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The Art of the Storm 

I knew that if I didn't do it myself, Katrina would do it for me," says artist and urban planner Robert Tannen of the minimal, house-shaped outdoor sculptures that had adorned his yard, but which he smashed into a heap of mangled scrap metal just before Katrina hit. He might have been concerned about them becoming dangerous projectiles in the rampaging wind, but his response typified many artists' concerns about unauthorized changes to their work, and Katrina was the mother of unauthorized changes. In any event, they won't go to waste -- he plans to recycle their crushed remains into a conceptual piece later this year.

In some ways Katrina herself was an artist of elemental discord who rearranged staid structures into kinetic sculptures, putting boats on the roofs of houses and houses on top of cars. Even churches took a hit; where the St. Daniel Spiritual Church once stood, fragments of statues of saints now appear amid heaps of rubble. What Katrina left in her wake was a new landscape, a tale of two cities: one that remained dry and viable, and another that suffered, to varying degrees, the fate of Atlantis.

Both provide fodder for the creative responses of all concerned. Pre-Katrina New Orleans had been described as an art object in its own right, and the new landscape is a work in progress that challenges us to envision a new future. Some of the earliest responses were colorful if problematic, perhaps because of the storm's emotional toll, as strung-out national network journalists reported rumors as fact, including false claims that the floodwater was a "toxic soup" of deadly chemicals, cholera and West Nile virus. Such reports left nerves on edge at a time when calm would have been preferable.

The arrest of artist Jeffrey Holmes was a study in overreaction. While removing water-damaged possessions from his gallery on St. Claude Avenue, Holmes was inspired to make an art installation on the neutral ground across the street. When Toxic Art: This Exhibit Will Kill You, appeared there on Sept. 26, Holmes described it as "comprised of personal artwork, art supplies and other items removed from our house and gallery space after sitting in toxic flood waters for over a week." Then as now, the Ninth Ward figured prominently in the news, and the exhibit included funerary objects painted with the epitaph "RIP 9th Ward." What led to his arrest, however, was a segment with black mannequin heads on stakes called Field of Silent Dreams. Intended to symbolize the disproportionate suffering of the black population, it was seen by some NOPD officers as a racial slur. An argument ensued, and Holmes briefly ended up in jail. Cleanup crews then disposed of the installation, which has since been partially restored

While rearranging the city and its demographic makeup, Katrina left a legacy of official responses that may have made sense at the time, but seem increasingly bizarre in retrospect. As National Guardsmen patrolled the streets in search missing persons, pet rescue squads -- including some only loosely affiliated with the SPCA -- performed similar tasks, sometimes knocking down doors and leaving residences wide open to intruders. In their wake, they left searched structures with cryptic painted markings like weird tattoos blanketing most of the city. Designed to note the presence (or absence) of dogs, cats or cadavers, they bear a striking resemblance to veves -- the graphic symbols of voodoo spirits. This was not lost on local painter and voodoo priestess Sallie Anne Glassman, who synthesized the similarities into the logo of a new organization, The Hope and Heritage Project.

"Its goal is to provide low cost housing," she says, and in more ordinary times it might have been considered quaint that an artist and voodoo priestess would try to undertake such a task. But there are no ordinary times, and Glassman is receiving help from real estate developer Pres Kabacoff, who has faced challenges of his own providing low-income housing for the former residents of the St. Thomas housing project after it was bulldozed to make way for his upscale River Garden residential complex. The voodoo spirits may have their work cut out for them, but none can deny that this is an exciting time: the old patterns have largely been washed away, the future is a blank canvas and we are all challenged to become the artists of a better tomorrow.

click to enlarge The site where the St. Daniel Spiritual Church once stood is - now a surreal melange of rubble mingled with the headless - statues of saints.
  • The site where the St. Daniel Spiritual Church once stood is now a surreal melange of rubble mingled with the headless statues of saints.
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