Community Visions Unlimited seeks to rebuild neighborhoods through art, housing, and empowerment.
If you drive around New Orleans, there’s a chance you may run across utility boxes on street corners and intersections. They are those tall grey things that just sit there. If you’re lucky, you might find one that’s painted with bright colors and a representation appropriate to the neighborhood you’re in. Like, Little Freddie King at Basin & St. Peter. Or, Oliver Morgan who sang the song Who Shot the LaLa.
Community Visions Unlimited and local artists are responsible for beautifying utility boxes in several neighborhoods. They’ve reached a goal of painting 100 boxes throughout New Orleans.
Across the river at the corner of West Bend & General DeGaulle, you find a box painted with scenes of a second line. Within a few blocks from the Westbank’s NOMTOC parade route, this box was painted by Charles Gillam, a resident of Algiers.
Gillam is special to Algiers because he started his own Folk Art Zone & Blues Museum. So, we visit him there.
“My name is Charles GIllam, and I’m a New Orleans self-taught artist,” says Gillam.
Gillam grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward. He used to shine shoes with his brother when he was introduced to his passion.
“I got my break a long long time ago, I can go way back. While we were down in the French Quarter, before the sneakers came out, we used to make penny money shining shoes. My brother would go back downtown and I would wander through the French Quarter, go down to Jackson Square where the artists are. I’d sit there and watching them on the fence painting. One day I got enough courage to ask for spare paint and brushes. I never forget this guy, his name was Claude Druset. He was French guy down there painting angels. I asked him for his spare paint and brushes and I took them home.”
After some time, Gillam got his first commission from someone at the House of Blues. He was asked if he knew how to do wood carvings.
“I said, “sure I can do it!” I never carved a wood in my life! I carved half the night, Charlie Patton. I carved a dead ringer, man! At the entrance of the House of Blues you go and you see my little figures.”
Gillam finds it nostalgic that he took the commission with Community Visions Unlimited. When he first started the Folk Art Zone in Algiers, the neighborhood children would paint garbage cans and place them around the neighborhood.
“So, we started a little crew. We put garbage cans around the neighborhood, painted the garbage cans, placed them all over the neighborhood. We enjoyed over the years...I still have some of the pieces.”
It’s artists like Gillam that Community Visions Unlimited hopes to continue to support. Gillam hopes for the same.
“I would like to do some more, share some work with my artists.”
Community Impact is a series exploring the work of New Orleans nonprofits. It is made possible by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.