“David Bates: Artist Captures Katrina Victims’ Anguish”, Dallas Morning News

Artist captures Katrina victims’ anguish


David Bates with "The Storm"

When it comes to social activism, artist David Bates is the first to admit: “It’s not usually my deal.”

But when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and tore asunder the New Orleans levee system in 2005, he found himself mesmerized, unable to turn away from the anguish of the faces on television.

“I was fascinated by the emotion and strength of the people you saw in those pictures,” he says. So he did something he”d never done before – formulate paintings of a sea of haunted faces, in this case the victims of Katrina.

Nearly three years later, the result is a fine and powerful exhibition of original art now being showcased at the Dallas gallery Dunn and Brown Contemporary. A Dallas native and graduate of Southern Methodist University, Mr. Bates, 55, has done extraordinarily well as a professional artist.

But on a recent morning, when asked about the cost of the paintings in “The Storm,” he reacts with a wince.

“This is so not about that,” he says.

What it is about is best summed up in the reaction of a displaced New Orleans couple who showed up at the gallery to meet the artist at the opening-night reception. They had heard about the show and vowed to be there, having been among the many who lost their homes.

“They never got any help, and you hear that quite often,” says Mr. Bates. “The woman told me the expressions here cover the realm of experience she and her husband suffered through – loss at seeing their home destroyed, anger in realizing the insurance company was not going to cover them and feelings of bewilderment and dismay for having been forgotten, seemingly by everybody.”

There’s another element: He can”t escape the fact that “The Storm” is being displayed in the midst of a volatile election campaign and that the work itself is inherently political. Not that he’s pointing a finger.

“I don’t think very many people dispute the fact that this wasn’t handled efficiently by anyone in government,” he says. “This is not a call for the demise of any particular regime, it’s just telling a story. But if you look at this and say, ”Well, that all worked out great,” that’s your decision, I suppose.”

He admits being horrified by recent statistics. One published study estimates the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at $12 billion a month (rounding up to a total of $2.5 trillion by 2017), whereas rebuilding the entire New Orleans levee system, strong enough to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, would cost $40 billion. Compared with the war, he sees the levees as a bargain.

“There are not big anti-Bush signs on the wall here, but it’s pretty obvious when you see all this and you remember what went on,” he says, “well, in that regard, it’s definitely a statement.”

Noah Simblist, an assistant professor of art at SMU, does not know Mr. Bates but is familiar with his work and applauds him for the new direction.

“David Bates is an artist within our community who is living off his work,” says Mr. Simblist, whose own art deals with social-justice issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “He’s selling his paintings for decent prices and usually sells out a show.

“So, I think the idea of him taking on an issue that is political and has to do with issues of social justice is actually quite brave in a lot of ways, because he doesn”t have to. He”s in no position where he needs to.”

Mr. Simblist notes that Katrina inspired a bold theatrical project by visual artist Paul Chan, who restaged and set Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans” Ninth Ward. And in Austin, a group working at the Blanton Museum of Art has recently targeted Katrina. Thursday night there will be a panel discussion titled “In Katrina’s Wake: A discussion for the Austin arts community on art as a form of social engagement.”

After 9/11, the art world and Americans in general seemed to respond, says Mr. Simblist, “as though shopping and spending were ways of dealing with the trauma. Now, with the economy less stable, artists are veering toward the more introspective.”

Tall and lean, the dark-haired Mr. Bates wears bookish glasses and a neatly cropped Van Dyke that make him look younger than he is and a lot like the college professor he never became. This is a new kind of show for him, one undertaken, he says, from a sense of feeling driven, as though he had to do this. He”s surprised and pleased by the reactions.

“People never came up to me in the past and thanked me,” he says with a laugh, “for painting a magnolia.” He has painted both magnolias and people for a very long time, but faces like this are new to his repertoire. He has gone on pleasure trips to the Gulf Coast for more than a quarter-century and has eaten and fished with those who live there. He has laughed with them, and now, of course, suffered alongside them.

After Katrina, he was unable to visit New Orleans until December 2005, but when he arrived he was even more blown away by “the enormity of it, the expansiveness of the devastation.” Seeing it, he felt compelled to fix the faces in his mind and commit them to canvas as soon as possible.

Again, his motives were partly political.

“I knew it wouldn’t be long before people would tire of this and go back to Britney and what’s happening with Paris Hilton,” he says. “You could tell that was going to happen. But this can simply not be forgotten.”

In his painting The Flood, a pair of displaced victims stare back from beneath a muddy sky, a tower of water rising behind them. The husband clutches the wife, who covers her eyes. The faces, like so many in “The Storm,” are black.

In another, The Deluge III, a man paddling a canoe meanders down the river that was once his street. Like all the other faces, he”s an actual victim.

“He got up on his bed, because the floor was covered with water,” says Mr. Bates. “There were no lights. Pretty soon, the bed was covered in water. He beat his way through the ceiling and found his way to the top of the house. He saw this canoe that had washed up against the side of the house, just beating against the walls. So, he picked up a plank and canoed his way out of there.”

Such stories “just cement it for me,” says Mr. Bates. “Somebody tells you a story, and you remember it. And you remember the face who told it to you.”

The artist grew up an only child in Garland, son of a clothing salesman and a mom who longed to be an artist. He and his parents loved traveling to Galveston. But on one trip, he heard about the 1900 hurricane that killed at least 8,000 people and, even in a boy”s mind, Galveston was never the same.

He sees a parallel in his experience with New Orleans, which for years has been a place he retreated for gumbo, Mardi Gras, jazz and happier faces in happier times.

Life itself, he says, is a lot like gumbo. “The longer you go, the more baggage you get. So, the gumbo becomes more interesting.”

His work on Katrina even parallels his own tragedies, which include the recent deaths of both his parents, not to mention the passing of the beloved family dog.

“Life is like gumbo,” he says, “where you’re putting stuff in and putting stuff in, and hopefully,” he says, “in the end, the gumbo becomes more interesting.”