Every day after Hurricane Katrina decimated her studio and ripped her home off its foundation, Bay St. Louis artist Lori Gordon picked her way through piles of debris to the slab where her house once stood. All that remained of her work on the Gulf Coast was embedded there in the cement, a mosaic tile floor she'd laid herself. So in a daily ritual that bordered on the obsessive, Gordon would sweep the floor clean of every speck of dirt and trash that had blown onto it overnight. "It was the cleanest that floor had ever been," she says with a laugh. "There's something weird psychologically that happens when you lose everything—what you have left is very important."
The ritual ended when Gordon showed up at the slab one day: "There, on my beautiful, clean, mosaic, custom-laid, my-back-hurt-for-three-weeks, tile floor—was a big note for me to call my insurance adjuster, in black paint on the tile. Not anywhere else on the slab," she says. "I was just devastated. That lasted maybe a minute, and then I laughed because what else are you going to do?"
Gordon considers herself among the "lucky" artists from the Gulf Coast. Though all that remained of her art supplies was a brush and a tube of Hookers Green paint, she didn't need many tools to get going. And for her medium of choice—found objects—the hurricane yielded a trove of poignant materials. Gordon also rigged up a studio for herself in a friend's damaged garage. "The garage door is gone, and it's only got three walls and part of a roof, but it's mine for now," she says.
Thirty pieces she has since created out of "Katrina objects" will be on display in Jackson Nov. 17 at the Fondren Traders gallery in the Rainbow Plaza in Fondren. "I am fortunate; I'm able to work," Gordon says. "Not many of us (artists) are working; there's just a few of us working on the whole damn Coast, which is sad."
The Miraculous Festival
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is home to the type of artists' enclave that can only be born, not made. Fostered by a spirit of cooperation instead of competition, and cultivated through a local economy that aggressively promoted the arts, the Gulf Coast was a lure for world-class artists and amateurs alike—a rare place where creative types could actually make a living doing what they love.
It was the type of atmosphere that led Bruce Davis, a retired Navy Seabee, to discover a talent he never knew he had. Davis took up pottery through an introductory class at the Handsboro Community Center in Gulfport, and then began seriously pursuing the craft. Over the years he established his own studio, Mud Run Pottery, and began teaching pottery at the community center where he took his first class. Today, the studio at the community center is flooded out, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment—most of it his—ruined. Yet, like Gordon, Davis maintains he's lucky: "I've set up a little studio in a storage shed by my house, so I'm able to make some things."
Working from his 12-by-12-foot shed, Davis finished pieces in time for the Peter Anderson Festival of Art in Ocean Springs. In a near-miraculous feat by organizers, the 27th annual event stuck to its scheduled Nov. 5-6 dates despite the devastation that still hangs over the Gulf Coast. Because most area hotels and campgrounds are either uninhabitable or filled with rescue workers and homeless locals, residents welcomed visiting artists into their homes. Artists also drove down in campers and RVs, gathering in a parking lot that organizers dubbed "Camp Peter Anderson." Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Margaret Miller told reporters that "over 300 artists and craftsmen … are equally as determined to come to this event as we are to host it."
The decision to proceed with the festival gave not only a psychological boost to the area, but demonstrated the arts' importance to the local economy. "The people are the heart of Hancock County, but the arts are our soul," says Angela Sallis, secretary of a small-but-effective nonprofit called The Arts, Hancock County. "For us, art means economic development. And you know it's so important that this come back—and it already has—and that's a good sign. But some of these artists have lost absolutely everything."
'A Tuba and Tuxedo'
In the weeks after the storm, Gulf Coast artists were, like anyone else, devastated by Katrina, scrambling for the basic necessities of life. Now, two months later, they are trying to replace the tools of their trade.
The Arts, Hancock County President Gwen Impson, herself an artist who lost her home, set up a makeshift office after the storm and began tracking down artists and organizing immediate help. She calls it her therapy. "When I work on the computer, work the phones, try to brainstorm what we can do for the artists, I don't spend that time crying over my home," she says. Of her house—once filled with heirloom antiques and a vast art collection—all that remains is a 4-by-4-inch oil painting on wood, which she now displays in the FEMA trailer where she's currently living. "It helps," she says, "having that there."
At first, Impson addressed day-to-day needs such as shelter and medical help. "A lot of artists found their homes and studios devastated, so they went elsewhere to stay. We're hoping that they don't get too comfortable where they are, and that they come back," she says. "One of my friends has said her property value depends on how fast the artists come back to Bay St. Louis. That's a very telling statement."
Today, Impson's main push is to get artists creating again. "They need art supplies," she says. "They're coming in and listing what they need to get back to work. They all want to get back to work." She developed an "adopt an artist" program, so donors can give art supplies directly to a recipient. "One of the artists came in this morning and said he needs a tuba and a tuxedo to get back to work. That type of thing. A potter may need a kiln; a writer may need a laptop."
No Seat At the Table
In Jackson, the Mississippi Arts Commission is also focusing on getting help to the artists. Grants and Special Initiatives Director Judi Cleary says some artists do have works to sell but nowhere to sell them. Recently, the Mississippi Museum of Art held the Cellular South Art for All show, featuring some Gulf Coast artists. But since many of their works are priced into the thousands of dollars, "no one sold a thing," Cleary says. "You've got your art-festival, lower-priced craft things for people with walkaround money to buy, but then you have fine artists that really need to be in a gallery. We're looking for a network of galleries that will accept these artists' work and push these artists' work without charging the commissions they usually charge."
MAC is also lobbying hard for major financial help. It has loosened the restrictions on state grants so that more Gulf Coast artists are eligible to receive them, and it is trying to claim a portion of the state and federal money allotted for Gulf Coast rebuilding. "They're having all these meetings and special sessions of the Legislature to take care of highways and infrastructure," says MAC Executive Director Malcolm White, "but no one is saying 'What about the arts?' except me."
White has been in touch with Henry Barbour, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal (and nephew of Gov. Haley Barbour). White says he's being assured that the arts will be funded—but he's not entirely convinced the task force considers art a viable economic engine. That worries him.
"We have to be vigilant. We can't assume the arts are going to be considered," he says.
"We don't have a seat at the table today—there were no arts-specific appointments to the commission to rebuild the Coast. I've been promoting the idea that a voice for the arts needs to be at the table, particularly when they talk about tourism."
White says Henry Barbour has promised to "get me in on the next round of meetings" and can only hope that will happen. "We know we'll be included," he says. "We just don't want to be included as an afterthought."
'The Katrina Patina'
The Lumberyard Arts Center is one of those places that makes the Gulf Coast a haven for creative types. Located in a scenic old building in Bay St. Louis and run by artists Vicki and Doug Niolet, the center offers workshop space and classes, artists' studios for rent, demonstrations and other events.
Three feet of "water, mud and nasty stuff" invaded the center, but the upstairs studios were fine. Even so, some of the artists haven't come back to their studios, and others interested in renting space are hedging. "A few people are hesitant," Vicki Niolet says. "They really want to rent but are worried the economy won't support them. I think it will." Still, she says, artists will need more convincing before making such a commitment.
Niolet has been able to work "on a very limited scale," though her own studios were downstairs. She set up an outdoor workspace on her deck and counted on favorable weather. Like Gordon, she works with "found objects" and has had no shortage of those since the storm came through. "Everything is covered in mud and rust. Lori (Gordon) and I call it the 'Katrina patina,'" she says with a laugh. "I've made eight new pieces that I'm taking to a show this weekend in Pensacola."
She and Gordon have both been able to sell their works on Saturday nights in Bay St. Louis. Before Katrina, "Second Saturday Art Walks" drew hundreds every month into the city's Old Town section near the beach. Shops, galleries and restaurants would stay open into the evening, with live music and refreshments spilling out onto the sidewalks, creating a festive outdoor market and street party.
These days, "Second Saturday" is held every Saturday night, operating almost entirely out of one shop where a half-dozen or so artists have set up booths. "They've cleaned up the debris right in front of the shop so people can get to the area and park," Gwen Impson says, "but it's still dusty and dirty; a lot of debris. Some way or other, though, there's still a party atmosphere."
For the handful of artists who have been able to continue doing what they love, however, there are dozens more who can't.
Brian Nettles is one of them. He and his wife, Ann Adele, opened the Nettles Studio in Pass Christian about eight years ago; the space served as a studio for his pottery, a foundry for her metal sculpture, and a gallery where the two sold their artwork. The storm tore the studio apart and ripped their home, also on the property, in two. Gone are the hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment the couple accumulated over the years; also gone is the inventory that the two had planned to sell over the next few months. "We basically build most of our inventory up all year and sell 80 percent of it in October, November and December," Nettles says. "We worked all year and then, wash, it's gone."
The Nettles currently live in a FEMA trailer with their toddler son, Abel. "Right now our home isn't livable and we've got to try to make it livable," he says. "We're in a tiny trailer with a 2-year-old—try that for motivation."
Told by their insurance agent that they shouldn't waste their money on flood insurance, the couple is now living hand-to-mouth and repairing the home themselves.
"There's nothing we can do but start over," Nettles says. "You don't just go out and buy $100,000 worth of tools. Where I start is with a basic wheel and basic kiln—starting right from scratch."
To donate money, contact GwenImpson at228-263-6530, http://www.hancock-art.com Or mail a check to The Arts, Hancock County Disaster Relief Fund, c/o Hancock Bank, 601 Hwy 90, Bay St. Louis, MS, 39520.