How Muralist Brandan 'BMike' Odums Transforms His Community Through Art
On the side of a 35,000-square-foot warehouse in the Bywater district of New Orleans is a larger-than-life portrait of a young, beautiful Black girl. Smiling, with her palms facing upwards, she looks ethereal. Her curls, painted in brilliant hues of purple, are speckled with crowns and encased in a glowing white halo. Her necklace spells the word “light.”
The warehouse is home to Studio BE, a gallery space created in 2016 by street artist and muralist Brandan ‘BMike’ Odums with the goal of “cultivating the power and responsibility of artists to create a better world.”
Most recently, that vision guided the Studio to create a coloring book and activity guide for local students, whose virtual schooling during the pandemic didn’t include art classes. The Studio initially gave the book, entitled “Home Is Where the Art Is,” away for free at its warehouse, and now sells it online. “We hope this book inspires you to express your creativity, ask questions, and share your gifts with the world,” reads the book’s description.
Extending Beyond Ephemeral
Before opening Studio BE, BMike’s work was, in his words, “ephemeral.” Although he was inspired by the colloquial use of “be” – a word that exists in all tenses, at all times – his earliest murals in abandoned buildings throughout New Orleans were generally temporary. His first large-scale work, Project Be, was created illegally in a housing project left in decay after Hurricane Katrina. Word of mouth and social media drew local spectators and tourists, but it was eventually shut down by the property owners.
“I started to rethink what I was doing,” said BMike, a New Orleans native who studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He wanted to create something lasting that others could be part of, so he opened a studio to share his art, generate money to fund new projects, and create a community of artists.
In 2016, local developer Sean Cummings offered a warehouse space to BMike. The plan was for Studio BE to last six months, but BMike’s first exhibit, Ephemeral Eternal, was so popular that it remains in the space. The exhibit currently features massive portraits of civil rights leaders and celebrities, such as the late John Lewis and Muhammad Ali, alongside depictions of everyday people. “We called the exhibit Ephemeral Eternal because it was about the idea that my art doesn’t last forever, but the impression it has on people does,” BMike said.
Art For Everyone
BMike set out to create a gallery that was unpretentious, where everyone felt represented and welcome. He included interactive features, like a coloring station where visitors can create their version of an Ephemeral Eternal portrait and hang it on the wall. He hopes his work encourages people to ask what it means to be a good human, to coexist with community, and to engage in social justice.
Over time, BMike hired a team of fellow artists and creatives. Together, they’ve launched a series of initiatives, including a school tour program at Studio BE; a nonprofit organization, Eternal Seeds, aimed at empowering young artists; and a collective of teen artists, BeLite, whose work is displayed in Studio BE and elsewhere in collaboration with brands like Nike Jordan.
“We’re able to provide opportunities for artists, especially Black artists in the city, where they can feel like they’re being true to themselves and not have to sacrifice what they’re passionate about,” said Liz LeFrere, Studio BE’s Manager.
Liz, who is a wax sculpture artist and New Orleans native, grew up in the art world and has worked with BMike since the opening of Studio BE. Her aunt managed the New Orleans African American Museum, so from a young age Liz had a behind-the-scenes view of what it takes to plan and build exhibits and make them distinct. “We’re doing it our own way” at Studio BE, she said, and added that one of her favorite qualities “is that we welcome everyone with open arms.”
Home Is Where the Art Is
Studio BE historically made money from admission fees, group tours, merchandise sales, and hosting events. When the pandemic began, the space had to temporarily close and revenue declined dramatically.
BMike’s brother, Eddie Odums, who handles Studio BE’s finances, applied for several grants, including a PayPal Empowerment Grant that he sought in June 2020.1
Studio BE received the funding from PayPal. “For a small business like ours, the Empowerment Grant was a big deal. It allowed us to take a sigh of relief and continue focusing on the future when we could reopen,” Eddie said.
The Studio used the funds to help keep its 12 employees on payroll and start printing the coloring book, which has had an overwhelming response from parents, teachers and children reaching out to express gratitude and share completed pages. “It’s cool to see how people have used the book. People have created collages from the pages – and even sculptures inspired by it,” Liz said.
The Studio opened briefly in June of 2020 to celebrate Juneteenth, then in the fall by appointment only, and this April resumed socially-distanced guided tours. Challenges remain, but the team is optimistic. “There’s a quote from a book we keep in the studio, Freedom Dreams by Robin D.G. Kelley, that says ‘What do we build on the ashes of a nightmare?’ BMike said.
The answer for him and his team: create art, which they’ll keep doing to ease the strain of the pandemic, build a better world, and bring light.