How a regional arts council is helping return arts programming to schools in small coastal Louisiana communities.
New Orleans-based artist Jamar Pierre shows his paintings at Jazz Fest each year, and his public works add color and character around the Treme neighborhood. These days he’s also working in schools across the River Parishes and bayou region around New Orleans, in places like Lutcher, St. John the Baptist Parish and Houma, helping students create sprawling, history-telling murals for their schools. Pierre says these murals are collaborative efforts, works intended to inspire and engage students in different ways.
“We always have elderly people in the community that come in and talk to us too that give us history and we have the whole community have an input in a mural. I don’t create the mural on my own,” he says. “They get a chance to record history and preserve history and share with it adults and kids in the school and make a giant billboard for education, for art education.”
These mural projects are part of a wide-ranging effort to return arts programming to schools around southeast Louisiana’s coastal parishes. The effort is marshaled by the Houma Regional Arts Council, a nonprofit that serves a six-parish area and funds many different projects from individual artists, performers and cultural organizations. The council’s overall mission is to make arts and culture more accessible, and that brings special challenges in small Louisiana communities that are often isolated by the region’s unique geography, as executive director Glenda Toups explains.
“Sometimes you have to drive 15 miles up the bayou, cross the bayou and then go back down 15 miles to get to certain areas,” Toups says. “There are different pockets of population all around, throughout our whole region. So we don’t want to just say that everyone needs a dance project, come to Houma, because it’s a central place. We try to really cater it. We develop programs that fit the needs of individual communities.”
So the council might offer drama and theater for school children at a library here and then a quilting class for elderly residents through a community center there. Most recently, the Houma Regional Arts Council has embarked what it calls the Coastal Communities Youth Arts Project, serving children in rural communities where other support for the arts has withered.
“There’s not as much exposure to arts and culture in the schools as there was 20, 25, 30 years ago. So now what we’ve done is take it on as a project to try to bring that back into the schools,” says Toups. “And it’s a huge, massive project. At the end of the two years we estimate we’ll impact about 40 percent of the region’s youth, either through school activities, library activities, community center activities or summer programs.”
For Jamar Pierre, working in schools has been an opportunity to share the incredible power of expression and the life opportunities that art has given him.
“I feel that everyone is obligated to pass that dream down and not tell those kids they’re doing to be starving artists or musicians,” he says. “Show them how they can make a living and travel the world doing something they love, and to bring that culture back.”
Learn more about the Houma Regional Arts Council at www.houmaterrebonne.org or call 985-873-6367.