Kevin Harris Creates Community Through the Arts

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Kevin Harris, an orthodontist, community arts champion and TEDxLSU 2018 speaker, has helped facilitate the creation of community-inspired murals by some of the most renowned street artists around the globe. As the director of the Museum of Public Art in Old South Baton Rouge, Kevin hopes to leverage the power of street art to establish the city as a thriving cultural and arts arena in order to advance the success of the community and those that are underserved within it.

We recently chatted with Kevin to discuss his work and life. Read some highlights of the conversation below.

What’s special about Old South Baton Rouge?

It’s almost like a forgotten place. People travel around Old South Baton Rouge, but they don’t venture inside. If they did, they might be surprised to find a lot of beautiful artwork. They’d find a community of people who have lived there all their lives. Everyone knows everyone, and they have a sense of community that you don’t find in other places.

It’s also an area that has seen a lot of hardships. Eddie Robinson Boulevard was, at one time, a retail area for the community. The stores are now boarded up and there are no retail businesses. The heart and soul is still there, but it’s not as viable. The people don’t have much to hold on to.

What role do you feel art plays in sustaining a community?

It can elevate the consciousness. In many underprivileged areas, there is a notion that the community is not worth an investment. That these people aren’t worth improvements and their condition is their own fault, so why should we help them? When that negative connotation is imposed on a community and the people adopt it, then it’s a downward spiral. There’s no incentive to innovate or to try to attract investment. But art can change that because the community has a new identity. There’s something going on there, something that people want to see and come and take part in.

What are some of the other experiences you’ve had that have informed your perspective on life?

I had a yoga retreat in Peru. I worked as a seaman. I drove a taxicab. I was a dishwasher. I worked on a pig farm in the Philippines. I did every dirty job imaginable. At the same time I took pictures. Now, I collect old photos and produced murals and straighten teeth and try to do nothing whenever I have an opportunity.

Why did you choose murals as the mode of expression?

I would always gravitate toward graffiti or aerosol art whenever I would travel. I was lucky enough to meet some of the artists and get involved at a deeper level.

Historically it all started with kids back in the 60s and 70s writing their names on trains and buildings, so aerosol artists tend to refer to themselves as writers. They use aerosol paint as their medium, but because graffiti has a negative connotation, a lot of artists would rather not use that term. All of what we have done relates back to that history.

In what specific ways can art help change our community?

My thought is that art, if it is embraced, could offset gentrification and the art would be the community’s stake in its future. If you were to change the face of the community, you would have to remove the art. Removing the art would remove the culture and the significance. I don’t know if people would want to do that once it was established as an art community.

What has been your favorite piece of art so far?

I think the mural we did on the Lincoln Theater is the most relevant because it allowed the theater and the people who were trying to restore it show that this is a worthy project and that something is happening. It has become an anchor for that immediate area. Before the mural went up, people were tagging the walls and there was a negative vibe to it. When the mural went up, people looked at it with a sense of respect. I think that has done a lot to change the vibration of the area.

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