Brandon Surtain slows the car after crossing the Jeff Davis Parkway Bridge.

"There's Comiskey Park," he said. "You'll see the jungle gym on the left."

Youngsters are climbing on jungle gym, the same one Surtain played on when he was a kid. But in his painting now hanging in Arthur Roger Gallery, the playground equipment looks different.

The last time the 25-year-old visited the park, he was on a bicycle. It 3 a.m. on a winter day when he snapped the photo that would inspire his painting.

"It's really interesting being out in the city at that time, and it's really weird," Surtain said. "There are still people out, and seeing the transition in the city between 3:45 to 4:30 or 5 a.m., it's like you have people who are moving really slowly or people who are just waking up, like cleaning the streets. And you see everything. You see all the rodents, smell all the smells. That's what made this series really fun. I can point those things out."


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There were more bike rides in the early hours, more photos, which morphed into his series of paintings he calls "Night Shift." Surtain began work on the paintings in May after the Julia Street gallery asked him to do one of four shows for Hancock Whitney White Linen Night on Aug. 3.

"There's a sort of freedom you have at that time in the morning," he said. "You can stop and take your time without worrying about anything. I would go downtown and go to Mid-City and just ride my bike around. You notice everything. It's exciting, it's scary."

The eight-painting series now hangs just beyond the entrance to the Arthur Roger Gallery. Two of the pieces have already been purchased by an unnamed owner of an NFL team, which brings Surtain's story full circle.

Only two years ago Surtain was finishing his senior year as a defensive end for the LSU Tigers. He was No. 27 on the field, but at night he worked on paintings in Foster Hall's art classes and the LSU School of Art's studios.

From LSU football to full-time artist: Brandon Surtain has graduated and is painting 'real life' stories

The player always had a love for art. He'd taken art classes while a student at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, where his family relocated after Hurricane Katrina flooded their Mid-City New Orleans home.

He was a walk-on who made the team and an artist who chose the more practical major of engineering. But he wasn't happy.

His mother advised him to do what he loved. So he changed his major, determined to make a living as a studio artist with faith his work would find its way into the art world.

And it did.

All of his paintings sold at his May 2017 senior show called "Free Lunch," which depicted his New Orleans childhood, at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge.

A story in The Advocate about the show led to a scholarship offer from Tulane University's School of Architecture, where Surtain is entering his third and final year. He's also earned a second degree in real estate management.

How a news story led to a Tulane scholarship for former LSU football player, 'it's all happening so fast'

The article also prompted a call from Roger, and now a show. Surtain tears up a little, thinking about it.

"There have been so many people who have helped me along the way, and I'm just so grateful," he said.

In the paintings in his exhibition, worked out over the early morning bike rides, Surtain said he "wanted to evoke certain emotions and feelings. And, I still found myself trying to describe what the city is to me, certain things I love about it and hate about it."

He completed the series in seven weeks.

"Brandon's work has evolved since that exhibit in the newspaper article," Roger said. "It has an honesty and charm, and I'm touched by it. There's something so sincere about it."

There's the man sleeping in the streetlight of the French Quarter in "Early Sunday Morning," and the line of garbage cans on an empty French Quarter street in "Family Portrait."

And there's Comiskey playground, empty of the children who have grown up and left the city.

"I don't think this nighttime series is resolved," Surtain said. "I'm going to keep working on it."

His work has a following. On a gallery visit, Surtain was stopped by visual artist Trenity Thomas and local actor Andre Hubbard.

"He shows New Orleans in a different light," Hubbard said. "It's beautiful and aesthetically pleasing."

"I was just drawn to these when I walked in," Thomas added. "There's just something different about them."

Surtain said he is indebted to the gallery owner for having faith in his talent.

"This all really happened over a conversation and a handshake," he said. "And I never dreamed that all of this would be happening."

See more of Surtain's work at brandonjuansurtain.com.

Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com