SHELTER FROM THE STORM
By Thomas B. Harrison, Arts Editor, MOBILE REGISTER
New Orleans artist Jacqueline Bishop and her husband came through the ordeal of Hurricane Katrina sadder and wiser, uncertain about the future of the city they love.
They watched and listened as savage winds uprooted trees and played havoc with rooftop shingles and street signs. Their house at the edge of the Garden District rumbled and shook as the storm punched a hole in the roof.
“We were downstairs in the living room,” says Bishop, who commutes between New Orleans and temporary quarters in Mobile. “The wind started coming, the rain started coming. It was loud, things were crackling all around us, parts of the roof were taken off, things were falling on the skylights.
“It was roaring and the house would sway. That was probably a tornado. It went on for five or six hours, then it got quiet…. I was frightened, but the house wasn”t falling apart and no water was coming up inside the house.”
Three hours went by and she thought, “Only two or three hours left. And then, finally, it was over.”
When Bishop and her husband walked outside, they were shocked.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “It was like a bomb had hit. All these big trees and wires, things had fallen on houses and cars in the street, fences were torn down. I was stunned, speechless.”
They emerged to discover a city in ruins, desperate, toxic and rife with chaos. Then came the human predators, ripping the plywood off storefronts and residences, plundering and vandalizing.
Bishop and her husband, Herbert, got out when they could. Even that proved a nerve-wracking and circuitous journey along narrow streets blocked by fallen trees and the detritus of catastrophe. They were fortunate to get out with some of their possessions and their faculties intact.
“We decided to leave when saw a lot of our friends’ businesses being broken into,” she says.
With her husband at the wheel, they drove down St. Charles Avenue and followed a maze of streets that eventually led them to the Crescent City Connection and the bridge to safety. Their route was roundabout and took them through some scary parts of the city, according to Bishop.
“It was anarchy,” she says, “and it went beyond what was necessary. We heard there were carjackings and rapes, and we saw people siphoning gasoline out of cars parked along the streets in the Warehouse District and lower St. Charles Avenue right by the expressway.”
Somehow, they got through. It was never a sure thing.
“There was no time to panic or cry,” she says. “There wasn’t even really time to talk. You had concentrate on getting out of there, up onto the bridge, and getting the hell out…. I really don”t remember everything, I think we were stunned with what the hurricane did to the city, which was ugly, and (looters) with grocery carts.”
Bishop’s home was looted and vandalized, her son’s car stolen. Fortunately, both her sons were away at college.
“We went back to the house,” says Bishop. “It doesn’t feel like my house or my studio anymore.”
And yet, Bishop understands it might have been unimaginably worse.
“People are suffering,” she says. “This isn’t reality television – people are losing their careers, their businesses, homes, photographs of their ancestors, their children, everything.”
The hurricane and its aftermath left deep scars on the dynamic community of artists in New Orleans. Bishop says many of her fellow artists ended up in Atlanta, Houston, Austin, St. Louis or Nashville, and many will not return.
“That could be the initial shock,” she says. “I was wondering, ‘Why not Mobile?'”
For one thing, the aforementioned Sun Belt cities have more art galleries and therefore more opportunities for artists to market their work through art centers, museums, galleries, or directly to collectors. They won”t be coming to Mobile for earn a living.
“What are their options?” Bishop says. “Can they get a job teaching art in any of the schools? Those positions are already filled, and there are not that many of them. Can they get a gallery to represent them? There aren’t any. Artists have to make money.”
Initially Bishop and her husband drove to Houston, where she was offered studio space at Lawndale Art Center. The couple chose Mobile instead because they were offered living quarters by Ann and Palmer Bedsole, who are connected to the New Orleans art community through their daughter, Raine.
Mobile artist Wanda Sullivan, director of the Eichold Gallery, offered Bishop the use of her studio on the campus of Spring Hill College. When Bishop got to Mobile, she began talking to Carlos Parkman, president and CEO of the nonprofit Centre for the Living Arts, which operates Space 301.
The downtown contemporary gallery needed an exhibition to replace the “Masters of New Orleans” show that fell through when organizer/curator Mark Bercier relocated to Atlanta. Bishop began making phone calls and sending e-mails and the response was enthusiastic.
The result is “Made in New Orleans: A Survey of Contemporary Art from the Crescent City,” which opens Nov. 4 and runs through Jan. 3, 2006, at Space 301. The opening will coincide with Arts Alive! the downtown street festival.
One of the lecturers during the run of the show is David S. Rubin, curator for the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans” rejuvenated Warehouse District, who says this is a timely and worthwhile event, “hurricane or not.”
“I have been involved with the New Orleans artists” community about six years and of all the communities of artists I’ve worked with, this is the most extraordinary group I”ve ever encountered.
“Over six years, I got to know many artists, some of whom worked on the visual arts committee that assisted with various support needs for programming. I also followed work many of these artists through a program called ”ArtSpeak,” founded by Jacqueline Bishop.”
Rubin says the collaborative spirit among artists in the Crescent City is quite genuine, and he praised the community’s “welcoming atmosphere.”
“What distinguishes their work is that it’s very diverse, with a strong dedication to celebrating life and humanistic concerns,” he says.
Even a casual glance at the artistic landscape drives home the devastating impact of Katrina. So many dislocated and discombobulated souls, artists and non-artists alike. Artists who agreed to be part of “Made in New Orleans” say this event is more than an art show.
“With this event, Space 301 is providing a shelter for the arts,” says Dona Lief. “Just as people need assistance, art itself needs refuge, and Space 301 has become a safe haven for the New Orleans arts community.” Lief says “the future has been obliterated.”
“We’re living in the here-and-now, since I cannot return to my studio: All the tools for making my art are beyond my grasp,” she says. “My roof, siding, windows, shutters and trees around my house all sustained damage. With no running water, lights or gas, my home is uninhabitable.”
Her most vivid memory of Hurricane Katrina is the image of her neighbor. “I can still see (him) in front of his house looking dazed and sitting on the porch with his dog in his lap,” she says. “Water was rising to the curb with broken roof tiles, bricks, broken glass and large shutters torn from the second story littering the sidewalk in front of my house.”
Katrina has destroyed lives and scattered artists to many states, and Lief says the arts community needs to be “re-created from the remnants.” The upcoming showcase for New Orleans artists is a step.
“Some of us will return, others perhaps not,” she says. “We need to establish new bonds through events like this. Right now, Mobile is our community. Like a terrifying nightmare, Katrina will haunt me for the rest of my life, surfacing in my artwork in unexpected ways.”
Douglas Bourgeois, a resident of New Orleans for five years, now lives about 65 miles upriver in a rural community that is “quickly suburbanizing and increasing in population.”
His history as an artist is tied to New Orleans, and considers himself an “honorary” member of the community. He says “Made in New Orleans” is timely and much needed. The aftermath of Katrina has left “a chaotic, unanchored feeling for New Orleans artists and residents just now,” he says, “and the solidarity of such an exhibit provides hope and a voice to the vibrant art scene that thrived in New Orleans.”
Painter Lory Lockwood says the concept for the Mobile exhibition is “fabulous.”
“Doing this kind of show as a historical perspective on what was going on before is interesting because it really puts it in a moment in time,” she says by long distance. “None of the work will be influenced by the disaster whatsoever. It sort of freezes all that.
“The danger of all these kinds of shows is there might get to be too many of them, you know, and we don’t want anything to become exploitive. But I (like) the way Jackie is doing it. She is taking good quality work, being very selective. She is just a perfectionist. I’m really happy to be in this show.”
Lockwood is currently working along with other displaced artists, such as Ron Bechet and John Scott, at Lawndale Art Center in Houston.
Lockwood considers herself “really, really lucky.” Her house survived Katrina just fine, and 80 percent of her work was safely on display in a show in Pennsylvania.
“A total fortuitous coincidence,” says Lockwood, who had one painting in a Julia Street gallery, another at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. She assumes those works were out of harm’s way.
She and her husband bought a little place in Pass Christian, Miss., about a month before the hurricane. She’d taken a large work on canvas, plus one smaller piece to the house. She found the larger painting lying on a bed.
“That thing must have risen to the top of the storm surge,” she says. Although damaged, she thinks the artwork will survive.
Bechet says his most vivid memory of the hurricane was the aftermath. He’d been busy moving things around and taking care of the endless details involved in evacuating but eventually he had to confront reality.
“When things settled down it occurred to me I was homeless, unemployed and had no place to work,” he says. “It was the sudden onrush of all the information at one time that just collapsed me. “I had been thinking this would all blow over and we’d be back home in a few days, and I kind of held on to that idea until that realization – then it hit me. That was the roughest part, not knowing what we had back in the city of New Orleans.
“Bishop says the long-term prognosis for the arts in New Orleans is uncertain, and many of the city’s once-key players likely will be missing in action. There is no dearth of determination and resolve. Since some artists are not coming back there will be empty spaces,” she says. “The fact that there will be very little commerce in the next year is going to affect tourism.
“But I have to say, I think everybody is going to come back stronger than ever, and everybody who decides to be part of the rebirth of New Orleans – because it is a different city now, and it’s going be a different city than it was – everybody is going to be committed to being supportive of one another and getting back to where we were.
“Some people aren’t going be there to help us, and they’re going to be missed – that’s our loss, but everybody has to do what they have to do.”