Baton Rouge is home to a unique collection of French Impressionist paintings — and it's not in a museum.
North of the former Bon Marche Mall, near the intersection of Florida Boulevard and Lobdell Avenue, where streets are named for painters like Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh, a public art gallery has flourished.
Over the past decade, dozens of blighted storefronts and abandoned lots in the Melrose East neighborhood have been rejuvenated with extravagant, brightly painted murals.
That's thanks to the nonprofit Red Stick Project and its founder, Evelyn Ware-Jackson, whose mission it is to restore "pride, purpose and passion" to the city's neighborhoods through artwork.
It's part of an effort to reclaim the identity of the once-struggling neighborhood — nicknamed "Mall City" by drug dealers, according to Ware-Jackson — and elevate its residents through community engagement and educational outreach.
The project is anchored at BREC's Saia Park, where a massive mural of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" overlooks swing-sets and basketball courts. Amidst the mural's lush blue swirls, there's a Louisiana twist: a rendering of the State Capitol building alongside the Mississippi River Bridge.
The mural also depicts five people walking towards an intersection. That's a nod to the neighborhood's history when a group of property managers forced the drug dealers out, said Ware-Jackson, a longtime community leader who serves on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Beverly Claiborne couldn’t help herself from breaking into a “happy dance.”
Ware-Jackson's first task when she started Red Stick Project in 2009 was educating the neighborhood on the street names, many of which, with their silent letters and odd spellings, had been mispronounced for decades.
“It’s actually ‘Cezanne’ spelled this way, and not ‘Suzanne’,” Ware-Jackson said of some of her conversations. She added that she recognized the name "Goya," but only from the cans of beans at the grocery store.
That learning curve has been accelerated with a mural that features portraits of the eight artists, a brief timeline of their lives, and a cartoon map with the labeled streets. Another painting includes the phonetic spellings: MOE-nay, van-GO, say-ZAHN, REM-brandt, TIH-shiun, rehn-WAR, GOY-uh, RO-dan.
The project has always been about more than beautifying the neighborhood. The murals were created with the help of dozens of local children and community leaders and each production was tied into a STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — curriculum.
That meant introducing simple math problems to students through the artwork, like calculating the mural's square-footage and measuring how many gallons of paint were needed. Now that most of the murals are complete, Ware-Jackson hosts "STEM-drops," where educators give talks in front of the murals, such as discussing weather at the mural depicting Titian's clouds or astronomy at the "Starry Night" mural.
Ware-Jackson said she's working on a coloring book showcasing the murals and an animated video.
Beyond adding a few Louisiana landmarks here or there, the depictions of the centuries-old paintings were modified in other ways to fit the character of the neighborhood. The original European artwork largely features white characters, so Ware-Jackson took the liberty of "adding a little bit of melanin" and tinting some skin tones to "have a better representation of who actually lives in the neighborhood."
They also settled on depicting only the clouds from Titian's paintings because, as Ware-Jackson said, his art was not family friendly. "Although he was alive in the 1400s, his stuff was very risque,” she said, with naked women and gory battles.
The Red Stick Project will soon take on a more high-profile role as one of the arts and culture partners for Baton Rouge's Choice Neighborhood's project, which is leveraging a $29.5 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to revitalize communities like Melrose East, Smiley Heights and East Fairfield.
J. Wesley Daniels, the CEO of Baton Rouge's Housing Authority, said the murals helped show HUD officials the "power of place making" and the efforts already underway to revitalize the community.
"Evelyn continues to reinforce the idea that art and culture can be used as a redevelopment tool," Daniels said.
The nearby Johnson's Grocery-Mkt was painted with Van Gogh's "Wheat Fields" and a rusty post out front was redesigned with the artist's famous sunflowers to look like flower vase.
When Ware-Jackson reflects on the impact the murals have had on the Melrose East neighborhood, she points, fittingly, to a mural: Renoir's "Lady."
In Renoir's original portrait, the woman is dead, with pale skin and gray eyes, Ware-Jackson said. When the Red Stick Project painted their own rendition, they brought her to life, giving her a warm complexion and lively eyes.
"It's just like Melrose East," Ware-Jackson said. "She's a beautiful lady who's waiting to have her beauty uncovered."