On our recent trip to New Orleans, we had the opportunity to chat with Liz LeFrere, manager at the sprawling 35,000 square foot warehouse that houses the art community center founded by Brandan Odums, StudioBE. Here are some highlights from the chat between Liz and our partner, experience designer, Ashley Lukasik.

We will be visiting StudioBE as part of the 2020 New Orleans Confab Immersive Experience on January 13. Register now!

Ashley:  This is an unbelievable space--thanks for having us and the opportunity to get to know you and StudioBE.

To give you some context, ILC has done a great job building a network of really engaged people. The network talks a lot about authenticity, sustainability, adaptive reuse--they’re interested in these topics. But thus far, they haven’t had much of a chance to get out into the community to really see things and pair that with what they talk about onstage.

So we’re putting together a half-day immersive experience to allow people to see New Orleans with their own eyes, touch, feel and provide context that will inform the conference the next day.

Liz:  Wow, that’s awesome. Motivate everyone.

Ashley: Yes, and hopefully it becomes more mutually beneficial to the city of New Orleans as well. This is stunning--can you tell me more about the space?

Liz: This space features the artwork of Brandan Odums from his first solo show--the theme was Ephemeral Eternal, a conversation around history. Specifically Black history and New Orleans history. It’s him saying as much as he could in 35,000 square feet.

Taken by Dante Nicholas

Liz: The show itself is split into four rooms. This room revolves heavily on figures from history who have inspired Brandan’s artistry. People will recognize MLK, Muhammed Ali, and Malcolm X. And there might be some unfamiliar faces who are more likely to be creatives of New Orleans.

This is split into two halves--one part is historical, specifically focusing on Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott and the history of their partnership. 

On the other side, you have personal stories of Brandan’s own relationships of love.

It’s not just about romantic love but the way that love shows up in our lives and the way that we need it to survive.

- Liz LeFrere

Ashley:  How did you start working with Brandan and StudioBE?

Liz We were kinda friends at first--I was just coming to help out my friend in the warehouse. Now I manage the gallery. It was very unexpected but I’m not complaining. I’m very grateful. 

This installation is a story about Katrina and triumph over adversity, resilience in spite of trauma. It’s a way of taking up space--the idea that you are still here, referring to the city of New Orleans. I like this room a lot because we get visitors from all over the world, from different countries.

Everyone at some point in their lives has gone through something and can possibly resonate with the idea of 'you are still here'--despite whatever happened to them.

- Liz LeFrere

Taken by Ashley Lukasik

Ashley:  How did this all come about?

Liz: Initially this was supposed to be a three-month pop-up solo show but we’ve been here since 2016.

Brandan has only been using spray paint since 2012 or 2013. It started with the walls in this room. This is actual sheet rock cut out from his very first time using spray paint in an abandoned housing project. In 2013, he went into a dilapidated project that was in the 9th ward--so you can imagine the condition it was in. In response to what he saw, his intention was to bring something more uplifting, more affirming imagery and stories. This was called Project BE. 

Brandan did a project called Exhibit BE--it was similar in the sense of going into forgotten space that the city wasn’t paying attention to and bringing attention to it and bringing community together through the power of art. At the time, it was known as the largest street exhibition in the entire South. It ran from the end of 2014 to the beginning of 2015. It was Brandan and thirty-five other street artists, local and international, that came together.

That’s how Brandan met the owner of this warehouse. When Exhibit BE was closing, the owner approached him, saying “I have this property in the Bywater. It’s going to be empty for a few more years. If you want, come check it out.” And we’ve been here for three years.

Ashley: Tell me about the neighborhood.

Liz: There are a couple other mural projects spearheaded by other artists. NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts) the creative arts high school--super talented artsy kids--is across the street. We try to maximize the space as much as possible and get people engaged with intimate events, open mics, sometimes we’ll have an open studio where people can come in and do their thing while he does his thing. 

Taken by Dante Nicholas

We also host art shows with different schools. Last night we had a visit from the Governor who is running for reelection now. He came to see the teen art collective, BE LITE. They created art based on the prompt “if I were governor…” So they got to talk with him one-on-one and engage with him on policies they want to see implemented if he’s reelected.

We’re still learning as we go. We’re not a gallery or embedded in the formal art world.

- Liz LeFrere

Ashley: What about development?

Liz: This particular building, ironically, was supposed to be condos. But since we came along, that has completely shifted the narrative and what the owner wants to do with the space. It’s changed his entire initial plans for the space.

Ashley: How many people do you have working for the organization?

Liz: There’s a staff of twenty total--our BE collective. We have in-house graphic designers, in-house photographers, illustrators, stylists, and creative content directors. A lot of them are still in school. It’s cool because they get to develop their skills and apply them here in real time.

Brandan is always trying to promote the idea of “how we can use StudioBE to maximize your career and where you want to go.” It’s more of a vessel than a regular job.

- Liz LeFrere
Liz LeFrere, StudioBE. Taken by Dante Nicholas .

Ashley: It helps them experience the relationship between commerce and art--that’s really important.

Follow StudioBE and Ashley on Instagram at @studio_be_ and @ashleyraelukasik