Art and Death in New Orleans

Commentator Jacqueline Bishop is an artist and radio producer based in New Orleans. She talks about the recent string of murders in the New Orleans art community.

Ms. JACQUELINE BISHOP: After Katrina, it was the artists who returned early, with or without studios. But they found their work, they found their slides and they found their libraries underwater. They lost teaching positions and nearly lost their lives.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Commentator Jacqueline Bishop says artists are helping New Orleans recover even though it has cost some their lives.

Ms. BISHOP: Katrina took a toll on the creative process, but magically every gallery reopened and new ones were added. For the first time, artists received grants from national foundations like the Joan Mitchell and Pollock/Krasner Foundation. But lately, the big picture is not created with paint but with blood, artists' blood.

The art community has been gathering for rallies, marches, meetings, memorials and jazz funerals because of violence and crime. Just before the New Year, one of our most prominent artists was robbed and vandalized even though the studio had already been devastated by broken levees from Katrina. The thieves wanted the metal from the sculptures and were very skilled with their tools as they sliced up the elegant artwork into pieces.

Another artist friend returned home after Christmas to a flooded FEMA trailer. It was her home and studio. Two weeks ago, Dinerral Shavers, the drummer for Hot 8 Brass Band, was shot and killed while driving with his wife and child. Last week, Helen Hill, a young respected filmmaker, was shot in the neck by an intruder when she answered the door to her home. She collapsed near her husband and 2-year-old son and died.

In the midst of the mayhem, some artists are not painting at all. They've lost their focus or are building houses. But other artists are painting madly as if it were the very last piece of humanity to hold on to. Either way, there is an intensified passion and realization of who we are. In post-Katrina, most New Orleanians are convinced that it is the role of art and artists to rebuild our city, especially since we have no leadership.

The common mission for each community rally reads: It is time for our elected officials to face up to the violence that is strangling our neighborhoods. New Orleans is a breathing art object. We are the subject matter, organic matter, dead or alive. So it is no surprise that visual artists find the appropriate materials to communicate our lifestyle, whether it be paintings, collage, video, ceramics, found objects or costumes.

Artists are the blood and guts of culture. Here, knowingly or not, they are affected by their environment, infected by the brown flow of the Mississippi, the green of okra, the secrets in Spanish moss, the mystery that swamps. They've been injected with jazz, blues and Zydeco and are comfortable with decay, falling from period European architecture.

If we look at New Orleans as a breathing art object we will understand why there are so many new artists here regardless of the dangers. They feel compelled to be a part of the creative process of rebuilding this wounded but still breathing art object. They too want to be injected and infected by the mystical swampness, and, like malaria, it doesn't leave the blood.

CHIDEYA: Jacqueline Bishop is an artist and radio producer based in New Orleans.

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