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What I Saw at the Apocalypse

I’d been dreading it, but recently, against my better judgment I headed south to pay my respects to places and people familiar and cherished since childhood.

Growing up in Mississippi, spontaneous road trips to New Orleans were a native son’s birthright, no matter one’s age, station or the climatic conditions. Two months after Katrina, sad news and grim images continued to pour out of the place at about the same rate water poured in.

From Jackson, Mississippi, the drive down through pastoral landscapes I’d painted was as disorienting as it was depressing. The closer to New Orleans, the more pronounced the devastation became.

I exited on St. Charles Avenue and swung around Lee Circle where the good general, dignified and implacable, remained perched high on his marble pedestal. He looked out over the city as if to say, “I’ve seen worse.”

New Orleans was dry now, and empty except for FEMA, media, contractors and pockets of hardcore French Quarter and Garden District residents. The streets had been cleared but every curb was stacked high with refuse, broken furniture and appliances, as if some found object sculptor had come upon an endless supply of material for his make-do idiom works of public art.

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art had been open for a month. Director Rick Gruber suffered twelve feet of water in his house, but told me there was no damage to their new museum. He and gallery owner, Arthur Roger, had planned a huge city wide “Come Back” art party.

“But who will come?” I asked.

“We open the doors and people show up,” he said. “It never fails.”

Sure enough, that evening the Art Mob was out, making up in enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers.

Cole Pratt’s Gallery was filled with clients come to see Richard Johnson’s abstract illusionist paintings. Bold brushstrokes and bands of color seemed to hover above the picture plane and cast shadows on its surface, a perfect fit for this surreal city, whose future is as illusive as Johnson’s light source.

Going out to dinner in New Orleans, once so automatic and reflexive, is now an act filled with the anticipation of willful civil disobedience. At restaurant Petit Grocery, everybody had a story. Returnees were excited to see one another but the music of their language drowned out any coherent narrative.

“Angel evacuated to the Hamptons. I couldn’t get any further than Corinth, Mississippi. Go figure.”

“Oh, our house is fine, but we’re just visiting it. We’ll stay in Oxford for a while yet.”

Then something as simple as it was profound occurred that, for the time being, banished my ennui. A gumbo arrived along with a good omen. The talisman was a bottle of Tabasco sauce. My spirits rose. The auguries were good. All will be right in the world.

I drove out of town the following morning. From I-10, the Superdome dominated the skyline. Repaired, it fairly glowed in the fall light and was as profoundly sculptural and impressive as ever. Yet to be “domed” had already entered our lexicon as an experience well inside the beltway of Dante’s imagined circles of Hell.

Further east, as I-10 lifts above the destitution that is the 9th ward, I stopped, got out and just looked, for a long, long time. Any silver lining glimpsed the night before quickly dissipated. As far as the eye could see, this place, once so full of life, hard luck and laughter, was all brown, motionless and dead. Future generations who study the Great New Orleans diaspora will find its origins here.

As I crossed the Mississippi state line, something appeared that at first I thought a work of art. For miles, on a series of billboards, white words on a sky blue background delivered a sequential message that read, “Together,”... “We Will Rise Again,”... “Together,”... “We Will Rebuild”... “Together,”... “We Will Overcome.” It’s the best Jenny Holzer piece she never made. These aphorisms, of course, lack the requisite irony to qualify as contemporary art, but their sentiments spoke to a higher condition once unabashedly embraced by Art. Namely, hope.

I made my way past checkpoints down to the Mississippi Sound and began to look for recognizable landmarks. There were few.

It was Sunday and St. Michael’s Catholic Church, though gutted by the storm, had held a morning mass. In the car with me was an architect whose firm designed the church in the 1960’s. Two priests walked into our field of vision. We stopped and talked to Fathers Dominic Phan and Joseph Trinh, who seemed unfazed by the destruction. Perhaps they’d seen it all before.

Further to the west I found what was left of Beauvoir, an 1852 raised cottage so typical of Gulf Coast winter retreats built by the wealthy. Beauvoir, or “beautiful view,” was the final home of Jefferson Davis. It had long been open to the public as a museum and time warp shrine to our nation’s growing pains. The text laden marble monuments at the entrance were as smashed and scattered as was the misguided but valiantly defended cause Davis presided over. An alert Mississippi Department of Archives worked to save most of the contents. Beauvoir, if not Jeff Davis’s confederacy, will rise again.

The Gulf Coast’s highly profitable gaming industry was in shambles. Katrina’s thirty-foot high tidal surge sent the Grand Casino barge several hundred yards inland. It now sat slap dab in the middle of a complex of buildings that were to be a museum dedicated to George Ohr, the Mad Potter of Biloxi. Frank Gehry designed the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum to accomodate a grove of ancient live oaks, their graceful limbs and gnarled trunks so emblematic to these climes. The structure was wrecked, but more of these great trees survived than I’d been led to believe.

My last stop was Ocean Springs, an elegant old community long welcoming to artists. Generations of the Anderson family lived and worked at Shearwater Pottery, now ruined, but the Walter Anderson Museum was intact and open. I was pleasantly surprised to find an outdoor art fair in full swing. The Chamber of Commerce voted unanimously to forge ahead with the Peter Anderson Festival. More than 300 artists, some having incorporated Katrina’s import into their work, and 20,000 people crowded the streets. They laughed, smiled and thanked their fiesty new Mayor, Connie Moran, for “giving them a voice.” I overheard a woman say, “Good Lord, I’m buying art to hang on the wall of a house that no longer exists.”

Government in general and FEMA in particular came in for considerable grief. “Federal Employee Missing Again” declared a tee-shirt. “Just get out of the way,” and “Levee Board Victim,” were painted messages on curbside refrigerators waiting to be collected in New Orleans.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation earned their share of ire when, days after the storm and before Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr could stop them, they cut more than 100 trees (47 of them live oaks.) Damaged but intact, these survivors were around before hurricanes like Katrina came to be named. Long time residents say MDOT had been after these old growths for decades, and that they could have survived the salt water, but not the chain saw.

I examined the live oaks at Beauvoir and at the Frank Gehry site, and found small fists of new green. The trees were beginning to leaf out.

Of all the political figures stuck to this tar baby of a disaster, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour seemed to have found just the right tone of “can do” pragmatism and disarming self-deprecation. In mid-October he invited several hundred international urban planners and architectural visionaries to a Renewal Forum or charette in Biloxi to reimagine a post-Katrina Gulf Coast. His impassioned and emotional opening comments greatly effected the gathering. Then, in a spirit of bipartisanship that can only be born of adversity, Barbour introduced his choice to head the Commission on Recovery, James Barksdale, former Netscape CEO, as the single largest contributor to his political opponent. “He can’t always be right,” the Governor said to a tidal wave of laughter. He was also pleased, he said, to add “charette” to a French vocabulary which to date included “bon bon” and of course, “bourbon.”

Governor Barbour and the very effective Mississippi congressional delegation have worked diligently to fund the recovery, but money, while crucial, can only do so much. Spirit and will are variables in the formula for rebuilding that can’t be appropriated or legislated. But this is just the sort of character test Mississippians have faced before. Think Civil War, Reconstruction, recession, boll weevil, depression, flood of ‘27, the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, and a host of previous hurricanes.

New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have long been havens for artists, free-spirits and bohemians. Arguably, these two destinations have more in common with one another than with their respective states. If history is any indicator, their fates are forever intertwined. That large populations will once again mass near the water, and storm will come with predictable frequency, are indisputable facts. The question is simply how to reconcile these two forces of nature.

No matter the outcome, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the social subset called artists will be among the first to show up and the last to leave.

Heaven help us all.

William Dunlap

 

 

 

Copyright 2003 William Dunlap. All rights reserved.
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