Fresh water diversions and dredges are among the methods aimed at slowing Louisiana’s coastal erosion. When the BP oil spill struck, it was containment booms and sand berms. But now, some of the latest tools being deployed to help coastal communities here might be paintbrushes and sculpting chisels. That’s thanks to a new program from the New Orleans-based nonprofit Young Aspirations/Young Artists, better known as YAYA. The program is called Fresh Paths, and it’s bringing public art, community art training, and a lot more to coastal Louisiana parishes.
“Out of that initial impulse to do something beautiful and healing in response to the oil spill, we began to see how Fresh Paths could actually carry a larger message and be both a healing response piece and at the same time a forward-thinking, forward-looking artwork about how we proactively deal with the ecological challenges we deal with here in southern Louisiana,” says Baty Landis, executive director of YAYA.
Her group has long been active in public schools around the New Orleans area, using a model of art training and youth mentoring to help young people express themselves, to channel their energies in positive ways and to prepare them for the future, all while learning the business of art. Kids who experience YAYA during their high school years have the opportunity once they graduate to become mentors back in the schools.
One of them is Rontherin Ratcliff. He started out with the program years ago as a reluctant teenager, but the environment he found, the artists he met and the projects on which he got to work opened his own fresh path. Today, he’s a professional artist and YAYA’s studio director.
“It’s a place they can come, they can be kind of creative, they can share their ideas,” says Ratcliff. “I think what I’ve had to learn through working with the program is that art gives me a voice.”
And this lesson is what he now passes on the young people he mentors at YAYA.
“They have a voice, as youth, as members of a community, and they can use art as that tool to kind of be heard, in their homes, in their community, amongst their peers,” he says.
With Fresh Paths, the YAYA approach is heading to communities and working with young people on the frontlines of Louisiana’s coastal crisis. The particular form of the Fresh Paths artworks — whether painting or installations or some other expressions — will be determined by the youth who take part.
“They can use art to move what they see in their community, or what they see lacking in their community, forward. They can use art to ask for something better, you know?” says Ratcliff. “I guess my idea is that we create something that would reflect hope and this ability to create change.”
For Landis, it’s an opportunity to show the larger community the full impact that art, art training and mentorship can make.
“So we’re really excited to be able to, yes, celebrate our culture and celebrate art, celebrate creative expression,” she says. “But also to demonstrate how powerful that creative expression can be when it’s pivoted to address some of the challenges that we’re living with.”
Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about Young Aspirations/Young Artists,click here.