DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
It's almost a year now since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, but in some places life is far from normal.
This week, NPR's Howard Berkes encountered an artist in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi who manages to find solace in the rubble Katrina left behind. He sent us this postcard.
HOWARD BERKES reporting:
We were between interviews on another Katrina story, so we decided to head into a white brick gallery on Main Street filled with pottery, t-shirts and crafts.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
BERKES: And in a corner, artist Lori Gordon peered through the lens of a camera. She was snapping photographs of what she calls the Katrina collection, mixed media collages meant for wall space in living rooms or display space on bookshelves. They're attempts to draw meaning and order from hurricane debris.
Ms. LORI GORDON (Artist): I started doing that probably about a week after Hurricane Katrina, so about the first week in September I just started walking through the woods back behind where my home used to be.
BERKES: Your home was destroyed.
Ms. GORDON: Yeah. My whole town is gone. We got, we figure, 35, 40 feet of water there, and it's gone.
BERKES: Gordon combed through muck and mud for pieces of her life and the lives of her neighbors. She found the copper frying pan she'd bought in Mexico smashed flat as a tortilla. She found bits of furniture, the bleached appendages of dolls, scarred and twisted metal, a pastoral sketch of a tree-lined country road turned ghost-like by sludge and mold. Gone were the coastal landscapes Gordon painted before Katrina. But she began to see artistic promise and peril in the massive piles of debris that remained.
Ms. GORDON: Right away I had to be very, very careful about where I picked up debris. Everybody, all of us, me included, we were all so freaked out about looting, and it's like when you've lost everything and all you have left is a broken teacup, that broken teacup takes on a huge importance.
BERKES: So Gordon sought permission and raked through debris piles eight feet high.
She's assembling a piece now in the gallery. It has the bleached doll laid out, legs detached, against a battered cabinet door. Angelic ceramic wings will go above the shoulders. The piece is framed by broken lengths of frame from a window or large painting.
Another piece is simple and small, barely a foot square, and features a carved wooden angel mounted on a square heating plate which itself is mounted on a round gold leaf plaque.
Ms. GORDON: I started doing this out of some kind of a psychological desperation. I was so desperate to be doing something productive, to be finding a way to look ahead, to move ahead. So this series is all about, it's about rebirth. It's about rebuilding. It's about taking whatever it is you have left, even if you have lost everything, taking whatever it is you can find and starting again.
And I have people that have walked in here or walked up to this work in other galleries around the country and they start to cry. And they want to have a piece of it because it represents to them what it does to me.
I also have people walk in and say, Oh, I don't want to see any of this.
I mean, to some people it's too painful to look at these fragments of our lives.
BERKES: There are plenty of people, though, who want Gordon's artistic debris. She's sold close to 130 debris collages and has 50 more on display. Some are fetching close to $1000.
Ms. GORDON: When I was able to start putting things together, it just, it saved me psychologically, and it's made a big difference financially, too.
BERKES: Lori Gordon rummages through hurricane rubble in and around Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, in an attempt to transform chaos into art.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
ELLIOTT: You can see Lori Gordon's Katrina art on our website, NPR.org.
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