LSU Football player become a full-time artist
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — While some of his teammates concentrated on the NFL draft, Brandon Surtain devoted his time to his memories of New Orleans’ 9th Ward.
He spent his childhood there, and his pre-Katrina memories still linger.
The neighborhood was poor, and the historic hurricane forced Surtain’s family to take refuge in Baton Rouge. That wasn’t a bad thing. He played football for McKinley High and eventually earned a spot on LSU’s defense, where he wore No. 27.
As graduation approached, the student-artist focused on those memories, using them as fodder for his bachelor of fine arts show, “Free Lunch.” They are the ongoing theme in his work, which dates to his sophomore year when he became an art major.
And, while the 23-year-old loved football, art is his calling.
“After finishing the paintings for my BFA show, I said, ‘I’m not going to pick up a pencil or paintbrush for awhile,’” Surtain says. “But I went to the bus stop yesterday, and while I was sitting there, I found myself sketching the scene. It never stops.”
He wants to make his living as an artist, and, to that end, he’ll spend the next year painting, seeking out studio space for his work. After that, he’ll look into master’s in fine arts programs at other universities.
All the while, he’ll continue to paint what he knows, what he’s lived.
He calls it “real life” art, referring not so much to his style of painting, but to his “life subjects,” scenes that move him emotionally.
“I want to show humanity,” Surtain says. “I know if I connect to them, others will, too.”
He has been drawing most of his life, starting with cartoons, which got him placed in talented art classes at A.D. Crossman Elementary School in New Orleans.
He knows the life of an artist is not an easy one.
“My professor, Ed Smith, says the secret to being successful in this field is to be the last artist standing,” Surtain says. “So many artists quit, but if you can find a way to keep working full time, you can be a success.”
His show was a culmination of his college efforts, which are based on his childhood.
“I called this series, ‘Free Lunch,’ because most of the kids I went to school with were on the free lunch program,” Surtain says. “This was our life, the things we did.”
They play basketball in the driveway in Surtain’s largest painting, “Game of 21,” and football in a vacant lot in “Pitch-Up Tackle.”
And they stage their own Mardi Gras second line with homemade instruments in “Mid-City Makeshift Band.”
An important part of his childhood was the mother who got him through.
Debbie Surtain is there in his work, filling an inflatable swimming pool with a hose.
“I remember doing that during the summer,” Surtain says. “All you had was the hose pipe, and it took forever to fill the pool. You’d wait, then go inside and make a sandwich and come back, and there’d still hardly be any water.”
Surtain can’t help laughing because it’s one of those great memories where he and his friends made the most out of so little. The same is true of “Coolin Off,” where the blazing summer sun turns the sky orange while neighborhood kids play in the explosion of water from a hydrant.
“There weren’t any water parks for us,” Surtain says. “No one took summer vacations. We would turn on the hydrant and play in it until people started yelling at us out the window because the water pressure was going down.”
Surtain glances at the painting of his mom by the swimming pool. She was the one who encouraged him to change his major from psychology to art. She told him to follow his heart, even it that meant art and football.
Surtain is evolving as an artist. His paintings are more impressionistic now, where people and places take on abstract-yet-familiar shapes. But his subject matter is still the same as in those early days.
He returned to New Orleans days after his show and found himself moved to tears in the French Quarter. He shot a video of two kids sitting on the side of the street, banging a steady rhythm on homemade drums.
He paired the video with his painting, then showed the two together.
“I cried,” he says. “This is what we used to do.”
It’s what kids are still doing in New Orleans, and Surtain is making sure that it’s never forgotten.