Artists revive injured communities
By Emily McNeill
A year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, Highway 90 in Gulfport, Miss. still bears the signs of the storm. The road hugs the coast, and on both sides are reminders of chaos, snapshots of the awful force of wind and water. The first floor of a seaside store is washed away, and its sign leans into the top floor, broken in half. Across the street and a few hundred yards west, the outside wall of a motel has been torn off, revealing furniture still inside. Weather worn signs on empty lots advertise restaurants that are no longer here. Amid all the new construction – parks, housing, brand new casinos – Gulfport is haunted by the places left untouched.
Lynn Awad sits in her art gallery, Dreampainters, on this sunny March afternoon, not far north of Highway 90. She says she can hardly remember anymore what the road looked like before Katrina. She has friends who still can’t bring themselves to drive that way. “It is that devastating, it is that mind boggling,” she says. “It is that heartbreaking.”
When Katrina hit, Awad, a 62 year-old grandmother of three, was living 20 miles inland. Still, much of her house was swept away in the storm, and the shop was severely damaged. They didn’t see another soul for two and a half weeks. The roads were blocked with debris, and all she and her family had were a well and the generator to keep it running. She and her husband moved into the back room of her store, where they had beds and a hot plate. For nine months they lived there, going to a neighbor’s to shower, until a non-profit helped them finally get a FEMA trailer.
Today the Awads are in a rented house and back in business selling their paintings. Lynn welcomes us in and introduces us to her three-legged, blind dog. He has metal plates in his head and spine and has no spleen, but he loves people, she tells us. He loves all their different smells.
The walls of the shop are covered in brightly colored paintings of fish and flowers and tropical landscapes. Much of the Awads’ work is lighthearted and lively. They sell children’s art and furniture decorated with flowers and stars and hearts. But some are more ambitious and intellectual, in styles ranging from impressionistic to abstract.
Dreampainters is a business, but Awad sees it also as a mission, an outpost of artistic creativity in an area that tends not to attract people like her. After traveling the world for years – she and Sami, a native of Palestine, visited Europe, Asia and the Middle East and lived for two years in Morocco – she made a conscious choice 13 years ago to return to Southern Mississippi, where she had grown up.
“People in Mississippi have a need for art, they have a need for culture and freedom of expression, and they have a need for someone to come in here and take a chance,” she says.
The little art gallery she and Sami have set up here was the chance they took. And, fiercely idealistic, she says they have succeeded.
“If you do something you love, and you’re fair, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of the desert or in downtown New York. You’re going to make a living,” she says. “Your customers are going to follow you, they’re going to support you and be there. On the other hand, you need to do the same things [for them].”
When Katrina hit, it was that sense of loyalty and cooperation that were desperately needed.
Most of the assistance the Awads received was from friends, family, church groups and strangers. Meanwhile, they gave away as much as they could. During the months they lived in the Gulfport studio, Sami would cook over a fire outside. Anyone who needed food was welcome. Other neighbors shared water, Lynn’s sisters helped out with money, and a friend drove her around to search for assistance. It was often those with the least who gave the most, Awad said. And though the past year and a half has beaten scars into her, her family, her friends and her community, Awad insists the experience has confirmed for her that it’s things like art and family and community that are worth investing in.
And so, in a town strained by the process of recovery and rebuilding, the Awads keep Dreampainters open. An art gallery, they are convinced, is as relevant to this town now as ever.
The door opens, and a younger woman comes into the shop. She sees that there are visitors, and she smiles and laughs, but it’s obvious she’s been crying. She hugs Lynn for a long time.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Lynn tells her, and the young woman walks out the door.
“A real sweet girl,” she says. “She’s given probably 10 grand away since the storm - $200 for a loan, giving someone a new roof. She really doesn’t have it, but she’s helped everybody. And now she needs help.”
At this point her eyes well up with tears and her voice starts to break.
“She needs help now. So I have to go.” She turns and walks behind her desk. “Thank y’all for stopping by.”
A two-hour drive away in New Orleans, the damage from Hurricane Katrina is significantly more devastating. Here, the water did not come in and recede as it did in Gulfport. After the levees broke, it sat stagnant for weeks. Parts of New Orleans, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, are still desolate and ghostly, with sagging, ruined houses adorned with spray painted messages. “Do Not Demolish.” “Will Rebuild.” “1 Dead Dog [found inside].”
In the Center City neighborhood, in the heart of New Orleans and on somewhat higher ground, Ashé Cultural Arts Center was spared by the storm. This was something of a miracle, because Ashé, some would say, held the soul of its neighborhood. The center, a cavernous 6,600 square feet on Ophelia Castle Haley Boulevard in Center City, is engaging in a more overt and ambitious attempt to harness art and a spirit of community to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Before Katrina, Ashé hosted community meetings, put on performances, displayed art exhibitions and offered art and music classes to the community. Since the storm, this work has continued and intensified. Ashé hosted seminars on housing and employment and dealing with insurance companies. Perhaps more importantly, it has provided a place for people to gather and share their frustrations and successes. In a community struggling with devastating loss and an uncertain future, Ashé has become a locus for healing and rebuilding.
On a Friday morning in early March, Gwen Richardson is bent over, looking through boxes on the floor of a back room. Tall and thin, with a broad smile, she’s eager to talk about Ashé’s work. She used to spend a lot of her free time here before Katrina, volunteering and taking her sons to drumming classes. The YWCA, where she worked for almost 18 years on sexual assault and domestic violence issues, was destroyed in the hurricane, and since the storm, Ashé’s founders gave her a job here.
The center is alternately a museum, a performance space, an art store, a school and a community building. In one section of the building books of photography, jewelry, woodcarvings, poetry and stationary – all from local artists – are displayed on shelves. But the largest space is dedicated to the performance and meeting space. The artist Douglas Redd, one of Ashé’s founders, constructed a stage, complete with a lighting and sound system. The whole space is sectioned off with dividers, which today display the work of a local photographer.
This morning the room is empty and quiet. But when there are performances and events here, Richardson says, the space is transformed. The bare concrete floor fills up with chairs, and the chairs with people. The room is covered with decorations and art and color.
Ashé is premised on the idea that art is important, even to communities that are struggling with poverty, crime and unemployment. Art, Ashé’s supporters would say, is not an extravagance, but a central element of a healthy community and a catalyst for economic and community development. To the extent that they are right, artists are as vital to Center City and New Orleans now as ever.
Sixteen months after Katrina, at least some of the artists are back, Richardson says, and Ashé is trying to help them re-establish their lives and their work. The center helps visual and performance artists find grants, write proposals, create business cards and bios and, perhaps most importantly, find places in the community to perform.
Ashé has been booking artists in schools and at business events throughout New Orleans. These relationships both employ artists and spread their work throughout a city in need of uplifting .
“That’s been the bright light and the shine of the community, the artists,” Richardson says.
On this sunny spring morning, she sounds upbeat. We’ve survived, Richardson says, we’ve made it this far, and we’re going to be fine. But that resilience, which countless visitors to the region have encountered and praised, coexists with a deep frustration about how the rebuilding efforts here have progressed.
The artists are back, Richardson says, but many of them still don’t have a permanent place to live. Some are still commuting from Texas or Georgia, she says, simply because they have no other option.
“They’re wanting to come back, but like everyone else in the city, the problems are the same. We want to come back, but where will we stay?” she asks.
Richardson herself never received the FEMA trailer she says she should have had in November 2005. She managed to find an affordable apartment not far from Ashé almost a year ago, but many others have not been so lucky.
One of the biggest issues facing Center City is that the number of rental properties is falling sharply, and rents have skyrocketed. There are plans to turn many of the abandoned buildings around Ashé into condos, effectively shutting former residents out of these areas. Ashé’s neighborhood, Richardson acknowledges, will be changed forever.
“The families that were here cannot come back,” Richardson says. “They can’t. They will not be able to afford the lodging that they’re going to be building here in the next couple of years.”
While Richardson has no illusions that Center City will return to the way it was, Ashé and other residents and organizations are fighting for overdue assistance and for a say in the future of their communities. It’s a battle that has many fronts; homeowners are fighting with insurance companies, residents have brought a class-action lawsuit regarding the levees, community groups are sparring with the city to preserve neighborhoods.
“We’re at war within ourselves, it appears,” Richardson says. “It’s like here people are traumatized, and they’re being taken advantage of, all the way around. …You wait until people are down at their weakest, and then you just bulldoze over them. That’s how a lot of people were feeling.”
Richardson lets those words hang in the air for just a few seconds before she returns to other side of her story – the almost miraculous resolve of the people and institutions that have returned.
“The plus is,” she says, “that the people who’ve come back – the majority of people who have come back – have really come back to work and try to get the city together.
“Ashé’s been blessed. People are fine,” she continues. “It’s always been a great place, but after Katrina, this is the spot. It’s just been a real, real plus for so many people.”
Emily McNeill is a junior journalism major who tried to sell her watercolors in Biloxi. And failed. Email her at emcneil1[at]ithaca.edu.