The lights were on outside the old Grand Theatre in New Orleans East for the first time in years.
As a generator hummed and speakers blasted a remix of Curtis Mayfield’s black-pride anthem “Move on Up” on Friday night, an artist slipped on a pair of gloves and pulled a can of spray paint from the back of a U-Haul truck.
Under the eerie glow of flood lamps, he was working overtime to finish a Sistine Chapel for Interstate 10: a 200-foot-wide adaptation of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” featuring the faces of New Orleans East residents spray-painted onto the side of the shuttered movie theater.
The massive mural, dubbed “The Peace Wall,” is street artist Brandan “Bmike” Odums’ bid to show his appreciation for the anti-violence work of groups like the Peacekeepers and also to present a different face for a community ravaged by Hurricane Katrina a decade ago and more recently by an 81 percent spike in homicides.
The Peacekeepers and City Councilman James Gray will unveil the artwork at 5 p.m. Sunday.
There is probably no better canvas for such a project than the massive façade of the derelict theater at the Read Boulevard exit from I-10. Like the sprawling Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall at the same site, the Grand was once a place where the residents of this vast suburban section of New Orleans could see and be seen.
All that ended with the storm, when water wrecked the theater. It never reopened, and in the years that followed it became symbolic of another post-Katrina phenomenon, the corruption of former Mayor Ray Nagin. Testimony during Nagin’s trial last year revealed that he had accepted a flight to New York City on the theater owner’s private jet just as he cut him a tax break.
“Spaces like this are disconnected because they’re eyesores,” said Odums, 29. “I’m interested in how art and paint can be used to reconnect a community.”
Odums has executed a similar project before in his home neighborhood of Algiers. His ExhibitBE, painted inside the ruined De Gaulle Manor apartment complex in 2014, won raves from art critics and beckoned tourists across the Mississippi River to see a different side of New Orleans.
In 2013, he painted civil rights legends onto the remains of the Florida housing development in the Upper 9th Ward.
“Communities like the East is the communities that I’m from,” Odums said. “In black communities, we often see that we’re the slowest to get the necessary attention and access to social needs.”
He said he had been talking with contacts in New Orleans East about a project there when he secured crucial funding from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’ prepaid-credit card company just two weeks ago. Gray helped secure permits from the city.
Odums is not profiting from the work himself, he said, and in fact has had to dig into his own pocket to cover some of the costs.
The artist started painting on Aug. 16 and has worked almost continuously since then, drawing on the labors of 10 to 15 volunteers. The work will likely continue until Tuesday, even after the mural’s unveiling, he said.
Rapper Dee-1 takes the place of Adam on the mural, and Ceaux Young of the Axiom Artist Collective reaches toward him from the right as other local stalwarts like environmental justice advocate Beverly Wright and VAYLA-NO’s Minh Nguyen surround them.
Street photographer Patrick Melon, 25, took dozens of portraits of New Orleans East residents to serve as models for the mural. That experience convinced him that Odums is creating something historic.
“This is big for the city,” Melon said. “I feel honored to be able to capture that.”
There has been at least one major “hiccup,” as Odums called it. Other graffiti artists, perhaps upset with his more mainstream style of work, defaced part of his mural on Tuesday. The tags had been mostly covered over by Friday night, although some lines were still showing through.
For Odums, creating an anti-violence mural is a deeply personal project. Every year he asks a roomful of youths at his media arts summer camp whether they know someone who has been killed on the city’s streets, and every year every hand shoots up.
“It’s hard to live in this city and escape it,” he said. “I’ve had at least three or four friends that were murdered. Murdered.”
He chalks the violence up to poverty and poor conflict-resolution skills on the part of the perpetrators. He said he hopes his mural of community leaders who represent a different way of solving problems will remind people there is more to New Orleans East than violence.
“At the end of the day, we’re hoping this launches a new conversation that just brings pride back to what it means to be from New Orleans East,” he said. “People from New Orleans East, they speak about it totally differently.”
Inside the rental truck that serves as his makeshift office, alongside hundreds of cans of spray paint, Odums has posted a picture of one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent marches.
He does not expect anyone to lay their guns down just because they have seen his mural, he said. Rather, he hopes the art will encourage activists like the Peacekeepers to keep going.
“I want this to be for them, to feel like their community appreciates them,” he said. “To help give them the stamina to stay out in the streets a little longer.”