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It's hard to guess how you might respond to being in a disaster like Hurricane Katrina. It would most certainly change you. Some New Orleanians took up art for the first time to express what they witnessed and what they felt. Their work is now on display in exhibits marking the 10th anniversary of the storm. And NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Skylar Fein had only lived in New Orleans for a week before Katrina nearly destroyed it. He moved there to go to medical school.
SKYLAR FEIN: It's really hard to describe to somebody who hasn't seen it what the streets looked like after the storm.
ULABY: His medical school was shut down. So Fein just wandered the city.
FEIN: Not only was there wood in the street of every conceivable color, but the contents of entire houses - washers, dryers, televisions, blenders. I still have kitchen appliances that I pulled out of the street.
ULABY: Fein found four matching table legs.
ULABY: He lost his table in the storm, so he built a top for them in the back yard. It looked so cool, a local architect bought it to hang above his drafting table. Soon, other architects began commissioning pieces for themselves.
FEIN: They got that it was made out of the wreckage of the storm and that it was a way of taking the destruction and the pain, sadness but making it into something beautiful. And it would tame the destruction but represent it.
ULABY: There might be people who say you're also making money from the debris of other people's lives.
FEIN: Sure. That's what I do. It's an artist's job to exploit. We exploit stories, images, materials.
ULABY: Today, Fein makes a living assembling metal and wood artworks. His studio is in an old, tin-roofed warehouse in a burgeoning arts district around St. Claude Avenue.
FEIN: Since I was an artist born of storm debris, I'm still mostly working in wood.
ULABY: After the storm, Fein says lots of people who lost everything felt they had nothing else to lose.
FEIN: And decided to do the things that they had always dreamed of doing but were too frightened to do.
ULABY: Like L. Kasimu Harris.
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L. KASIMU HARRIS: I didn't become a photographer until Katrina.
ULABY: Harris is standing in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans talking to teenage docents. He's part of a group show there commemorating the storm. But before Katrina, he says he mostly snapped pictures of college friends.
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HARRIS: Arms up, like, the what's-up look, like I'm partying.
ULABY: Back then, Harris wanted to be a reporter. He left New Orleans for grad school 10 days before the storm. When his mother, father, sister and her two kids were evacuated, they all moved into his one-bedroom apartment and stayed there for months. Harris says it was hard to bear the TV images of his home town falling apart.
HARRIS: I just was really done with New Orleans. That's how I internalized the hurt. Like, I just was so angry. I never wanted to come back to New Orleans. I was like, to hell with New Orleans.
ULABY: But a professor at the University of Mississippi gave Harris an assignment, to go back and report on what happened.
HARRIS: So I just pouted the whole way down from Mississippi. And then, once we crossed, like, state lines and you could start to see damage...
ULABY: Harris found his camera gave him a way to connect.
HARRIS: Katrina helped me fall in love with photography as a tool to tell stories.
ULABY: L. Kasimu Harris tells stories now through portraits of New Orleanians going on with their lives. Like Harris, Rontherin Ratliff was born there. When he left after the storm, people asked him over and over to tell his Katrina story.
RONTHERIN RATLIFF: And I stopped wanting to tell people I was from New Orleans because I got tired of telling the story. So I had decided that I was going to take that story and make art out of it.
ULABY: Ratfliff's story's intense. He can't swim, but he floated over the Upper 9th Ward in a blowup raft hoping to save his family's valuables.
RATLIFF: For me, it was a challenge. It was like, how could I tell this story with art?
ULABY: He did it using family pictures he'd found in the murky floodwater filling his grandmother's home. He vividly remembers finding them.
RATLIFF: The sun comes kind of cutting through this water. And I see these photographs kind of floating about. As I, like, reached down in the water and grabbed a handful of them, it was that moment that the reality of this disaster had hit home for me.
ULABY: Ratliff made a sculpture hanging now from the 10 foot ceiling of his studio in an old downtown office building. The sculpture's a tilted house made of storm debris and plexiglass that hold his family's water-stained photographs. It took months for the former graphic designer to figure out how to express himself in three dimensions.
RATLIFF: And so it forced me to spend time processing those experiences and kind of gave me that time with my thoughts. It's a little therapeutic, you know?
ULABY: The work Rontherin Ratliff created out of destruction is on display at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. So is Skylar Fein's. Without diminishing the storm's terrible impact, Fein says Katrina fostered a drive and a do-it-yourself ethos that helped redefine him as an artist.
FEIN: I'm not happy that I went through it. But it was the making of me.
ULABY: Now he says there's no other way to be. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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