In the wake of Katrina, Austin artists do their part to help
Even as Austinites have made astounding efforts to meet the critical needs of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, Austin arts organizations and individual artists, musicians, comedians, puppeteers, drama educators, and a rainbow of performers have been donating time, effort, and energy to entertain, share stories, sing songs, play music, make jokes, and enjoy the company of accidental strangers and neighbors. The exchange goes both ways as artists from New Orleans share their unique spirit and style with the Austin community.
Last week in East Austin, I picked up a handwritten flier at Rhizome Collective, a grassroots community organization and urban sustainability education center. Hastily drawn in ink, the poster described a benefit show for evacuees featuring New Orleans artists, puppeteers, fashion designers, and musicians. That evening at Cafe Mundi, I entered a dimly lit courtyard to find a cargo van parked inside the playing area with electronic equipment, fabric, Christmas lights dangling from the truck's ceiling, and an array of other odd objects. A tall woman decked out in black platform shoes, body tattoos, and shaved head with exaggerated eyebrows announced the program's lineup into a microphone. Clamp lights with attached color gels followed her movement as impromptu technicians fastened them on upside-down plastic buckets. New Orleans is a street performer's city that encourages the performance of outrageous stunts to entertain the tourists, explained Miss Led, the mistress of ceremonies, and many of the performers on the bill made their living through such work.
"Doc" Otis Cross played electric piano flanked by two band members running bows across the edge of handsaws. The trio bent a haunted blues melody out of droning, shaky wails. Later, makeshift models strutted to punk rock for a cement floor fashion show. The clothing, reconstructed from donated goods recently acquired through the Red Cross, had slashes, transparent frills, spray paint, or decorative bits and pieces added to the original. Some called the handicraft "hot-rodding," a term usually applied to stock cars.
In explaining the Dadaist nature of the benefit, Melanie Schopper, one of the models and an Austinite, credits Zotz, a New Orleans coffeehouse reminiscent of Cabaret Voltaire, the early 20th-century French cafe. Over the last five years, Zotz has promoted fringe artists, creating its own flip-side community in the Crescent City. Schopper looks forward to an "arts reprise in Austin," whereby "fabulous freaks" raid Austin's marketed yet now blasé weirdness.
The stories told by these displaced artists are like those of others displaced by the storm. Mattvaughn Black, a New Orleans musician, performer, and owner of the Whirling Dervish bar, fled with few of his belongings, assuming he could return promptly. And he knew people stuck in the Superdome and convention center, and others who walked barefoot on Interstate 10. Like many, he anticipates returning, even though his home in the by-water region, a neighborhood for many artists that's near the 9th Ward, most likely was devastated by Katrina. "Me and my wife talk that we're going back," he says. "There's a reason we're there."
Many people at the benefit thanked the people of Austin again and again for their hospitality and open arms. During the event's close, we widened our ears to Altercation A Capella, a pale, small-framed woman who held the microphone close to her body and in a deep and guttural voice sang African-American spirituals. She told of trudging "knee deep in water full of shit" with "rotting death" all around her a couple of days before. As she moved through the sludge, she heard a song rising behind her. She sang that tune for us in dark rapture, "Wade in the water, wade in the water, God's gonna trouble the water." Soon we all joined voices with her, clapping hands in syrupy sweet rhythm. Purge and rescue, sink or swim, these are survivor songs.
Elsewhere, Austin arts organizations have held a steady hand during the hurricane shake-up. Theatre Action Project, which uses theatre games and exercises to enrich children's creative lives, has been working specifically with evacuee children. Artistic Director Karen LaShelle says that volunteers with TAP and Child Inc. visited with displaced kids at the convention center, where they sang songs, listened to stories, and simply "let them be children and have a good time. We do what we do best: make theatre." TAP will host a Sunday barbecue with puppet shows, music, children's tent, and other fun events.
Some organizations have made it possible for evacuees to enjoy their shows. The UT Performing Arts Center coupled with Capital Metro to bring evacuees to Ennio's pop-star and paper-costumed performance and is offering free tickets for upcoming shows to residents of the gulf region affected by the hurricane. The Austin Symphony Orchestra organized a group of 100 evacuees to attend its season-opening concert at Bass Concert Hall last week.
Dozens of groups, from the Texas Early Music Project to the improv ensemble Tight, have been donating proceeds from regular performances or special benefits to the Red Cross and various emergency relief funds. Rachel Madorsky of Tight feels the creative community is in a unique position to help: "As artists, we are lucky to have a special medium that can accomplish bringing people together, raising funds, raising awareness, and hopefully raise people's spirits, too."
Vincent Kitch, cultural arts program manager for the city of Austin, affirms that numerous arts organizations want to help, but due to the overwhelming response, he recommends that any group with concrete ideas contact city officials to ensure a reliable response and coordination with the folks at the convention center.
Through building artistic bridges and making connections with evacuees, the Austin arts scene could collect fascinating influences that may never be quantifiable, but could leave lasting impressions. What attracts displaced artists to Austin is that we are a sister arts town, committed to cultural enhancement, wonder, and the belief that sometimes art can mend wounded and lost hearts.
For more information about Hurricane Katrina relief, see Community.