Battered but Unbowed

New Orleans artists take to the road for a rebound

When the military blockade was lifted this past October, Steve Martin returned from Nashville to his Julia Street studio in New Orleans's Warehouse/Arts District unsure of what, if anything, he would find.

It had been more than a month since Hurricane Katrina mauled his city, and survival was the only thing on his mind.

"After the storm, I saw a CNN reporter on television standing in water chest-deep a block from my house and catfish swimming by him on the screen," Martin recalls. "Right then, I figured we were lost." He knew a tornado had hacked through the art district's main artery like a reaper through a wheat field, leveling buildings and bleeding a burgeoning scene dry, but watching widespread looting on television left him with a sense of dread.

Charlie Varley's photos of New Orleans and its residents after Hurricane Katrina
Charlie Varley's photos of New Orleans and its residents after Hurricane Katrina

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"I found my roof ripped open and my office destroyed," the artist rues. "The building next to mine collapsed, and I had a lot of water damage."

Unlike other New Orleans-based artists, who lost everything, Martin salvaged his art. So he packed it all up and headed for Miami, determined to open a new space. He arrived in South Florida October 23 — the eve of Hurricane Wilma.

But nearly eight months later, under darkening skies, he fussily tidies the entrance of his eponymously named space in the Design District, preparing for the opening of "New Orleans Artists in Exile," just as the first named storm of 2006 is brewing in the gulf. Martin's breakout Miami show, organized by New Orleans's Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, features the work of a dozen Big Easy talents whose lives were altered by Katrina. And, despite the deluge of news media that saturated us in the wake of Katrina, nothing prepares us for Charlie Varley's disturbing postcards from the front line.

The mesmerizing computerized slide show of photographs snapped by the British photojournalist during Katrina and its aftermath, and his arresting suite of color photographs — one of which graced the cover of Newsweek this past September — have been a staple of the project since its inception. His pictures leave a lump in the throat while inducing outrage, and, more so than any other work on display, viscerally convey a sense of the loss and upheaval these artists have endured.

As the mournful sound of a saxophone splits the air during the seven-minute-long presentation, one sees a man using a hatchet to chop his way out of the attic of his home; the floodwaters have risen to the house's eaves. Another image shows a desperate throng seeking shelter at the Superdome; a solitary Louisiana State Trooper brandishes a shotgun above his head, trying to keep the wild-eyed crowd at bay. Click. Small children wallow in their own feces because Superdome bathrooms are too dangerous to use and parents fear for their safety. Click. The body of 40-year-old Eugenie Boyle is shown cocooned in cellophane wrap, lying in the back of a pickup truck on Chef Menteur Highway. Her rotting remains rest next to a spare tire. Click. The body of a nearly nude man bobs in the water outside Baptist Memorial Hospital. A child's inflatable swimming pool covers his head. Click. The decomposing body of an elderly woman, melting into the wheelchair in which she had been abandoned at a dental practice, is recovered ten days after the storm. It appears as if stray dogs have feasted on her.

"It was like a war zone, only covered in water," Varley intones while pointing at one of his pictures. Stranded at the St. Claude Bridge, taken from the back of a military truck the day after the storm, depicts hundreds of the city's poorest citizens waiting to be rescued from a median on a flooded street. A few National Guardsmen stand in front of the crowd while one of the soldiers, wearing lavender latex gloves, directs a vehicle. "These people were shouting for food and water, but when the soldiers came in, their first order was: öLock and load.' They acted like the American military showing up to save a poor African nation. It was disgraceful," says Varley.

Rescued from a 9th Ward Rooftop, one-year-old Faith Figueroa — the photo that made the cover of Newsweek — shows a closeup of the doe-eyed black girl with tears streaming down her face. Varley says he still drives around New Orleans searching for the child.

In Child of the Superdome, another picture that might have been shot in Somalia, a little barefoot boy clad only in overalls drinks water out of a crumpled Sprite can. Behind him people seek shelter from the blistering heat as a young man uses a T-shirt to wipe the sweat off of his face.

"That's the Superdome, but it might well have been the Sudan," Varley says. "Inside the dome, people were forced to sit in the cramped plastic seats and not allowed to stretch out on the pitch because it would ruin the grass. Many chose to sit outside instead. The choking humidity and stench were unbearable."

Toxic Soup, taken after the levees were breached, depicts diesel fuel pumps at a truck stop where the water has risen to the levels of the holstered nozzles. On September 5, gas cost $2.59 a gallon, and the water covering the area was coated in a putrid chemical ooze.

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