Brandon Surtain’s life is split in two. There’s before Hurricane Katrina and after.
The former defensive end for LSU’s football team was just 11 when his family made their exodus from New Orleans just one day before the devastating storm made landfall. The 12-hour journey out of the city was just the beginning, though. A permanent move to Baton Rouge would follow, forever separating him from his childhood in the 9th Ward.
“The further I am from that event, the more I start to think about the teachers, friends, places, activities—all of that was severed,” he explains. “Over the years, I’ve started to reflect on how those moments shake and inspire me.”
From afternoons playing basketball in the street to summer days spent in an inflatable pool filled by a garden hose, looking back has drawn Surtain to not just search for the profound in the mundane, but to share his exploratory process through artistic expression.
Surtain’s earliest encounters with art revolved around cartoons, with Dragon Ball Z characters as his first muses. For many years, his art remained a hobby rather than a primary interest. That is, until a stint as a petroleum engineering major at LSU showed him the light.
“I didn’t have much guidance for selecting a major,” says Surtain, who is the first college graduate in his immediate family. “A high school friend of mine said that we could make a lot of money, so I just did it. But after my first semester, I wasn’t doing well. That’s when I talked to my mom and she told me to follow my heart.”
And his heart led him to LSU’s School of Art. In between practices, workouts and time on the Death Valley field, Surtain could be found in the studio painting vivid depictions of days past. His senior exhibition, titled “Free Lunch” in a nod to the free and reduced lunch program, served as a sort of autobiography, a chronicle of his youth in New Orleans.
“I didn’t grow up in the best neighborhood,” he explains. “I have a painting of Comiskey Park and it’s one of my favorites. We played there growing up, and the park actually ended up being really influential. It kept us off the streets. I owe a lot to that time.”
In the days following the exhibition, a newspaper article took Surtain’s career to the next level. While the paintings, which maintained some of the hallmarks of traditional New Orleans art, were received well by all, a special interest had been taken by Tulane’s dean of architecture, Ken Schwartz.
“He got in contact with me through the writer and we talked for like 20 to 25 minutes,” recalls Surtain. “I didn’t really see my paintings as architectural at the time but two days later, he called and said I had a spot in the architecture master’s program if I wanted it. I thought, ‘Sure, I’ll try it.’ Two days later, I was back in New Orleans at orientation.”
Surtain’s “why not” attitude has propelled him into a path he might otherwise have missed. Currently pursuing master’s degrees in both architecture and sustainable real estate development, he says it all ties back to his art and his early influences.
“I’m discovering ways to merge all my practices,” he says, noting that he wants to make a difference in the lives of people growing up like he once did. “I want to make an attempt at providing affordable housing and housing alternatives. I want people to have the ability to choose where they want to live. But I also want to show people that if I was able to make some sort of change, they can too.”
Surtain’s ongoing art project is yet another love letter to his hometown, albeit in the rather unconventional form of trash cans. Reimagined in bright hues—indicative of the overall energy of New Orleans—Surtain says the series was born out of none other than trash itself.
“I was cleaning out my art studio and I found these wooden panels a professor had given me years before,” he explains, noting that a first portrait of cans had come as a prior feature piece titled “Family Portrait.” “I jokingly decided I would paint 150 trash cans. They are so much a part of the New Orleans visual landscape, but they exist without recognition.”
As the paintings have added up and he has gained recognition, with some of his work being shown at the renowned Arthur Roger Gallery, Surtain says his favorite part has been seeing others connect with his images.
“I always try to paint from a place that is authentic to me, whether it is a playground, a trash can or a portrait,” he says. “But I feel like I gain more from hearing other people’s interpretations of my paintings. For me, people relating to things like the trash cans are what make me feel successful.”