Quvenzhané Wallis stars in ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’ Image courtesy of Court 13 Arts.

Making Space for Adventurous Art

The arts collective behind the Oscar-nominated ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ wants to build a vibrant home for artists, filmmakers, and makers of all sorts in New Orleans.

When the arts and filmmaking collective Court 13 began work on the Oscar-nominated film Beasts of the Southern Wild, they tapped into a vast network of creative folks from all walks of life: fishermen, children, a preacher, a baker, a close-knit group of artists. The film, a portrait of life in the Louisiana bayou infused with magic realism, stars Quvenzhané Wallis as six-year-old Hushpuppy, an imaginative young girl who sets out in search of her long-lost mother when her father falls ill. “Made on a shoestring by a resourceful New Orleans-based collective, it is animated by the same spirit of freedom it sets out to celebrate,” the New York Times exalted in its review.

But Court 13 quickly outgrew its identity as an award-winning filmmaking operation (no small designation to begin with). The organization split in two, forming the nonprofit Court 13 Arts and a filmmaking arm called the Department of Motion Pictures. Court 13 Arts, which is currently funding a New Orleans headquarters on Kickstarter, “supports a shape-shifting artistic community of adventurous makers,” says its executive director, Casey Coleman, who served as associate producer on Beasts.

United in their mission to make and support “wild and ambitious projects,” Coleman and the rest of the Court 13 Arts crew want to protect and nurture the community that grew around Beasts, “to give it a permanent home in New Orleans, and to open up new collaborations and possibilities,” he says. We spoke to Coleman via email to learn more.

Rebecca Hiscott

Rendering of the Court 13 Arts headquarters. Image courtesy of Court 13 Arts.

What did you learn from making Beasts of the Southern Wild? How did Court 13 evolve into the nonprofit Court 13 Arts after Beasts?

In the incredible reception that followed the release of the film, we found that audiences around the world were responding not just to the content of the film, but also to the way it was made. The warmth, friendship, and the diversity of experience that defined our community making the film was something people were able to feel in the finished product. We realized that this essential element was something that needed to be nurtured and protected, and that it could never be replicated if we were to leave Louisiana and work within the structures of the film industry. It had to be here and it had to be now. At the same time, it could never survive without a permanent home and institutionalized support.

Why did you choose New Orleans for the HQ?

New Orleans is where our community already exists, and it’s unimaginable that this particular collision of people could have come together anywhere else. There’s a truly populist attitude among South Louisianans in regard to art and film. Celebrating that is somewhat unique in America — Carnival, street parades, constant festivals — and that has very clearly informed our process.

There’s also a real need in New Orleans to support non-traditional artists. While the music and carnival culture of the city is known around the world, there is a tremendous amount of talent here across other mediums and very little opportunity for those talents to develop and flourish.

Can you give us a general idea of what the space will look like and what programs you might offer?

The space is designed to house many different projects in many different mediums, all at the same time. Next year we’ll be opening up a set of residencies that will have sculptors, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and more working alongside one another on their individual work as well as on large-scale collaborative exhibitions. Because of our location in an industrial area outside of residential neighborhoods, artists will be able to work around the clock.

In time, the space will be a vibrant hub of creative activity, with periodic openings for the public to see and participate in the work. Our annual gala festival, Always for Pleasure, will culminate each year with a bacchanalian rampage of art and film in our building and in the street, with dozens of artists contributing to a public celebration of innovative, collaborative art.

What kinds of projects or artistic collaborations do you hope to catalyze?

We are particularly interested in art that breaks out of traditional venues and work that appeals across age, gender identity, race, political orientation, etc. An area of of emphasis has always been to foster collaborations between unlikely pairings: artists from wildly different backgrounds, folks who may not even consider themselves as artists working directly with professional artists, and work from disciplines that may not consider pairing up otherwise. Hopefully we can contribute to the creation of projects that would be unimaginable in a more traditional arts context.

Rendering of the Court 13 Arts headquarters. Image courtesy of Court 13 Arts.

What artists or art works have inspired this mission?

The City Museum in St. Louis has long been a reference for the kind of space we want to emulate, in terms of redefining what a venue and art space can be. Duke Riley’s naval battle in Queens is a great example of an artist really breaking out of any sort of traditional venue space. The Festival Pirotecnia in Túltepec, Mexico, is an annual event that celebrates San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of fireworks makers, with days of purely wild pyrotechnic displays. And The Hinterlands, a group in Detroit, created a one-time festival called Porous Borders, which explored the shared and navigable spaces along a municipal border, encouraging collaborations and performances by and among all kinds of members of the communities involved.

If the Court 13 Arts HQ project has one main impact, what do you hope it will be?

We want to empower artists and to provide opportunities for creative people who may not consider themselves artists to have a voice. Stories like those of Quvenzhané Wallis, who went from Houma Elementary School [in Louisiana] to the Academy Awards over the course of two years, or Jimmy Lee Moore, a war veteran and jack of all trades who became an irreplaceable member of our filmmaking team both behind and in front of the camera, happen with a combination of grassroots outreach and a community-based artistic program that welcomes and inspires people who aren’t brought up within traditional creative capitals.

With this program, and with an ever-growing family of new voices, we hope to establish an innovative model of art and filmmaking that can be replicated and used to empower creative people all over the world.

Rendering of the Court 13 Arts headquarters. Image courtesy of Court 13 Arts.

The Court 13 Arts Headquarters project is live on Kickstarter until May 26.