Volume 18, Number 50 | April 28 - May 4, 2006

Post-Katrina, artists rebuild their lives — Downtown

By Tommy Hallissey

Nagged by the feeling he was stuck in a scene from a bad Godzilla movie, Christopher Saucedo drove his red Ford truck east on the westbound side of I-10 from New Orleans toward Houston, where he had waited out hurricanes before. With his wife, Donna, and his children, Felicia, 12, and Michael, 10, in tow, Saucedo cruised effortlessly in minimal traffic, till he realized that in the haste of his departure he had forgotten several important sculptures in his Gentilly studio. Landfall was imminent and moments precious; there was no time to swing back for art, but the sculptor’s lapse in memory would haunt him for weeks and months to come.

The Saucedos waited out Hurricane Katrina in Houston as rumors swirled about the extent of the devastation. When it became evident that a return to the City That Care Forgot was out of the question, the young family set their sights on New York. Unlike the multitudes stuck in FEMA-subsidized hotel rooms in New York City, the Saucedos had a place to go. Both Donna and Christopher are from New York, and both still have family here. Christopher’s brother Stephen, a firefighter with Ladder 13, still lives in their childhood home in Old Mill Basin, Brooklyn. Until 9/11, Stephen had shared the house with their brother Gregory, who died in the North Tower working for Ladder 5.

The Saucedos’ desperate situation, however, turned positive. The family now rents the house adjoining Stephen’s, and Christopher’s son, Michael, attends the same elementary school, P.S. 236, that the Saucedo boys attended as children. Cruel as kids may be, Michael was initially called Katrina by his classmates, but he has since made friends. His daughter, Felicia, has even developed a tease of a Brooklyn accent. At night, the two knock on the walls to send messages to Stephen’s kids, just as the Saucedo men did as children.

Christopher and Stephen traveled back to New Orleans in mid-September when one could only get in the city with a badge. Though barely mentioned by the media, Gentilly suffered severe damage. There was seven feet of water in Christopher’s studio; six feet of water in his house. Saucedo, a beefy man who has salt and pepper hair that matches a thin salt and pepper beard, has been on the faculty of the University of New Orleans since 1992. He feared his artwork, dating back to his days at the School for Visual Arts in the mid 1980’s, was irrevocably lost.

One of the pieces that concerned Saucedo the most was a small doll of an African man dressed as a Westerner that he had bought in London. “I knew before the storm that I wanted [it], but I couldn’t go back,” Saucedo said recently in his new studio overlooking the East river at 200 Hudson Street. He is one of 15 other artists who received a Gulf Coast residency, which was begun last November and is slated to end in June, from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The LMCC had sympathy toward the plight of the displaced, often studio-less Gulf Coast artists, both because LMCC offices were destroyed on 9/11 and because they lost a person very dear to them, Michael Richards. The artist had been a part of another LMCC residency called “World Views,” which was on the 92nd floor of the North Tower.

“Knowing disaster ourselves—we lost Michael Richards on 9/11—it seemed something that was relevant,” says Erin Donnelly, residency director and curator for the LMCC. Saucedo learned about the residency after his alma mater, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, called to tell him about the LMCC’s program just eight hours before the deadline.  He filed the application that night and was accepted in mid-November. Since then, Saucedo has received a monthly stipend of $850 and access to a 10,000 square foot loft he shares with the other artists, who range from performance artists to photographers. They will have an open studio weekend this Friday, April 28th, through Sunday.

Picking up the pieces

On his first trip back to his house and studio, Saucedo found the African doll floating face up in the murky water. He kept a public face during that trip, but on subsequent visits alone he broke down and wept. Little things, like finding his father’s wooden Monopoly pieces ruined, upset him deeply.

Saucedo was determined not to let the storm erase his life’s work. “There was this defiance that I didn’t want to be erased by the storm,” says Saucedo, even though at times that was the hardest thing to do. “How can I tell a stranger ‘I’m an artist?’ All of my credentials got creamed.”

He credits his residency with the LMCC, and his reconnection with his roots in New York for drawing him out of his funk. “If I didn’t get this residency, [I’d be] sitting in Gentilly obsessing over things that aren’t that important,” he said.

Slides of Saucedo work were ruined by the saltwater, but much of his sculpture was salvageable, albeit in need of massive restoration. “I had this thing in my head that I would make them better than they ever were,” says Saucedo. Still, he had yet to make any artwork that implicitly dealt with the hurricane.

Of the 15 artists sharing a loft in Tribeca, each has his or her own way of illustrating Katrina. Dan Tague, 31, of Mid-City, and Julie Anne Pieri, 30, of Metairie, have witnessed their works assume political overtones, often mocking government malfeasance. Pieri, who hasn’t forgotten her four days of Armageddon at the Superdome, has been toiling on a performance piece in which she drapes herself in the American flag and sleeps on miniature houses. “I’ve never done anything political before in my life,” says Pieri, who was planning on producing an installation of grass in front of a Wal-Mart prior to the storm. Tague, whose home and studio were utterly destroyed, has a mixed-media piece that depicts the former U.S. presidents as Klansman.

Clifton Faust, 35, a mixed-media artist from Holly Grove, spent three or four days during the hurricane season of 2004 boarding up his house and the houses of his aunt and mother. When Katrina rolled around, he, like many thought, “This time we’ll get some water, but we didn’t think it would flood the whole city.” Faust went to Pine Bluff, Ark. for two days and then on to New York City, where he has friends. His extended family is scattered everywhere from Texas to Florida. Faust, who left the Big Easy with minimal baggage, including digital images of his photos, returned to New Orleans in November. “It didn’t really hit me till I went back, says Faust. “I thought maybe my neighborhood was okay. [Instead] it looked like a tidal wave came through and destroyed 14 years of work.”

But the loss of work is not the greatest concern to Faust. For him, the worst part is “realizing that my active community is scattered at the wind, [and] having to rebuild [the] community is mindboggling,” he said. Reeling from the loss of community in New York City, Faust has produced a mixed media piece, entitled, “I Think I Landed on Planet Earth,” which deals with his “feeling almost alien in a new place.”

new life after katrina

As the weeks turned into months, the influence of Katrina seeped in subtly to Saucedo’s artwork. A sculpture titled, “self-portrait in weight and volume, some flesh removed (with card tray),” had a watermelon-shaped slice exacted from it, representing a pound of flesh taken by the hurricane.

Even the waterlogged doll Saucedo left behind, the one that nagged at him for some time after the flood, found new life after Katrina. Though Saucedo had long been enamored with the sculpture, he never felt it contained enough of him to incorporate it into his own artwork. Now the doll, a Katrina survivor, represented Saucedo in a way. For the exhibition this weekend, Saucedo is recasting the doll in starch white. The doll will then be placed in a cylinder, again representing Saucedo’s weight and volume. Another cylinder will be filled with 20-odd dolls, which he likens to a pickle jar. “It’s me floating in there,” says Saucedo. “It is also you and everyone, an allegory for the New Orleans catastrophe.”

To gain admission to the Gulf Coast artists’ studios this weekend, visit www.lmcc.net to RSVP.


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