Artist’s Bold Katrina Portraits Capture Survivors’ Strength
By Amy McRary, KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINELDallas artist David Bates was about to show some paintings depicting the beauty of the Gulf Coast he loves when he instead became a reporter with a brush and canvas.
It was August 2005; Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf. Bates began to sketch, then paint, what he saw first on television and later in person. The result was dozens of sketches, charcoal and watercolor drawings and oil canvases. More than 40 of the realistic, emotionally charged works are coming this month to the Knoxville Museum of Art.
David Bates: Katrina Paintings is at the museum Oct. 29-Feb. 13, 2011. The museum is the only venue in the eastern United States to show the exhibit that includes large and small oils on canvas and some charcoal and watercolor drawings.
Many larger paintings are portraits of hurricane survivors done in bold strokes and strong colors. The largest, The Storm, is 21 feet wide and inspired by people ready to leave the New Orleans Superdome after Katrina.
Bates initially painted 11-by-14-inch portraits but felt he needed bigger canvases “to show the emotion going on.”
“When you have a guy’s face that 86 inches tall, it’s starting to get to the same feeling of the emotions you have. These figures are not going to collapse or go away. Some of them were carved with paint. In some places the paint is very thin, like a drawing and in other places it is almost in chunks.”
Just before the hurricane, Bates was preparing for a much different show. “I had a group of beautiful paintings of the swamp with birds and uplifting nature at its most beautiful. Because that is what I see, all sunny and pretty. And so it went from the most beautiful things that nature has to offer to the more horrific things nature can do.”
His Katrina art started as sketches that came from a need to “do something.” The Texas native and resident has a long-standing love for the Gulf. It’s not just a place he visits as an artist. He has friends there and goes there to fish. Like millions, he watched the devastation caused by the hurricane and its aftermath on television.
“I was watching it all on TV and calling everybody I knew and trying to keep up with them. I was taping one channel and watching another and I was glued to it. That’s my place and my friends. I started doing these little sketches of people, of these amazing faces and the stories they were telling.
“I felt like I needed to do something. … Everybody was trying to do something. As a visual artist, I wanted to somehow make some kind of visual statement.”
He broke one of his rules as an artist. “This was the first time I did anything from television. I used to tell my students when I would teach never to draw from television.”
The sketches evolved into small paintings and then into larger drawings and paintings. He did more after he got back to New Orleans in January 2006. Some paintings, including one of a man paddling a canoe through flood waters in The Deluge III, came from stories he heard. He made more trips to the coast and worked on the paintings through 2007.
“It started as something I had to do and ended up being two years work.” What he painted was often exhausting. “It was not a fun group of paintings to do.”
What he created changed “my subjects for a long time and I think always a little bit. It comes from getting older too but there’s a certain kind of psychological gravity that comes to it.” He still does still lifes, landscapes and portraits. “I paint a magnolia every year. For me it’s like checking in. Because they don’t change but I do.”
In the five years since Katrina he’s seen what has changed and what hasn’t. “Everybody is trying to do their own thing. Brad Pitt is building modern houses there. Anybody who is doing anything … I think it’s a good thing.”
More recently he’d watched the coast get hit by the BP oil spill. His artistic response was a group of paintings that depict Louisiana fishermen and watermen at work. That emphasis on survival was key to his Katrina paintings.
“During Katrina I didn’t paint victims. I painted survivors, and I think that is an important difference. A lot of people were reporting on victims and that is dramatic. But it doesn’t show the overall strength of what happened.
“I like to think about it as the people who have the strength and fortitude to overcome. It’s the people who have survived. It’s about life going on.”