Worldwide collaboration changing image of Eddie Robinson Drive

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POSTED: Friday, May 3, 2013 - 8:57pm

UPDATED: Friday, May 3, 2013 - 9:47pm

An outsider's vision has turned Eddie Robinson Drive into a canvas for some of the best street artists from around the globe.

Eddie Robinson Drive was a center of the south Baton Rouge community for decades.

"Well, you know, it was vibrant when I was coming up," said Darryl "Diesel" McGee, "even the Lincoln Theater. I used to go watch movies right there and everything. But as time went on and the economy went on, things just kinda went down. People got to moving out."

Kevin Harris does not live in the neighborhood. An orthodontist by trade, he is an amateur photographer and art enthusiast. A friend asked him to scout locations for a mural, and he came across Eddie Robinson Drive.

"I hadn't really gone to that area, but I could see that it needed a lot of attention," Harris remembered. "People need jobs, houses are in dire shape of needing repair. And if we can do something to help improve the condition of the community, even in this way, I think it's a help."

To make a difference, he founded a non-profit called the Museum of Public Art, which he set about filling with murals.

"The nice thing about the murals are that everybody gets a chance to appreciate it," he said, "not just someone having it in their home, appreciating it for themselves. But this art is created for everybody, and it's free."

The museum's building, at the corner of Eddie Robinson and Myrtle Walk, is owned by a friend. He searched for the most prominent aerosol artists he could find, asking them to volunteer their time and talents for murals. Many said yes, so the project expanded to other exterior walls around the neighborhood.

"It is a big gift for the public and for people in grow up and live here in this neighborhood," said Andreas von Chrzanowski, better known as Case. "To give them something special, something really, would just make them happy."

Case is a famous street artist from Frankfurt, Germany, who spent eleven days on a mural at Eddie Robinson and South Boulevard. Some of the other artists involved live in places such as Japan, Brazil, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.

He saw first-hand how the neighborhood has reacted to all the artwork.

"Some people kept passing through and asking what it is, and asking me some questions," he said. Many of them would, "start smiling, being happy, and start to think about what is, which is a nice effect of such a project."

"The community response is phenomenal," agreed McGee. "From young and old, they love it! And someone asked me, 'aren't you worried about somebody messing it up?' No. They won't even touch it. And if they see somebody else doing it, they might just handle it theyselves, you know what I'm saying? They love it."

"We see people wanting to take their picture in front of the mural," Harris added. "That tells us that we're doing something right. In fact, one young lady... said she wanted to take her graduation pictures in front of the mural and wanted to know when she could go to do that." 

The artists may be famous, but many of them go out of their way to showcase the community in their work.

"Sometimes they will go through the neighborhood and actually take pictures of people, with the intentions of painting people from the neighborhood," Harris said.

Harris does not want to just see kids from the neighborhood in the art; he wants to see them make the art. His vision is for the Museum of Public Art to give them something inspiring for years to come.

"And we'd like to invite artists to come who have experience in teaching programs, youth programs," said Harris.

McGee volunteers where he can, but Harris funds the project by himself. While the artists donate their time, Harris pays their airfare and accommodations, and often gives them an honorarium.

"We don't want to waste a lot of time asking people for help and not receiving help, and then having the project not move forward," he said. He is willing to take on partners, and plans to reach out to churches and other community groups in the future.

"My wife probably thinks I'm crazy for doing it," he added, "but I'm sure there are other things one could do with one's money. But when it helps other people, I think it's money well spent." 

McGee echoed that sentiment when speaking of the people who live in the neighborhood.

"We gotta be self-sufficient," he stated. "Nobody's trying to help us out at all, you know what I'm saying? So we gotta try and create things and keep this going so we can do it throughout the neighborhood." 

With limited space, Harris removes the murals every few months so the artists can put up new works.

"These murals will rotate and change, so it encourages people to keep coming back to the neighborhood to see something new," he said. "That's the nature of aerosol art. Most places, when they put up a mural, might be a matter of two days, something else has replaced it."

While everybody in the neighborhood knows about his project, Harris downplays his own significance in the area's social fabric.

"A lot of people, I think, make a difference," he said. "Some we just don't know about. I mean, this is something that everybody can see.

"There's a African-American Museum on South Boulevard, run by Sadie Roberts. She's doing a wonderful job there, promoting African-American history and culture. There's a veterans' center that's doing a lot for the veterans that not a lot of people know about. So there are things that are going on.

"This is visible, but if everybody plays there part and does something, and considers that they can contribute somehow, then it makes the community a better place."

Even though he came from 5,000 miles away, Case understood Harris' vision for the neighborhood. His work features 11 hands, as if an animation frozen in time.

"Every single hand got another, show another situation by moving," he said, "and it becomes from a fist to a victory symbol."

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