In June 2011, I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Baton Rouge, LA. I flew down early and met up with a student advisee, Kendra, who was in New Orleans researching Mardi Gras Indian traditions. In the two days before my conference, we decided to volunteer for Operation Helping Hands, an offshoot of Catholic Charities that my class had volunteered with for three straight spring breaks. The first day we did some work on a home in Treme, but on the second day we worked on a home in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was my first day of many volunteering in the Lower Ninth.
It was a non-descript shotgun house on Tricou Street, about halfway between St. Claude Avenue and the river. We were working on the punchlist for the home that was being turned over to its owners the next day. Most of the tasks were fairly mundane and towards the end of the day, Kendra and I were asked to paint the front door. Kendra, who had spent the previous summer volunteering with Operation Helping Hands, walked me through the process. As I painted the base coat, the door revealed itself to me. It had designs carved into the door panels, and I as I worked I began to see the chisel marks where a craftsman, perhaps even the original homeowner, had hand-carved them, one by one. And, as I applied the trim coat, I realized that I was not just painting a door, I was working on a living, functional piece of folk art.