This artists retreat and ecological field study station is on the West Bank at the southeastern-most edge of Orleans Parish, directly across the river from Violet. It sits on 8 acres of forest, is bordered by hundreds more wooded acres, and sometimes the only manmade sounds come from cargo ships plying the Mississippi beyond the hump of the levee just outside the property's gates.
But if the tranquil setting seems to belong to a time and place other than modern-day New Orleans, the experiences of the artists who have come here for the past year are excruciatingly in sync with the city's very recent history: vanished jobs, ruined homes and studios and precarious post-storm housing arrangements with little space for creating new work.
Since February 2006, however, A Studio in the Woods has been helping artists one at a time get back to the city and back on track with their work through a program dubbed Restoration Residencies. The secluded studio, the only live-in artists' community in the Deep South, has hosted artist residencies since 2000, but for the past year, it has focused exclusively on artists who were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.
"We realized an important part of the fabric of a city is its artists, they're part of the heartbeat of a city," says Lucianne Carmichael, a ceramics artist and retired educator who founded A Studio in the Woods with her husband Joe. "When we came back after the storm (in October 2005), everything in New Orleans was so gray and quiet. So we decided one small thing we could do was help get artists back."
Playwright Yvette Sirker calls her Restoration Residency last year a "safe landing" where she could work before fully returning to life in post-Katrina New Orleans. Poet and performance artist Valentine Pierce says her June residency was "the first time in my adult life I have not had to put my creative writing on hold or squeeze it in after a long day of working."
Artists live in their own quarters at the property during these monthlong residencies and have their own studio space. Meals, art supplies, travel expenses and even a cash stipend are included.
Multimedia artist Elizabeth Underwood says the intangible benefit of the residency she completed in February was to acquire a new perspective on her Katrina experience, one that is intimately tied to the studio's concurrent role as an ecological research station. "The capacity that the Restoration Residency has on every level to heal and romance the soul is unlimited and nothing short of pure medicine," says Underwood.
The same storm that swamped Underwood's Gentilly home and studio and took away her job also brought down many tall trees on A Studio in the Woods' forested acres. They remain where they fell a year and a half later, adding a dynamic that plays to both artistic and research endeavors on the property.
David Baker, the compound's environmental curator, has worked since 2004 to remove the invasive plant species that had come to dominate the property, and he conducts both research and classes on the ecology of the area, known as a bottomland hardwood forest. After Hurricane Katrina blew through, Baker's work has made the property a unique test ground for the way a Louisiana habitat responds to a hurricane in the absence of invasive species brought to the area by man.
Walking the property, the edge of Baker's progress removing invasive species is clearly delineated by the intense concentration of Chinese privet and other such dense, low plants just over the property line. Baker says these shrubs grow so aggressively here that they choke out many of the seedlings of the taller indigenous trees. Since Katrina's storm winds ripped the canopy off many trees, sunlight has been bathing the ground on the studio's acres, now denuded of privet, and those seedlings have been growing luxuriously, stretching in some cases more than 10 feet high within just a year.
"The Gulf Coast has been impacted by storms since the last ice age, so the forests have adapted to them. Their whole life is adapted to the coming and going of these storms," says Baker.
A hands-off approach to the indigenous plants makes the property a landscaper's nightmare but an ecologist's dream as natural rhythms of organic restoration play themselves out. A huge tree that fell during the storm near the studio's main building crushed a portion of a wooden walkway leading to a pond. Instead of removing the tree, the studio's managers rebuilt the walkway right over its prone trunk. Elsewhere on the property, trees snapped in half by Katrina's winds have lately sprouted new growth from trunks and limbs that looked dead a few months ago. Others are slowly decomposing into the earth and providing habitat for the myriad species of creatures that roam the forest.
"That's why we didn't remove the trees," says Lucianne Carmichael. "They still have 100 years of work to do for the environment."
The trees also have been working on the minds of the artists who spend time here. Upon finishing her residency last month, Underwood had this to say about the experience:
"Living in the heart of the fallen trees, broken limbs and empty spaces, obvious wounds from the storm, one begins to see that they are not wounds, they are simply life happening. Nature simply becomes itself, in all incarnations. The fallen tree becomes a nest for snakes and birds, sends out pods and shoots, and the new light allows dormant seeds to pop. To me this is a mirror for the soul, for my own experiences, and when I look at nature I don't see death -- I see life. So when I look inward at my own wounds, I have to see life, fertile ground, possibility, hope. The opportunity I was granted to rest in this space awhile, to see direct metaphors for our own recovery, is nothing short of a miracle."
During her residency, Underwood organized Art in Action, a project that asks artists to create installations, performances or otherwise make their marks in areas of New Orleans that remain devastated from the flood. It is an ongoing, constantly changing public art projects and Underwood says anyone who wants to participate in a way that remains respectful to the neighborhoods is welcome. The idea is for people to use their art to symbolically reclaim areas from the images of storm destruction.
For instance, Art In Action contributor Terrence Sanders turned a boarded-up retail store window at the corner of Carondelet and Canal streets into an installation called "Positive Thoughts" by posting a grid of brightly colored papers bearing positive messages for passersby. One of Underwood's projects, dubbed "Bright Light Fence," turned part of a fence surrounding a flood-wracked Galvez Street house into something like a Lite-Brite toy with bottles of brightly colored liquid inserted into the chain links. And anyone who has noticed the collection of "Hurricane Free Zone" street signs nailed to telephone poles in the Bywater and Lower Ninth Ward -- akin to "Drug Free Zone" signs posted as part of community policing efforts -- has seen the results of an Art in Action project.
"We get used to looking at the way things are here now and even something this surreal becomes ordinary," says Underwood. "It's just heartbreaking if that becomes the iconic image of New Orleans when there's so much else going on here."
A blog linked from Underwood's Web site (www.elizabethunderewood.net) includes profiles of Art In Action projects and directions to find installations around the city. Underwood is planning a daylong Art In Action event later this spring with artists at their sites, performances, new installations and other activities. Updates and maps will be posted on her blog.
The interaction of art and nature has been the organizing principle of A Studio in the Woods, even before it acquired its current identity. The property had been part of the Delacroix sugar plantation until the 1920s, when the land was allowed to go fallow. Baker says indigenous trees began returning soon thereafter, especially water oaks, live oaks, sweet gums, red maples and magnolias.
The Carmichaels first came upon the property in 1968 while looking for a quiet picnic spot. They were enchanted and returned frequently. One day they saw a real estate sales sign tacked to a pecan tree at the property's River Road border.
"We knew we just had to buy it, it wasn't even something we had to have a conversation about," says Carmichael.
At the time, she was principal of McDonogh No. 15, the public elementary school in the heart of the French Quarter, and her husband Joe was a governmental liaison for the school system. They began bringing school children to the property for field trips as early as 1973, and in 1977 they built their home there using a mosaic of recycled building materials and antiquated lumber. A studio for Lucianne's ceramics and Joe's wood and metal sculpture followed and by the 1990s, they were holding shows there for their artist friends. Many people found inspiration in the setting and informal residencies developed with friends staying to work on their own projects.
In 2001, the Carmichaels formed a nonprofit and officially opened A Studio in the Woods. The Carmichaels want the studio's programs to survive them, and, having no heirs, they decided in 2004 to donate the property to Tulane University.
"Tulane's more likely to be in perpetuity than Lucianne and I," says Joe.
Tulane now owns the property, while the Carmichaels continue to live on site and serve as stewards. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Friends of A Studio in the Woods raises money from foundations and individual donors to pay for the studio's programming, including its residencies for artists. The nonprofit's board of directors, which includes the Carmichaels, selects programs to pursue.
"Tulane really gives us the stability to build on our programming," says Ama Rogan, the studio's managing director.
The programs have diversified over the years and now include a variety of full-day workshops on art and environmental studies for both adults and school children. Meanwhile, Tulane architecture students have been helping design new buildings that will expand the capacity of the studio. Three new cabins to accommodate additional artist residencies are in the works, as is a small pavilion to stage performing arts productions. Tulane students have also designed a steward's cottage where the Carmichaels will live; they will then convert their original house entirely to studio use. The steward's cottage will be a case study in sustainable design, using solar panels to generate its own electricity and with energy-efficient systems throughout, and students will build the structure as a hands-on chapter of their coursework. Construction is expected to begin later this year.
The oasis the Carmichaels built for themselves 30 years ago is changing around them now -- very quickly -- as more people are able to utilize it. Yet the evolution of the site remains in step with the manifesto they established for the place at the outset -- that the creative energy of art is inherently linked with nature's rhythm and processes.
"The role of artists in society is to raise human awareness, to bring people that 'aha!' experience," says Lucianne. "If we can give them an environment where they can create that quality of work, then that's a real gift."
A Studio in the Woods will host a public open house on April 15 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. For more information about the studio, including application materials, go to www.astudiointhewoods.org.