Heavy morning rains forced Lionel Milton, his paint brushes and 10 buckets of colorful Green Project paint indoors, where he and a handful of children knelt on the floor and painted images onto three plywood panels.
Milton’s mural was one of several neighborhood improvement projects that were part of a day of service for Saturday’s Treme Culture Fest, running all weekend in the Treme neighborhood.
The storied neighborhood is one of the birthplaces of New Orleans cultural traditions, renowned for its music, second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indians. Those who attended Saturday’s event saw it as both an homage to Treme’s past and a testament to the culture’s ability to entertain while also changing lives.
Once Milton’s painted triptych is sealed with polyurethane, it will be mounted on a prominent terrace at Hunter’s Field, the 7th Ward recreation center and park at St. Bernard and Claiborne avenues.
Milton instructed the children at the Treme Community Center to think “happy, joy, love” when working on the mural: “If you’re driving down the street with your parents or riding your bike or your skateboard, I’d rather have you see a mural with hearts and happiness on it than one reminding you that there’s a gun around the corner. Let’s put a grin on those faces rather than send the message, ‘Say no to drugs.’”
The other messages had their place, he said, but not in Treme on this day.
“We’re going to have fun today. Let’s just be kids for the day,” said Milton, who watched as one child scrawled a picture of a smiling boy with a mohawk and another drew a face that was clearly sad.
Milton quietly suggested that the melancholy face have a bubble over it that read, “Dream.”
It was that sensitivity, along with his Treme connections, that prompted Culture Fest producer Asali Devan Ecclesiastes to tap Milton for the mural project.
“I chose Lionel because he’s worked in Treme and with the musicians of Treme throughout his career, producing logos and album art for many of the neighborhood’s brass bands,” Ecclesiastes said. “And his images of children are so beautiful, energetic and timeless, just like the kids who play at Hunter’s Field.”
Although swamped with work, Milton agreed to participate because of his dedication to children’s artwork and to downtown New Orleans. As he does every year at this time, he’s now finishing his annual Carnival artwork for Heineken plus drawings for the Red Bull Street Kings, an annual brass band blowout.
His work has been featured on MTV’s “Real World” series and BET; he’s also got his own line of bedding coming out, and a Sony videogame level. To the kids’ delight, he showed them the cartons he’d designed for two New Orleans Ice Cream Co. flavors: Toasted coconut and mint chocolate.
Milton told the children his art career started in fourth grade, when classmates would ask him to draw their names in bubble letters (50 cents), their name with their girlfriend’s ($1) or their names with hearts and other shapes (more).
He’d sometimes come home with $10, he said, because he drew fast.
Plus, on the bus ride home to the Lower 9th Ward, he’d often be sketching and the passenger next to him would say, “You drew that?” He’d respond, “Yes and I’ll bet you a dollar that I can draw you before we get to Canal Street.” So Milton would make more money on the way home.
Still, his academic performance was lacking and he didn’t listen well at school, leading some grown-ups to predict a bleak future.
“They said I would never be anything. They said I would be bagging groceries at Schwegmann’s,” he said.
But in seventh grade, Milton entered a streetcar-brass band scene in a Regional Transit Authority art contest and won. His artwork was reprinted on buses across town and he won a $200 savings bond.
“I had smelled success,” he said. “That’s when I went from the kid who was going nowhere to the kid who was going to be somebody.”
Milton now has traveled the world but always returns.
“New Orleans is the baddest place on Earth,” he said. “It may not be the best place to make money. But it’s the best place to incubate art.”
The native New Orleanian in him perked up as he heard a tuba outside play the first few phrases of the song, “Tuba Fats.” He suggested a short break, and he and his pint-size group ran downstairs toward the music, behind a panel about women entrepreneurs and past photographer Gus Bennett, who is photographing festival visitors in front of a backdrop as part of the New Orleans People Project, a one-year effort inspired by the photography lost in floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina.
While vendors cooked hot sausage in booths nearby, the Dem Boys Brass Band performed on the Treme Center sidewalk, across from Joseph A. Craig Elementary School. By Saturday night, 10 different bands would be performing on key street corners throughout the neighborhood.
“It’s to show how New Orleans music flows from one corner to another: From porch to porch, from door to door, from neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Ed Buckner, who helped to plan the festival.
The layout also allows Treme architecture to be the backdrop for every stage, he said.
It shows that “music can happen at any time and any place,” said Executive Producer Toni Rice, from the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network.
This year’s festival had its roots in last year’s Treme’s 200th-anniversary celebration, which Rice produced in Armstrong Park, thinking it would be a one-time event. But neighbors wanted an annual tribute to the neighborhood, she said.
As Dem Boys wrapped up, bandleader Troy Jones took a seat next to the Treme Center, his bass drum at his feet. A native of the Iberville public housing project, Jones, 24, was inspired by the To Be Continued Brass Band, which nine years ago began playing nightly gigs not far from his home, in the 100 block of Bourbon Street. Jones couldn’t play an instrument, but he told the brass-band musicians that he wanted to learn.
And they showed him.
Six months later, he played trombone — the first of three instruments he learned to play — with To Be Continued on the sidewalk outside Jazz Fest.
Music gave him a different outlook. And it made people look at him differently, he said.
“They felt like I was a problem child because I always liked to laugh and joke,” he said.
But now, his drum earns him a steady living and has taken him to Turkey, Italy, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. And these days, Jones is often approached by young children who have an interest in music. He’s currently teaching three children to play instruments, he said.
“I just tell them, ‘Man, take my number and get an OK from your mama,’ ” he said. “And then I practice with them whenever they want me to.”