Volume 19 Issue 35 | January 12 - 18, 2007
Still life in a series of open drawers
Installation by Jana Napoli
Daily, 7 a.m.- 11 p.m., through Feb. 9
One World Financial Center
Liberty Street Bridge
Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel
Artist Jana Napoli, below, and the drawers in her exhibit, “Floodwall,” on the Liberty Street Bridge
By Megan Gillin-Schwartz
In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans native Jana Napoli, a painter and mixed-media artist, returned to her city to survey the scene. The only signs of life she saw on the once-vibrant streets were the waterlogged trash heaps of discarded belongings and furniture, in particular, drawers. So Napoli began driving through neighborhoods in her pick-up truck, collecting them from abandoned homes and marking their location on the back. In two months, she salvaged more than 610 dresser drawers, a personal attempt to hold on to the remains of the tens of thousands of lives displaced after the storm.
Last week, Napoli came to New York with a team of fellow artists and friends from New Orleans to install “Floodwall,” a multi-media art exhibit located on the Liberty Street Bridge until February 9. A co-presentation of the World Financial Center and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the site-specific artwork was designed by the Manhattan-based exhibition company Whirlwind Creative and brought to the city after L.M.C.C. President Tom Healy heard about the project and went to New Orleans to assist Napoli in her collection.
The Katrina-damaged drawers face skyward along the pedestrian bridge that leads to Ground Zero, a haunting juxtaposition of two American tragedies. LED screens, slowly scrolling the stories of the drawers’ owners, punctuate the 230-foot-long wooden platform that forms the base for over half the dresser drawers Napoli amassed.
“There are kitchen drawers, children’s drawers. They held the contents, the memories and secrets of these individuals’ lives,” said Rondell Crier, a New Orleans graphic artist who created a database for the project, which can be viewed at Floodwall.org. The catalogue includes a photograph collection of the drawers organized by zip code, as well as color, shape and make so that all their owners might be identified some day.
“It was never about taking peoples things,” Napoli explained during the installation last Wednesday. “It was about who owns them, what stories do they have to tell?”
“Like any community, we have the haves and the have-nots, the drawers with knobs, and no knobs.” Crier said. “It’s a representation of loss for an entire city.”
Napoli has always had an interest in the art of found objects. In 1988 she founded YA/YA Inc., a non-profit arts and social services organization, in which she taught teens to use old furniture as a canvas for self-expression. Crier connected with her through the organization as a teen. When asked if the team did any work on the drawers before putting them on display, Napoli said, “We didn’t need to, the hurricane painted the furniture.”
“Jana is just incredible to work with,” said Tatiana Clay, a close friend of Napoli’s from Lakeview, Louisiana, one of the most devastated areas after the storm. “She’s constantly full of energy and ideas.”
Clay assumed the task of collecting the oral histories of the drawers’ owners last August. She placed flyers at the homes where Napoli found the drawers, attended neighborhood association meetings, and looked through community directories in search of the owners. So far, Clay and Napoli have found and contacted 17 owners of the 610 drawers, though only 13 have responded. Their goal is to document 50 oral histories, which will ultimately be archived by Louisiana State University.
“So much of the proof of our existence lies in our possessions,” said Clay. “One woman I interviewed emigrated from eastern Cuba in 1971. Her drawer still contained her father’s obituary and a picture of her mother on her 100th birthday, and it was under six feet of water. Another held the early childhood journals of an adolescent boy. A third belonged to a woman from the Ninth Ward, and contained some belongings of her daughter’s who had died 10 years earlier from heart failure. These are personal objects people interacted with in their lives on a daily basis. They aren’t just things.”
Said Napoli, “I hope visitors will take away a better understanding of the immensity of loss that you can’t see in pictures, you can’t see on TV.” She and her team plan to keep collecting information. “This doesn’t end in one or two years. It is important that we continue to have a sense that this is not over.”
In the future, there are plans for a freestanding installation at other locations, including roughly 80 drawers in the collection that still have items inside them. Napoli hopes to see those drawers displayed along with the rest in the future, but for now everyone involved is just grateful to see Floodwall come to fruition.
“We’re just so happy to be here,” said Napoli. “New Yorkers are the people who knew. They made a space for us.”