On a brutally hot June day, two John McDonogh High School students and their art teacher took shelter under an open-air “shotgun temple” in a Bayou Road neutral ground near North Dorgenois Street.
On the walls, African scenes of mother and child abutted portraits of dreadlocked Rastafarians, brightly colored yin yangs and an extraterrestrial tableau featuring a green alien in a flying saucer. A tree stump, painted red, green and gold, doubled as a stool.
The structure, built in 1980 by artist and urban planner Robert Tannen, has for decades served the community as a clubhouse of sorts, a place where neighbors gathered for crawfish boils and where the local Rastafarian population worshipped.
It now has become an effort by Tannen and other educators and artists to democratize public art by encouraging students and community members to collaborate on structures within their communities.
“I’ve always thought, since I was a child, that everyone starts as an artist,” Tannen said. “Then, when life becomes more complicated, other interests take over.”
Tannen said there is a collaborative energy that allows artists to “riff on others’ images” and can often reawaken creativity. Last year, he spearheaded the Art House on the Levee, where more than 400 people came together to paint murals on the walls of a house in the Lower 9th Ward.
For his most recent project, Tannen invited Phillip Spence, an art teacher at John McDonogh High, to bring some of his students over to the temple to paint murals. Mary’s Ace Hardware donated paint and brushes for the students to use.
Paris Hines, 18, was one of the students who spent five days working on the project.
“It helps us make a mark for ourselves,” he said of the undertaking. “It shows who we are and what we can do.”
Allen Lefort, another student, painted the ceiling of the temple. Lefort said he solicited the advice of Rastafarians in the area to learn more about their religion and tried to represent it in his work.
Lefort painted the Rastafarian Lion of Judah, the continent of Africa and other representations of Rastafarian culture.
“I want everybody to feel comfortable and enjoy something different, something that pops and something that makes them feel good,” Lefort said.
According to Spence, neighbors weighed in on the plans for the artwork.
The temple has been the site of a number of different murals. One painting, which preceded the students’ work, was a portrait of former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie is an important figure in Rastafarian culture, and the mural remains on display.
Sula Janet, who owns the nearby King and Queen Emporium International, said that even though she “appreciated the energy of the students” and believed Tannen’s “heart is beautiful,” she felt the painting was a violation of the community.
“When I came by and saw these people who we didn’t even know painting these symbols, I was like, ‘Here we go again, another cultural violation,’ ” she said.
Janet said the temple is a holy place for Rastafarians and needed to be treated with more reverence.
“It must be honored as sacred ground, and it wasn’t. We have symbols here that we don’t know,” she said, referring specifically to the yin yang.
According to Janet, the area around Bayou Road is a hub for the Rastafarian community.
“This is Rasta land, this is safe ground for them and it’s a very peaceful land. It’s a place where Rastafarian as a cultural tradition is practiced,”she said.
Tannen said he respected Janet’s opinions and those of others in the community. He said he wasn’t involved in coordinating any of the actual designs.
The effort, he said, was part of a larger endeavor to get young artists involved in sustainable careers within the arts.
Jeanne Nathan, Tannen’s wife and director of the Creative Alliance of New Orleans, which helped with the project, said it’s important that student artists understand there are jobs available where they can use their talents.
Last year, Nathan said, her organization put on an art show at the McKenna Museum of African American Art, where students were involved in every aspect from promoting the show to selling their own art.
Nathan said she hopes showing talented young artists they can profit from their work will build confidence and spur their creative development.
“A lot of kids have talent, but they often don’t understand exactly what they can do for a living,” she said.