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."
As for Guidry, he received word that the top floor of his studio building had collapsed but that the ground floor, where his studio was located, seemed intact. His ex-girlfriend e-mailed him a picture of it. His apartment was located in the back of an old home in the Garden District, an area that suffered relatively little damage. A friend drove by and reported that it looked like the front door had been kicked in. When I talked to him, Guidry said he was planning to go back in two weeks with a truck. A buddy has a store on Magazine Street, and they both wanted to haul out what they could.
I remarked that it must be hard, waiting to see what's left. "It's incredibly stressful; just in the last five days have I actually been sleeping," he said. "I'm trying to be as positive as I can about this thing. Potentially I could have lost everything. But I am so fucking lucky, lucky that I got out, lucky that I'm not living in poverty and stuck at the Superdome. And people here are so damn nice. It's still the South."
The New Orleans Museum of Art sustained little damage and still paid him for a while, but then laid off almost all its employees, including Guidry. He doesn't think he'll be moving back anytime soon. New Orleans "is going to be a ghost town for a long time," he says. "I don't know how many people are going to move back and who is going to move back. I think it will take years and years for it to recover. I think it will be a miserable place to live for a long while.
"Now I'm feeling a little bit more settled; I'm anxious to get my life back on track, work in the studio, being productive, not living in somebody else's place with borrowed silverware and borrowed towels." When asked if he's applying for the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston's Katrina Artists Trust Fund (see "What You Can Do"), Guidry sounds upbeat. "Well, I'll see what the studio is like, see what I can salvage. If I can, I probably won't apply for the Katrina fund." He says there are probably artists who will need it a lot more.
Driving home from our meeting, my cell phone rang. It was Guidry. "Hey, I have something else for your article," he said in a strained voice. "My ex-girlfriend called from New Orleans. My studio's been bulldozed."
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Houston has absorbed, by some estimates, a quarter of a million evacuees from New Orleans. In that mix are a lot of people from the New Orleans arts community, and members of the Houston arts community rushed to extend an enthusiastic welcome -- to whomever they could find. The Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County has set up a public forums bulletin board on its Web site (www.cachh.org) to facilitate connections and to act as a clearinghouse for information.
Katrina Artists Trust Fund
The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston has started a grant program for artists affected by the hurricane. "What these people really need most is our goodwill, our sympathy and our financial assistance," says CAMH director Marti Mayo. The museum is covering the overhead for the fund, and a panel will be set up to select recipients for the grants, which will be extended to Gulf Coast artists affected by Hurricane Rita. Mayo describes the determining criteria as not based on the type of work or whether it comes from an established or emerging artist but whether it evidences a serious commitment to the work. Mayo wants recipients to use the money for "whatever you need most; it's hard to paint on an empty stomach. We don't know what you need, but you do. We couldn't solve New Orleans' problems or fix the levees, but we can give a little bit of help to people who need it now." You can contribute to the fund at www.camh.org.
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On Saturday, October 8, at the Eldorado Ballroom, $150 could get you a $6,000 painting. For each $150 ticket you buy, you receive a number. Numbers are drawn at random, and the ticket holder has two minutes to pick out any piece of art he wants. Texas luminaries contributing work include James Surls, Luis Jimenez and Sharon Kopriva. But according to Project Storm organizer and self-described cat-herder Gus Kopriva, the project is receiving donations of art from all over the world. Sponsored by numerous arts organizations and galleries, the event will run from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and will benefit the American Red Cross. You can scope out which works you want to nab from noon to 6 p.m. at the Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin. For more information, call 713-850-8527 or visit www.mackeygallery.com.
Bringin' Back the Big Easy
This Saturday, October 8, event isn't just a music showcase (see Urban Experience). An art auction is scheduled, and New Orleans food and drink will be served. Event benefits New Orleans artists and musicians.