Rising Art: What brought me here
When someone asks me, “So, what brought you here?” I get a huge grin and look wistful and my eyes sort of flirt to the side, and I begin, “Well, I came down doing rebuilding, and I came back later for an art show, and… ,” the crux of which is that on a trip here, I started going to sleep saying, “I must move here,” and then in the morning wake up, bursting: “I must move here.”
The other person often gasps, grins, nods vigorously and nearly interrupts me until they can’t stand it anymore to blurt, “I had a very similar experience!” and soon we’re both co-telling love stories of the place.In college I became worried about the condition of the earth under human dominion, and when Katrina happened during my sophomore year, it seemed logical to me to turn the flood damage into green space. I had never been here, and I wondered if my vision for the post-storm landscape, if environmentally judicious, lacked compassion. I wanted to inform my opinion with real stories and people and see what all the fuss was about.
I joined relief teams gutting houses and preparing for rebuilds in New Orleans East, Chalmette, Treme, St. Roch, and various other areas in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes and western Mississippi. Many of the vibrant characters I met had wild stories of escape and rescue. Many held crawfish boils for us–at a memorable one, I sang karaoke on an XBOX360 hooked up in front of a FEMA trailer in Kiln, Mississippi. A team of 10 could gut one house in a day or two and then there was much rejoicing until we moved on to hear other tales while the families we helped continued rebuilding their homes.
Other than the near-lunar landscape and token trips to Bourbon street, I didn’t see much of the city in those days, as we were often so exhausted we would just hurry back to the tents in Slidell or the linoleum floor of St. Jude Community Center on N. Rampart to get in a few hours of sleep before we packed sandwiches and MREs to do it all over again.
Though I’m unsure whether I made a “dent,” the human experiences I had cemented a love of New Orleans, and I began to understand why locals and visitors were so concerned to preserve its art, music, languages, dances, and colors. Despite my visions of highly organized, efficient, city-wide rebuilding, the growth I saw was ultimately the product of the people. I started to connect the dots… the people made the culture what it is, nature will re-claim the land when it needs to reach an equilibrium, and hearing Wynton Marsalis’ Crescent City Christmas Card on WWOZ during the holidays was magical.
Another Christmas time a few years later I passed through New Orleans on a cross-country road trip. I arrived on a bizarre day in December (you remember) when it was in the 80s but had snowed the day before. I visited some friends from the relief trips from college who had moved down to find Americorps jobs and continue their work. I stayed in a beautiful house on Napoleon, this time staying far away from the Quarter, though I made frequent trips to Miss Mae’s. I was amazed at the city’s turnaround and saw the beauty and splendor of Uptown, if only for a few days.
About 6 months later I was working at an art museum in Marfa, Texas and met a young curator who was a Tulane grad. She and her friend, an artist from New Orleans, were planning a dynamic, experiential art show to occur in Marfa in fall 2009. They received a grant from the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation to bring New Orleans artists to Marfa, which has a blooming patronage for contemporary art disproportionate to the tiny town. (This project was conceived, funded, and executed 2 years before Dan Cameron’s “THE WORLD ACCORDING TO NEW ORLEANS” at Ballroom Marfa, about which he wrote in Art in America in March 2011, “I’m left with the irony that while the post-Katrina artistic renaissance in New Orleans is very real, it may be the only city in the country where there isn’t a single patron, collector or civic leader aware that Marfa, Texas, exists.”)
The idea was to help grow the careers of artists and economic prosperity of the art institutions in New Orleans by bringing their work to a new audience 18 hours west.
Luckily for me, they decided to include a few non-New Orleans artists and asked me to participate. I was out of art school and hungry for a community in which I could collaborate on art projects and share ideas. Participating in the show meant flying down to New Orleans (at the time, a $127 round trip flight from North Carolina), traveling out to Marfa with the group, and constructing a Bedouin-style tent to house a “bazaar” of art, a 3-day exhibition in a field in the desert during a large gathering that occurs there each year. The group of sculptors, art fundraisers, painters, welders, photographers, and others all worked together to complete the exhibition, which was a performance in itself.
On either end of the Texas excursion before flying home, I attended the CAC's Art for Arts Sake (My only night on Julia Street–I thought, this city can convince thousands of its residents to view art in one night!), visited the home of a New Orleans celebrity, was shown around town by a charming young man, both sharp and genteel, and generally met the most dynamic, creative nucleus of young people I had ever known.
I was so excited, I couldn’t think of anything else I should instead be doing or planning or might have had going before that 10-day whirlwind, a feat on the part of the curators, my friends and hosts. An art-starved Southern girl who sorely missed the community and brilliance of art school, with a preexisting love of the city in flux, I suddenly found myself clamoring, speeding, to move here.
So, that’s what brought me here. I’d love to hear your stories, too. I bet you can’t wait to tell them.