Bonnie, Floyd, Isabel, Katrina - hurricanes all.
I remember vividly taping X's over the windows of our officer's quarters on the Navy base then waiting out Bonnie in 1986. We sat listening to the howling and screaming wind, watching debris fly past the windows, staying as calm as possible so our four-year-old and infant sons would not panic. We emerged from Bonnie unscathed, Floyd and Isabel, too, most thankfully.
My heart clenched instinctively five years ago when Katrina hit our Gulf coast. I had no frame of reference, however, for the devastation of the flooding after the hurricane. The only word I can imagine that could begin to touch the horror of the flooding is 'nightmare.' I can type the sentences that speak of people wandering a devastated landscape without food, clothing, or shelter; of people wandering a landscape once familiar, become alien and literally toxic; of people wandering a landscape that would erupt in flames. I can type the sentences, but I cannot lay claim to the experience.
For all that I do not have personal, firsthand experience of Katrina I do feel that another's pain does affect me and mine. Thus, I am grateful for exhibits such as "Katrina: 5 Years of Reflection" at the Spruill Gallery in Dunwood, GA. (August 13 - September 11; free admission; open Wednesday through Saturday, 11am - 5pm) In introductory remarks provided about the exhibit Hope Cohn wrote that artistic works have the effect of "reinforcing the importance of community, compassion and humanity." As it happens, a number of artists from New Orleans relocated to the Atlanta community in the wake of Katrina and their work, along with that of Atlanta artist Elyse Defoor, comprise the exhibit.
In the remarks provided with her body of work, "X.U.ME," Ms. Defoor wrote that she had been "overwhelmed by the endless landscape of loss and devastation." She had returned to New Orleans in the Spring of 2006 and again in the Spring of 2010 - just ten days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf. It is evident that the X's painted on the buildings by rescue workers became the organizing principle for "X.U.ME." She explains that before a team of rescue workers searched a building they painted the first stroke of an 'X', upper left to lower right, on the outside of the building so that it would be visible from the street. If the 'X' was not completed other teams and volunteers would know to go in search of the missing team. The quadrants of a complete 'X' contained the team's initials (left), the date (top), the number of hazards present (right), and the number of corpses found (bottom).
Debra Howell was a photographer with one of the companies conducting surveys of damaged structures for historic and architectural significance. These photographs documented "every former home and business one by one, often tracking down a house blocks away from its foundation." Ms. Howell's work was included in "Katrina Exposed: A Photographic Record" at the New Orleans Museum of Art in May 2006. She found that for this exhibit "Katrina: 5 Years of Reflection" the images did not resonate for her in the same way, " ... the BP oil spill had changed the way I now read images of flooded houses and flood lines in a disturbing and horribly deja vu kind of way, but one that had to be documented."
Ms. Howell collaborated with New Orleans artist Jan Gilbert in the work "Waterwords, A Katrina Pictionary." It is a series of photos with text that is a variant on the "Fortune Cookie" game. 'Waterwords' "plays on the linguistic phenomenon in which a word's importance in a culture is reflected in the number of variations of it that exist in the cultural lexicon." The example which summed it up for me was "water symbology n: the study or interpretation of water stains in your home."
Storm debris, some from the site of her devastated home, was incorporated in Lori Gordon's mixed media assemblages Shaman I, Shaman II, Shaman III, Shaman IV. These Shamans address the issues of rebirth and renewal. Krista Jurisich worked in mixed media as well to create her "New Orleans Immortelle Series." "'Immortelle' refers to historical French icons created to revere the deceased." Ms. Jurisich states that the series "also pays tribute to current consequence of deep water," and one of the pieces includes what I interpreted to be depth markings. Ms. Jurisich also wrote that "witnessing and living in a disaster unfolding has been beyond my life experience."
Photography by Brian Nolan and Neil Alexander is also presented in the exhibit. Mr. Nolan's series is titled "Residual Images" and is comprised of photographic images culled from notebooks containing his life's work in photography. These notebooks had sat in his New Orleans home, in the flood waters, for a month. "Occasionally out of the depths of the damage something recognizable will appear," Mr. Nolan states, yet he acknowledges, "I cannot determine why some were spared while others were washed clean of the film emulsion." He also states, "Being on the inside of the disaster is something I was not prepared for. It humbled me while at the same time gave me an incredible sense of hope." In the end he wrote, "Out of something incredibly tragic and destructive I have found something beautiful. What more can I ask for?"
At the time of the hurricane Neil Alexander was a local architectural photographer in New Orleans. He did not evacuate, thus his photos offer a first person record of the city post-Katrina. I especially noted a diptych entitled "Party World" showing, on the right, brilliant pink tents resembling houses. They evoked, for me, John Mellencamp's song "Pink Houses" from his "Uh Huh" CD.
This was my first visit to the Spruill Gallery of what I hope will be many. Initially, when I saw the 'X' spray-painted on the Gallery's exterior I feared it was graffiti. When I saw the sign advertising the exhibit I understood, as I remembered images of buildings so marked after the hurricane. While a community can and must move on from devastation eventually, the human community can and must acknowledge a tragic event, a tragic loss.
A series of photos with a flood line superimposed over them, a collaboration among Ms. Howell, Ms. Gilbert, Ms. Jurisich, and Michele White, is accompanied by the following legend:
"Unless I remind myself to look, I don't see the black flood lines anymore and it may be that we have to keep such marks visible and in tension with our daily lives in order to connect our histories to our possible futures and try to fix things."
[Author's note: All text in quotation marks is taken from text on plaques accompanying the works on exhibit. Please visit the exhibit to witness the full text.]
[[Photo: Spruill Gallery exterior, the author, 2010]]