Nearly two years ago, neighbors in the Faubourg Lafitte told artist Laurel True that they’d like her public artwork to reflect their community’s rich history and culture.
By working side-by-side with neighbors, True was able to synthesize those influences and create “the most site-appropriate public sculpture ever,” said Jonn Hankins, 62, co-founder of the New Orleans Master Craft Guild. “It’s just perfect,” he said, “It’s literal, but it still inspires the imagination. Anybody from a 4-year-old to a 74-year-old can appreciate it.”
Whenever Hankins passes and sees someone standing inside the arch, the radiating tiles look to him like the feathers of a Mardi Gras Indian crown. True said that many passersby agree with Hankins, though she hadn’t planned it that way. “It was serendipitous,” she said.
On the strength of her sketches and a 20-year track record of creating community artwork, True, 47, won an Arts Council of New Orleans competition to create two mosaic benches and a horseshoe-shaped mosaic arch in a small park located within Faubourg Lafitte, the mixed-income community that replaced the Lafitte public-housing development.
For developers Enterprise Community Partners and Providence Community Housing, working with the Arts Council to create public art satisfies a City Planning Commission requirement, said Enterprise’s Matt Morrin, who noted that trees will soon be added to the park to make it more appealing for summer use.
The new park sits on a narrow new thoroughfare, Magic Street, that was named by neighborhood children during planning charrettes for Faubourg Lafitte. But on maps, the small green square can be found within the same footprint that the Lafitte has occupied for 70 years: a narrow 27-acre trapezoid that starts at North Claiborne Avenue in the city’s 6th Ward, stretches toward the lake for about eight blocks and is bound by Orleans Avenue and the Lafitte Greenway, once the old Carondelet Canal.
As True planned the structures, she connected, through Hankins, with Jeff Poree, 66, a fifth-generation 7th Ward plasterer. His crew used True’s full-size brown-paper templates to make the benches to her specifications and to prefabricate the arch’s galvanized-steel frame, which Poree brought to the site to plaster. For the arch’s brick interior, an homage to the old Lafitte, Poree used 200 quarter-inch slices of historic bricks.
Early on, a brainstorming neighbor had suggested that True’s installation also include a documentary video. Though impractical, the idea sparked a different path for True, who began searching for historic images. She found a treasure trove through Rachel Breunlin, who had recently completed “If Those Bricks Could Talk,” a 60-page Neighborhood Story Project-Cornerstones documentary book about Lafitte.
True printed hundreds of the book’s images and text onto square tiles that now line the outer edges of the archway’s legs. So far, neighbors say, visitors from the park’s closest neighbors, a preschool and an apartment building for seniors, can often be seen pointing their fingers at the square tiles, both to learn the history and to remember it fondly.
Though True didn’t know much about the area’s past, she soon found herself surrounded by it, in a way that’s unique to Lafitte. Though all of the city’s rebuilt public-housing developments are now filled with brand-new wooden townhouses, cottages and apartment buildings, in Lafitte, an estimated 80 percent are original Katrina-era residents. That’s much higher than others, where return rates hover closer to 15 percent.
So it seems apt that much of the tile and mirror was cut and laid into place by enthusiastic children working alongside what Hankins calls “informed hands,” a group of elderly women that True raves about as “my senior dream team.”
All of the artwork’s creators, no matter their age, seem to love to touch its textures and tell stories about it, said True, who sees herself as a successful midwife at those moments.
Hankins envisions today’s children talking for decades to come about what’s now simply called the Magic Archway. “You could probably stop there on Lundi Gras 2056 and see someone standing under that thing, probably with something cold in his hand, talking about how he helped to make this when he was 10 years old, along with all these old ladies who knew everything about everyone who’s pictured on every one of those tiles,” he said.