Here Yet Ever There
From Austin, New Orleans artists strive to save what remains of their city and work to recover it
Dawlin', sit down and let me tell you a love story. My mother refers to me as "the one who escaped." Anyone from New Orleans knows the significance of that label. People don't leave New Orleans, and if they do, they generally return quickly. It took me three tries. Austin has been my home for close to 20 years, but it didn't feel like home when I first arrived. I missed the humidity, which gave me an excuse to wrap up in my grandmother's quilt and sweat myself into a deep surrealist dreamscape. I missed the smell of magnolia blooms, the buzz of the street lamps on St. Charles Avenue, and the drapery of a pair of beads slumped in the gutter of my grandmother's house since Mardi Gras '81. I craved a muffuletta from Central Grocery on Decatur, a Bloody Mary from Mollys at the Market, or a dozen raw bivalves (ersters, dawl) from Casamento's.
My family has lived in New Orleans for many generations. We were one of the first families to help settle the city, with our roots going back to the 1350s in France. Five years ago, my parents and grandmother made their own escape to Florida. After years of fixing gunshot holes in the roof, recovering from burglaries by children, and raising their house another 12 inches, they decided to try a different part of the "South." During my family's last year in the city, I confiscated 150-year-old bricks, cypress shutters, and various architectural structures from their garage. When I would return to Austin after these salvage expeditions, I continued to listen for that atypical Southern accent, port talk with a Southern drawl, longing to hear someone with one of the eight dialects peculiar to the city. Until recently, those "yat" sounds were usually coming from New Yorkers. Hurricane Katrina has brought many Orleanians to Austin, including visual artists, who forcibly escaped physical dangers and face the ensuing psychological perils of their city's destruction. Though we did manage a potluck, meeting with each artist proved impossible. They are taking multiple trips back to New Orleans to check on family, friends, and belongings. I asked them if they had plans to use their art or position as an artist to heal their community and themselves.
Elizabeth Underwood (www.elizabethunderwood.net) has been an active photographer and installation artist during her 12 years in New Orleans. She was the office manager for world-renowned photographer Herman Leonard, whose studio/office was destroyed during Katrina. While Underwood was able to save his negatives, her own, and her pets, she lost everything else. As her work specifically addresses issues of disassociation and dislocation, she believes that the uncanny nature of art-making has proven itself relevant yet again.
"First off, 'healing via art' has always been one of my unspoken, inherent motivations for art-making. I am one of those people that says that 'art has saved my life' repeatedly and consistently. When I was hired to teach art workshops with the women and children at a domestic violence crisis shelter, it was specifically because I manifest that ethic versus simply promote it. I believe it is this basic purpose that enables me to help people via art to the degree that I do.
"I am convinced that I can best help my city and people by doing my job as an artist outside of New Orleans. This means continuing the dialogue, making work that describes the experience, and being brave enough to own up to that. My work always has a measure of the uncanny in it, but judging by my past two public/community/site-specific pieces [the last being a show with the theme "Natural Disaster," New Orleans, May 2005], it is accessible and also incredibly connecting.
"My work always deals with issues of the cycle of life and death, and that theme is more important to me now than ever. I'm going to be showing images from New Orleans. I am also going to be including some very beautiful objects that I recovered from my flooded house, bagged and tagged. Images of the destruction, yes, but personal and maybe even at the same time universal. At base I'm telling the story of where I am right now. How could that not be the story of the destruction of my city? In that, hopefully, if I do my job right, what we'll end up seeing is creation from destruction, and therein lies the healing."
A native New Orleanian accustomed to strange weather, photographer Natasha Sanchez (www.diosaphotography.com) noted climatic changes with a white Christmas in 2004. In May 2005, she wore jeans and a sweater to Jazz Fest, and in late August she was evacuated from her home for what would turn out to be one of this year's worst natural disasters. Sanchez was lucky. She lost a futon, has a slightly damaged apartment with a promise that her rent won't be increased rents having doubled and in some cases tripled as FEMA contractors have moved into the neighborhood and her job as manager of the Darkroom with the New Orleans Center for the Photographic Arts has been put on hold. After a period with her sister in Baton Rouge following Katrina, she came to Austin to live with an aunt.
"The idea for a children's book examining perspective started last fall when I met a woman who works for the Housing Authority of New Orleans at a John Kerry meet-up. She was explaining life at the housing project where her office was located. She would set up job interviews for some of the adults who lived there, but most of the time they never showed up because they figured there was no point because they wouldn't get the job. Half of the girls under 20 were pregnant. At 5pm, when the office closed, the drug dealers took over. She described a very grim yet very real society. It was the hopelessness that got me. My first idea was to start photographing the projects themselves, somehow find a ray of light or beauty within it, to show perspective. As time went on, I came up with the idea to do a children's book. I wanted it to be somewhat universal, not limited to just certain sections of NOLA. I wanted to show that beauty and hope and good things were available to all of us, that the city belongs to its citizens, and we have a duty to maintain it. I wrote a text using New Orleans street names to promote the beauty that I feel is already there, hurricane or no hurricane. While in Austin, I sorted out images and got somewhat of a layout. The key behind this book is what I think needs to happen in the rebuilding of New Orleans: Use what resources we have. The use of our street names exemplifies our readily available resources. The arts play an incredibly important role in building the infrastructure of a society. But that's another reason why I came to Austin: to cultivate my talents, to go back to New Orleans stronger, and to be in a better position to help."
Alice Henderson studied fine art at the University of Michigan, Wayne State, and the New York Studio School, completed her BFA at the University of New Orleans, and received her Master of Arts in Teaching from Tulane. She has exhibited her paintings in New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and Pátzcuaro, Mexico. She is married to New Orleans photographer Carroll Grevemberg. Formerly married to Andrei Codrescu, she came to Austin to live with their son Lucian, a semiconductor architect for Qualcom and Tristan. She is currently back in New Orleans, where she hopes to assist in the reopening of Ben Franklin High, where she teaches in the Talented Visual Arts program.
"The school board meeting last night was very dramatic. Unfortunately for the teachers and parents that want to come back, the school board is slow to assess the damage, and I don't know of any schools that have been cleaned. The only schools on the Eastbank [New Orleans proper] that will be opening in January are ones that have petitioned for charter school status. Franklin won its petition, but that doesn't guarantee that I have a job there. We need to get the students back for that to happen.
"I'm helping with the cleanup. Our house wasn't hurt too badly, but approximately 80% of the homes were totaled! Having lived here yourself, you can imagine how devastating that is; the economy is crippled, and everyone is out of work. I know people are tired of seeing pictures of the destruction; it's not pretty, but it's all around us every day. People are living in it, gutting the ground floor of their houses and living upstairs. I worked really hard helping teachers at school relocate their flooded belongings and mop up. My in-laws' home across from City Park was totaled. We helped them collect the belongings of my mother and father-in-law as well as what they could salvage from their house. Today everyone is relieved to have that job accomplished but depressed about the circumstances. It's funny that since we were spared major damages and flooding unlike most of New Orleans, I feel guilty that my losses aren't as bad as theirs. One of my teacher friends is moving into a FEMA trailer this week and wants me to help her conserve paintings, prints, posters, and books that were in the floodwater. I'm trying to get people to save important stuff even if it doesn't look good. They can always throw it out later if it can't be fixed. The people that have returned are all working in post-traumatic shock, and we need each other for comfort.
"There is a lot to miss about pre-Katrina New Orleans. Most people like the parades and parties, but I miss the people. There is a huge diaspora of New Orleanians scattered all over the country. The biggest problem for me has been the separation and dispersal of our culture."
Before being forced out by the Katrina winds, Grant Ingram (www.grantingram.com) had been a freelance photographer and videographer in New Orleans for the last four years. Ingram is compelled to tell the story of the unique characters and capture the historic backdrops of New Orleans with an honest journalistic style.
"Since the storm, I have been back and forth between New Orleans and Austin. I have spent many days and hours stumbling through the decimated landscapes in and around the city. I feel an obligation to document these neighborhoods. Many of them will soon be gone. Signs plea to returning residents: 'Don't Bulldoze. Together we can rebuild. Welcome back, 9th Ward!' There is no sign of life or rebuilding in many of these neighborhoods. They sit silently, covered in thick sheets of dried, cracked mud and debris. I am fascinated by the open landscapes I have seen there. Most houses have had their doors and windows smashed in. Graffiti speaks in cryptic codes of the discovery of families, puppies, the dying and the dead. Fences and gates are flattened. It's a complete breakdown of the social concept of personal space. Boats from distant neighbors sit in and against rooftops. Wedding photos, children's toys, compact discs, hymnals, personal diaries, and all sorts of vital documentation are strewn throughout the streets. When the waters finally did recede in these neighborhoods, the mud and sludge pasted everything down where it settled in the floodwaters. You see miles and miles of decimated still lives, preserved and untreaded. And from the looks of it, things may be like this for quite some time.
"In regards to the 'new' Big Easy, I remain cautiously optimistic. What many fear is that the heart and soul of our ancient, weathered city is going to burn out or fade away. It may happen, but it will be a struggle. I've joked that the 'new' New Orleans may be a spectacle reminiscent of the 1984 World's Fair. The people will have live entertainment, gambling, drinks, music, and scantily clad vaudevillian performers. Perhaps a casino will showcase a New Orleans Hall of Heroes, featuring the robotic likes of Louis Armstrong, Archie Manning, Blaine Kerne, Mayor Ray Nagin, and none other than the Kingfish himself. An animatronic Huey P. Long? You know I'll be there.
"Seriously though, in regards to the future of New Orleans, nobody knows what the outcome will be. That is why we find ourselves discussing it so much. With the relocations of thousands, these lives and stories have been scattered chaotically. I love the idea of New Orleans subcultures surfacing throughout the country, spreading their arts, music, culture, and cooking throughout the country."
New Orleans moves deep within the veins of the people from there and those naturalized to the city. Many of us who have lived there all our lives experience a sense of ownership and don't easily allow an outsider, even someone from one of the neighboring cities of this megalopolis, to command a sense of place. Culture is a funny thing, made up of value, an expression, and a collective identity. The arts interpret and reiterate our cultural philosophy. At a time of rapid change, we seek out artifacts for meaning and reassurance. Artists, among others, are the caretakers of our culture. They are vital for preserving old memories and creating new ones, for memory is at the core of our ability to recover our humanity.
Photography by Grant Ingram and Natasha Sanchez is on view through Dec. 4 at Hyde Park Bar and Grill, 4206 Duval. A portion of the proceeds from sales of their work will go toward Katrina relief efforts. Elizabeth Underwood has moved into a studio at the Bread Factory on Tillery Street. Alice Henderson will be returning to Austin this week with a gift for me: a pair of purple beads.