By Sarah Morrison
“New Orleans is sexy; New Orleans is different; and the fridges can be too.”
Mari Chavez, one of the founders of New Orleans Community Fridges (NOCF), explains why NOCF decided to include artists in their mission to feed the New Orleans community. The main idea is to destigmatize the fridge. “Receiving from a fridge is not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to be embarrassed about… but being able to honor those spaces with art is really important.”
NOCF is an organization that sets up refrigerators across the city of New Orleans. Starting in late July 2020 with their first fridge plugged in in the 7th Ward, NOCF now has 19 fridges spread out across New Orleans. “Me and a few other people just found that we were inspired by the fridges that were popping up in New York and in Los Angeles and in Chicago… We just really wanted to bring it here.”
These fridges offer more than food to our community: they offer inspiration. Chavez says “The fridge has inspired so many people and empower so many people to do something radical… One of the greatest things that we’ve been able to see is to just like lowkey radicalize people that just didn’t even know that they had that capacity.”
The art on the fridges, and on the structures around them, symbolize New Orleans culture. Chavez and the rest of the organizers immediately knew that they wanted to include art from the beginning. “I just think the culture here is so rich… and being able to add to it feels very normal.” The city of New Orleans is a functioning canvas that NOCF gives local artists access to. Chavez is the person that has “held the reins about contracting artists since the beginning of NOCF, and I just feel like it’s really important to utilize this space to give to BIPOC people, and artists specifically, to make their own.” Chavez lets artists come to her that want to participate and helps them contribute to the cause. She provides funds to help pay for the materials and lets the artist pick their location and design. “[I am] trying to just let them do what they want really, and me not really picking and choosing, but just creating that space for them and letting them do that.”
Tyla Maiden, the artist of the structure on 3300 Palmyra St in Mid City, took this sentiment to heart. “I had a lot of creative freedom, and I have painted three murals before, but one was for a specific client, so I was just bringing her idea to life. I didn’t really put any of my own spin on it. Then the other two were social justice related, so I was really trying to convey a specific message, and I wasn’t really trying to put any of my stylistic input in that much. So this one, I just really wanted to do something that reflects my style and the art that I want to continue making in the future.”
Maiden wanted to contribute to NOCF because her artistic style and goals matched with theirs. NOCF aims to uplift people of color and make a safe space for them. They reached out to Maiden before Maiden had a chance to contact them. Maiden explains, “I think it was more just like giving an opportunity to people that live in the community to create something beautiful. I use a lot of bright colors and stuff, so I’m sure that was inviting to them.”
NOCF reached out to the artist, Gavin Jones, because they felt his goals as an artist also matched with theirs. Gavin explains, “I’m a big fan of making art visible and accessible to everyone so everybody can feel part of this creative process.” Gavin’s goals drew NOCF to him and inspired him to participate.
Jones created a piece based on the “divine feminine sculptures of artwork dedicated to the female gender” to represent how NOCF is a female-led organization. These carvings traditionally come from Africa and showcases a simple figure with a small head, narrow waist, and round hips. Jones also took inspiration from the community he was placed in. “After riding around that neighborhood, I saw a bunch of churches in their neighborhood, so I was trying to go for something like a Red Cross post just to signify that this is a post where you can get aid and food.”
“So, it’s two images, one on the back of this cross figure, and then the divine feminine sculpture on the side of the street.”
Gavin used baby blue, red, orange, and cream house paint and spray paint to create a geometrical background behind the feminine figure. He then placed the arms arched above her head to allude to a heart.
“I chose a brown female figure signifying black women doing a lot for this neighborhood.”
Jones’s goal as an artist is to “evolve gracefully,” and he brings that element into the simplicity of his piece.
“[I] really just wanted to make something eye catching, something beautiful for the neighborhood.”
For Maiden’s fridge, she took the one guideline, to include the quotes “Take what you want, leave what you can” and “mutual aid, not charity,” and made the piece her own. Using a blend of acrylic and house paint, she let the idea of mutual aid and her style guide her. “Everything was up to me, which I really appreciate… I knew I wanted to incorporate a portrait and used the other surfaces in the structure to invite you in.”
Maiden aimed to make a structure that could bring joy to those who saw it. “I just really wanted it to look very inviting and very fun.” To represent the care that the community fridge offers, Maiden painted a woman with “a common, inviting face,” and light, burnt sienna skin. She included a headwrap and, to incorporate more bright colors, she filled the wrap with fruit and flowers. “That’s like completely me. There were no other influences that made me decide to paint what I wanted to paint. I just did some different sketches, and I drew the portrait of the lady first, and I built everything else around it.”
The structure around Maiden’s fridge incorporates everything she loves about painting. “I love painting big; I love painting people of color; I love using bright colors, and I love painting big, literally and figuratively. So, the fact that I was able to make something that was all of those things and mine was really, really cool.”
“Once I got to the end, I was really happy about it, and once I heard the community’s feedback and how everybody felt about it made me feel a lot better. I’m really proud of that project.”
Chavez, Maiden, and Jones agree that New Orleans is special, and the art on the fridge contributes to its unique vibrancy.
Chavez highlights the value NOCF places on their artists. She says, “you know, the artists are the first people to ever receive funds from NOCF, and I see that as an appreciation, and I see that as recognition of the experience of the culture that people of color have and being able to showcase it is really nice.”
In the same way, Chavez thinks the art shows how New Orleans artists value the city and the people who live there. “It’s all supported in both ways; the artists have been really excited and have been really eager to be able to have a place to give back.”
Maiden comments on the different art and artists NOCF chose to include. She says, “everybody’s style is different aesthetically, but I think it’s the same that it fits in with the same theme and the same messaging.” Like Chavez says, every artist has the same goal when they become involved with NOCF, to honor New Orleans and its people. The artists use their different methods of expression to communicate this message, which creates a tapestry across the city.
Jones sees the inclusion of art on these fridges as “the power of visual art, as opposed to just like a billboard or being sold something. I think this was after Covid or during quarantine I was thinking about that: [we’re] just seeing an up spike in people realizing the necessity of visual arts as a connector.”
To Chavez, “having art on the fridges very blatantly just makes a lot of sense.”
Maiden also believes that including art on the community fridges adds to the idea of what it’s like living in New Orleans. “I feel like there’s more of a sense of community here. Everybody really respects the people that they live around. We really take care of each other, and I feel like having an artist paint of the fridge sends another signal that this is cared for.”
Jones agrees that including art on the fridges is natural. He says, “New Orleans appreciates artists and creates an environment for it. I think New Orleans has an esteem for artists ‘cause of the history of it compared to a lot of major cities and markets.”
The art on these fridges makes them a part of the New Orleans community. It calls attention to them and acknowledges their importance. NOCF helps bring free food and fine art to the public, making everyone feel at home and loved in New Orleans.