RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Dozens of painters and sculptors returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to find that floodwaters and falling trees had damaged or destroyed their studios. And some of these artists say the storm will mark a turning point in their careers, not only because it ruined some of their work, but they say the city's altered visual and cultural landscape will affect their future art. Joel Rose of member station, WHYY, reports.
JOEL ROSE reporting:
The trash pile in front of Dawn Dito's(ph) studio looks like countless others in mid-city New Orleans. The difference is that Dito's garbage is full of art she made over three decades.
(Soundbite of cleaning sounds)
ROSE: She holds up a water-damaged poster she'd done for a public awareness campaign.
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Ms. DAWN DITO (Artist): New Orleans, the biggest gambling debt, public education. So those were fun.
ROSE: Dito says the hundred-year-old barn that serves as her studio took a beating during Hurricane Katrina.
Ms. DITO: Welcome to my studio.
(Soundbite of cleaning sounds)
Ms. DITO: Every day I come and haul out a little at a time. I haven't been able to make it anywhere near the rear of the studio yet.
ROSE: High winds tore off much of the roof. Falling trees knocked down the back wall, and then came the flooding. Dito says she lost years of work in the storm, from her earliest video art on VHS cassettes, to drawings and large-scale prints.
Ms. DITO: It's what you call kind of a wipe-out, and it's both sad and also exciting because, you know, the brave new world. It's new and artists are about going forward and doing new things. And so, that's my calling with great, great clarity at the moment.
ROSE: So far, Dito hasn't really started working again, except to take photos of wreckage from the storm which she's posted on her Web site. Before Katrina hit, her work ranged from multimedia installations to paintings of dying trees. Dito says she's not sure what she'll do now, but she says odds are she'll move from representational work toward abstraction as a way of responding to the visual chaos around her.
Ms. DITO: Everything's splintered apart, and so I think that's what, as an artist, is really sticking to my ribs right now.
ROSE: Dito is not the only New Orleans' artist grappling with the change to visual and cultural environment of the city.
Mr. JOHN SCOTT (Artist): New Orleans is the only place I've been in the world--and I've traveled a little bit--where if you listen, sidewalks will speak to you. And I haven't found that anywhere else in the world.
ROSE: But now John Scott worries those sidewalks may go silent. Scott is a print maker, sculptor and painter. The 1992 MacArthur fellow is perhaps best known for abstract sculptures installed around New Orleans, works that survived Hurricane Katrina just as they had earlier storms. Some of his sculptures are sleek and silver, others are bursting with color. Scott says their combinations of spheres, triangles and other geometric forms are inspired by the rhythms of the African-American music and dance that spring from the city's sidewalks.
Mr. SCOTT: I want to have a connection with continuum, if you will, from the traditions out of which African-American people came. So I decided years ago to start looking at the musicians: Miles, Monk, Mingus, New Orleans musicians, etc. It was more about the improvisation or creativity of the music than trying to make visual music.
(Soundbite of music)
ROSE: Scott grew up in the Ninth Ward surrounded by the city's Mardi Gras Indians. African-Americans who mask as Indians during carnival season.
(Soundbite of unidentified song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) I sowed all night long.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...I sowed, sowed, sowed.
Unidentified Man: Somebody, come morning, going to carry on.
Unidentified Group: Somebody got to sow, sow, sow...
ROSE: Scott saw the city rebound from the massive flooding of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, but he wonders if the city can recover this time.
Mr. SCOTT: A lot of people that developed a culture of New Orleans, the grassroot people, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, the dance tradition, a lot of that stuff comes from the community, everyday people. And a lot of those people are not going back. And without those people, the culture of New Orleans is not going to be the same. It just won't.
ROSE: For the moment, Scott is in Houston. His health is fragile. He breathes with the help of an oxygen tank. Doctors have told him it's the result of decades spent working with toxic materials, yet Scott is determined to get back to New Orleans and help with the rebuilding. Part of that effort will be concentrated on his studio.
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Mr. RON BECHET (Artist): Well, we started taking out stuff, and taking out all the wet things as much as we can. But it's going to be a long-term operation.
ROSE: Painter Ron Bechet shares Scott's converted warehouse studio in New Orleans east.
Mr. BECHET: The big thing is no lights. And when I first came and opened the door, you couldn't get past because everything had floated toward the door. So we had to force our way in.
ROSE: Bechet says the floodwaters lifted everything, including Scott's aluminum sculptures, right off the ground.
Mr. BECHET: When we turned them upside down--right side up again, the water poured out. And talking about a stench. It was almost as bad as my refrigerator. It was horrible.
ROSE: Bechet is the great nephew of jazz saxophonist, Sidney Bechet, and head of the fine art department at Xavier University. Bechet's paintings depict the natural environment of Louisiana. Trees and their complex root systems are a favorite subject. He often paints in vibrant colors, sometimes on curved three-dimensional surfaces. Now he's seeing different colors and shapes.
Mr. BECHET: That's the amazing thing to me when I go around the city is the water line. This sort of dirty, nasty, brown line, you know.
ROSE: It's a line you see at varying heights in different parts of the city. Bechet says he's come to see it as a way of measuring the damage to the city's health.
Mr. BECHET: Not only the water line on the buildings, but also the lines of people trying to receive services and so on. That idea of a line has just become fascinating to me, and I'm going to have to find a way to use that in my work, I think, somehow.
ROSE: Before Katrina, Bechet's studio mate, John Scott, was working on a series of drawings inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, a 16th century Dutch painter known for his unsettling canvases crowded with grotesque people and animals. Scott says Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" is the starting point for his own "Garden of Urban Delights," a dense jumble of images from the inner city that he didn't have a chance to finish before he fled.
Mr. SCOTT: People that have seen those drawings, those sketchbooks that I designed for this thing, said it was like a vision of the storm that hit New Orleans. In fact, I had to in a sense--I've been in Houston I had to put the sketchbooks aside. I couldn't draw anymore because of the way it felt. It was just like having seen that storm before it hit.
ROSE: As soon as he can, Scott says he'll go back to his studio to turn those drawings into etchings about the visual chaos of New Orleans. But now he won't have to rely only on his imagination. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And we have a photo gallery of art from New Orleans at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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