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Keepin' On

New Orleans artists find refuge -- and studios -- in Houston

The Saturday before Hurricane Katrina hit, artist Michael Guidry spent the day at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where he's the assistant registrar. He and the rest of the staff were going through "normal hurricane preparedness." They took down some works in the sculpture garden, moved some paintings out of a room with a glass skylight and rearranged things in the basement storage.

That night Guidry went by his own studio on the ground floor of a wooden, two-story, 19th-century building that was once the city hall of Gretna, a New Orleans suburb, and later a dance hall. He walked around and picked up "anything valuable" off the floor, figuring that since he was three blocks from the river, he might get some water in the building. Guidry locked the door and headed to his apartment, where he grabbed four days' worth of clothes and two cats. Hitting the highway to Houston at 4 a.m. Sunday morning, he took I-10 and a series of circuitous back roads, making it here in eight and a half hours.

Guidry, a New Orleans native, lived in Houston in the mid-'90s and received his MFA from the University of Houston. He was lucky; he has a lot of friends here. He's staying in an empty Midtown town house that a friend is trying to sell and has found a temporary gig at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston installing the Andrea Zittel show.

He also just found studio space. Lawndale Art Center is launching an artist's residency program this fall in its newly remodeled building, but for the next two months, it's offering New Orleans artists work space in what is for now a big communal room. Director Chelby King plans to host "as many people as we can comfortably fit in there." King borrowed easels and tables from the Rice University art department; she also asked Houston artists to donate supplies to the evacuees, and they turned up with paint, brushes, canvases and stretchers.

Four other New Orleans artists are signed up for the space. Among them are heavy hitters like John Scott, a 1992 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, colloquially known as the genius grant. Scott is staying with his daughter in Houston. The first floor of his two-story home in New Orleans was underwater after Katrina. The ground floor of his two-story studio building took three and a half feet of water; sections of the roof came off, and part of a brick wall blew down.

Scott's work had just been included in a 40-year retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and about a third of the show was in his studio. Much of it is sculptural and can possibly be repaired, but the welding equipment and array of electric tools are most likely a total loss. Scott, a native of New Orleans, is determined to go back and rebuild.

Ron Bechet shares Scott's New Orleans studio space, and like Scott and Guidry, he left the Sunday before the hurricane. He is staying with his son, who lives in Houston. He recently returned to New Orleans to survey the damage. When Katrina hit, he had drawings taped to the studio wall -- the wall that is now on the other side of the building. His home in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans was relatively unscathed, but in our phone conversation, he described it as "an island in the middle of the city, with no water, no electricity, no gas." To reach it he had to pass through checkpoints and armed troops, showing ID. "The city itself looks like a sci-fi movie; it's really strange." He and his wife took a few things and left.

Bechet is the chairman of the art department at Xavier University of Louisiana, a small, selective and highly rated school where Scott is also a professor. The faculty has been paid through September, but he doesn't know what will happen next. Xavier, a private institution, is the only historically black and Catholic university in the country. Five years ago Congress exempted private institutions and nonprofits from FEMA rebuilding assistance. Xavier has a small endowment, and according to Bechet, "The Department of Education pulled financial aid from Xavier" and sent it to other schools -- schools that had offered to take Xavier's students for free.

For now, Bechet is going through the slow torture of Red Cross and FEMA lines. But he's also making art, doing "little paintings on paper, something to keep me busy." He's sure the experience will come out in his art sometime in the future, maybe soon. He's visually struck by the waterlines that mark the city. "Everyone is measuring themselves against the waterlines," he says.

Lory Lockwood and Robin Levy also will be working in the Lawndale space. Aside from some roof leaks, Lockwood's home and studio were relatively undamaged, but a commission for a New Orleans art collector she'd started before the hurricane is up in the air. Levy fared worse. She was in the middle of moving into a new studio when the hurricane hit, and she lost everything. "The new studio is in great shape," she says, "and I have nothing to put in it."

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