Google Maps Street View of 1732 Forstall St, New Orleans, LA.
This image was taken prior to Beasley’s investment.

Kevin Beasley was one of the fifty-one contemporary artists invited to envision works of art for the fifth iteration of Prospect New Orleans, a multi-venue contemporary art triennial throughout the city. Instead of a traditional multimedia or materials-based installation, Beasley purchased an underdeveloped city lot at 1741 Forstall Street, and developed what is now a thriving community garden. The lot where the garden blooms is in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a historically rich and diverse cultural community. Beasley supplements his garden project with traditional landscape drawings on view at the Contemporary Art Center New Orleans. The drawings are interpreted from observational snapshots he took while researching properties within the Lower Ninth Ward.

Both of these facets are in line with Beasley’s aesthetic practice, which combines memory and experiences by using a combination of sensory qualities such as sight, sound and touch. While the drawings are static renderings of a particular moment in time within the Ninth Ward, the garden represents a kinetic and collaborative experiential depiction of the location. 1741 Forstall Street is a prime example of a living artwork, which is enhanced by the surrounding community. As he was researching and planning out the implementation of the site specific artwork, Beasley met his neighbors, many of whom are stalwarts of the New Orleans cultural scene. This resulted in a very organic creative process that has and will continue to inform the formal and contextual values of the space. For example, in a New York Times article featuring the community garden, Siddhartha Mitter (2022) describes a plethora of activities such as live improvised jazz sessions, cookouts and an overarching sense of leisure, cooperation and socialization.

Oftentimes it is hard to separate the artist from the artwork, but for the garden at 1741 Forstall Street to be successful, Beasley has astutely learned that ceding control is often a necessity. Especially since the garden is in an area where Beasley had no prior relationship to. Instead of spearheading all aspects of the design and implementation, Beasley utilizes techniques that have parallels to pedagogical methods, such as active listening and rhizomatic learning.

First, Beasley established his presence by personally going around and meeting the community at large. His concerns are in representing the concerns, needs and visions of the population. With generations of knowledge and cultural insight already ingrained within the Lower Ninth Ward’s landscape, Beasley did not have to reinvent the wheel in order to create something unique. His ability to listen and learn from others became the bedrock for the garden to grow into a place where trust and compassion is nurtured alongside flowers and plants. Just like growing plants, the learning process represents a root-like structure. Rhizomatic learning gets its name from the botanical phenomenon where a plant stem sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. Knowledge is cultivated in a similar manner via a network of organic contact and communication between diverse individuals. The emphasis is on accepting that ideas, perspectives and methods are more than likely to change overtime.

The power of this endeavor is that it is a social, cultural and emotional investment for the present and future of the Lower Ninth Ward. Beasley owns the land, and is currently activating the space in a manner akin to a progressive educator. He is not coming into the neighborhood with a pedantic or homesteader’s overview of what needs to be done. Rather, his role as a facilitator is important because it provides the community with resources (i.e. land and materials) where they can create and maintain their own personal and communal sense of identity. In an area that has consistently retained its roots (see: Mitter, 2022 for the demographic breakdown of the Lower Ninth Ward post-Katrina), the garden should enable ample opportunities for the growth and nourishment of ideas and expressions that are utilitarian and down to earth.

Whether the project is ultimately a success remains to be seen. But if the process remains democratic and is a transparent collaboration between Beasley and the local residents, then the outcomes will almost certainly be beneficial. This is something that Beasley (quoted in Mitter, 2022) contemplates when considering the enduring questions and potential learning outcomes that might transpire along the way: “There’s a lot to discover about what it means to have real stakes in something that has a direct connection to the audience — to the people — and not know if it’s going to fail.” Of course, risks and failure are synonymous with both artistic and pedagogical undertakings (see: Artfully Failing). The ability to embrace these outcomes and astutely assess them will signify a profound transformative connection between the artist and the community.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Cormier, Dave. “Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum.” Dave’s Educational Blog, 3 Jun. 2008.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1993). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mitter, Siddhartha. “In the Lower Ninth Ward, an Artist Renews His Purpose,” The New York Times, 6 January 2022.

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