putting cones up, we were actually making the streets safe,” he said, pointing out some of the rock-like molds he’d made, “because you weren’t going to hit the pothole that we were filling at the time.”
“Maybe not safer for us.”
Some of the casts are immense; the largest ones take up a sizeable portion of Bukaty’s gallery. A couple are rough, as if they were pried directly out of the streets. The one just inside the gallery had leaves stuck to it; another leaned against the wall near the door.
“That will be hanging,” Bukaty said, “so it’ll give you a visual for what it’s like to be under the street. This was another huge pothole, looks like a meteorite, and this is what was really hard. We had to come up with a foam to do it.”
The artist also created casts of other street features, using clay and plaster to create reliefs of streetcar tracks, drains and manhole covers.
“We spent about a month testing pieces,” he said. “It was fun. I loved the idea of being in the streets. There is a guerilla approach. … The other thing was we set this whole thing up in a three-month process to have a show here. It was all designed to test and create.
“Once I had that idea,” he added, “I was reminded on a daily basis every time I hit a pothole, every time I saw one, so I started obsessing about the idea.”
It may be art. But Bukaty’s not about to assert that potholes are beautiful.“Life is about trying to find beauty in the ugliness of everyday life,” he said. “I’ve found that as a common theme. And there ain’t nothing pretty about potholes.”