A touch of art transforms forgotten spaces

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Photo Courtesy N.O Public Belt Railroad

Mount Carmel science teacher and Student Council moderator Madi Hannan, 22, is always looking to start a new art project.

“I call it my extended hobby because it definitely has been a big part of my life,” she said.

So, when the opportunity came to paint two railroad utility boxes for New Orleans Public Belt Railroad (NOPB) through the nonprofit Art Box project, she jumped at the chance.

She painted one box depicting the front of a train with a logo on it, the river with the train and a railroad crossing sign with red lights and a sunset and the Crescent City Connection bridge. The second painted box is similar, with a silhouette of a train on a bridge on a side, a boat with shipping containers being unloaded by a crane and a tugboat.

Beautifying the landscape

The subject matter of what to paint was given to her by Community Visions Unlimited (CVU), a community organization that, since Hurricane Katrina, has installed more than 200 public art projects in neighborhoods to beautify them and eliminate blight. CVU Nola partnered with NOPB on these railroad boxes for its first-ever riverfront art installations.

“They asked for a couple of things,” she said. “They wanted the river, a particular type of train that they wanted on the box, shipping containers and boats. They were pretty specific about what they wanted on it.”

It took her about a month for her original sketch to get approved by the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad. Once on site, it took her only four to five hours to complete each box using exterior paint in primary colors, black and white that she had to mix to make her own colors. The boxes were cleaned and primed by volunteers before she painted.

New experience

“This is the first time I have really publicly displayed my art,” Hannan said, although her work has been included at Mount Carmel’s art shows. “This has been very interesting and awesome that I’ve been able to do this. It pushed me outside my comfort zone.”

She has painted a total of five boxes – two on the West Bank and one on Canal and Burgundy streets for CVU NOLA, and now these two on the riverfront. Approximately 80 artists have signed up to design boxes with CVU.

The railroad boxes are larger than the traffic utility boxes she had painted. And, for the utility boxes, neighborhoods generally would give her an idea of what to paint.

“We’ll send in our rendering, and the community that is in charge picks the drawing that they like best.”

Gets, gives inspiration

Hannan said she has no formal art training outside of high school art classes, but her artsy Bywater neighborhood has inspired her.

She said art is a way for her to express the emotions she’s feeling. She also paints commissioned pieces for friends, family and anyone who asks. She especially enjoys capturing memories for people.

“It’s an extended hobby,” she said. “Being able to capture a moment that is super important for someone in a way they couldn’t do themselves is really important to me. I appreciate doing work that has meaning.”

Hannan believes she sparks inspiration in her students by incorporating her artwork in the science classroom.

“They (students) never really realized how much art can be an important part of learning and life in general,” Hannan said. “I draw a lot of pictures and use worksheets that I draw myself in my classroom. It has been enlightening for them and me – even though as a science teacher I use art every day. I wouldn’t be as capable of a teacher if I didn’t use art. … They think it’s really cool that someone they know did the boxes.”

Brother tipped her off

Hannan said her younger brother, Nathan Hannan, suggested she apply to paint the railroad boxes and gave her the information to get started.

“So, I applied, and they said, ‘OK, you are on the list now.’ It was easy but took a while for me to get a box.”

CVU was founded by Jeannie Paddison Tidy after Hurricane Katrina. She had moved back to New Orleans to help her daughter recover from the devastation of her Lakeview neighborhood and noticed a traffic utility box – often a target for graffiti – and thought artwork could definitely enhance it. Only one such utility box painting has been destroyed during all these years.

“It reduces graffiti, and it reduces litter,” Tidy said. “Improving your neighborhood has to start somewhere, and it’s the little things that make a big difference.”

Hannan said she is grateful to have been chosen to paint the art boxes.

“I was on the river, and the musicians were playing around me,” she said. “I could see St. Louis Cathedral, and I just felt like I was part of the city. … A lot of people said thank you for doing this or ‘It really looks good. I like what you are doing.’”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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