House on Summerland Key.
House on Summerland Key.
Justin Wood

Artist Justin Wood Reminds the World That the Florida Keys Are Still Suffering

Hurricanes bring wind, rain, and a massive cavalry of windblown reporters and meteorologists who park themselves in front of cameras. But hurricanes move through and then move away and generally take the media attention with them. Inhabitants are left to clean up and rebuild in an echoing silence, grieving and bewildered. And when the hurricane that destroys your home is only one storm in the midst of a busy season, you can feel especially forgotten.

Artist and Florida Keys resident Justin Wood is trying to make sure that doesn't happen to his beloved home. He's shining a light on Hurricane Irma damage in the Keys.

Wood and his wife Reed first came to Florida about seven years ago. Wood's wife's family owned a house on Summerland Key that needed some looking after. The couple fell in love with the place and decided to make it their permanent home.

That is what made it so devastating when Hurricane Irma began bearing down on them in the early days of September.

“We were watching the storm path creep, creep closer and closer right to where we live. The eye of the storm rolled right over Summerland Key and my immediate area here, from Big Pine to Sugar Loaf, which is where I spend my day-to-day life, go to the grocery store, that kind of thing.”

Wood and his wife evacuated. Despite warnings from neighbors who stayed behind, nothing could prepare them for what they found when they returned.

Debris pile on Cudjoe Key.
Debris pile on Cudjoe Key.
Justin Wood

“It just came right through here and wrecked the place,” says Wood. “It was really unbelievable coming back down. Everything was just devastated. All the trees on my island are knocked over. Anything that is left is totally brown, all the leaves are ripped off. And you can see houses you couldn't see before because there were so many trees and plants and everything.”

For the last six years, Wood has developed a particular kind of projection art.

“I've been integrating digital technologies into traditional painting mediums by using digital mapping. I projected 2-D paintings by photographing the painting and then aligning that picture on top of itself and then applying effects and different things to the video and then flipping that concept and making collages on LCD screens so that the collage was transparent and the video was mapped behind it.”

Eventually, he came up with the idea of taking his projections out into the 3-D world, digitally mapping onto large outdoor structures and music and art festivals and then in spots around Wynwood.

“I was immediately drawn to the wreckage.”

Irma's wake provided the perfect canvas for his work, and a perfect opportunity to remind people that, while the hurricane has passed, it is far from over. As the cleanup continues, enormous garbage piles have begun to amass. Some reach 30 or 40 feet in height, according to Wood.

“[Irma] turned what was a beautiful tropical paradise into this mangled brown dump of waste and excess and junk,” says Wood. “All the stuff that people have in their houses, that they probably didn't need in the first place, that's been sitting around. It's just very ugly and I wanted to do something to transform that.”

Projecting his work has become a nightly ritual for Wood, working with anything from massive piles of mangled metal to destroyed buildings and houses, including the Shel Silverstein house down on Key West and the Sugarloaf Key Bat Tower, which has withstood hurricanes since the 1920s but didn't survive Irma.

For Wood, who was in New York City on 9/11 and was a volunteer in the clean up that followed, this particular artistic opportunity comes with a lot of mixed feelings. It's not something he takes lightly.

“It's a sensitive thing because I don't go and show up in somebody's driveway and project on their lost home and dreams,” says Wood. “I don't want to feel like I'm taking advantage of somebody's bad situation. There are some more dramatic places that I could go, but I want to get permission before I do that.”

Mostly, he just wants to remind the rest of the world that the people of the Keys are still struggling to recover. He has been posting photos and videos on his Tumblr page, keyslight.tumblr. Captured footage of NASA and NOAA tracking maps are mapped onto shredded tree stumps and the twisted remnants of metal structures. Iconic Keys stilt houses look ghostly in the dancing light of Wood's 4500 Luminprojector.

Now, you can help Irma victims in the keys rebuild by purchasing prints of Wood's work. A portion of the proceeds will go to direct relief groups including Vineyard Community Church on Big Pine Key.

Stilt house on Summerland Key.
Stilt house on Summerland Key.
Justin Wood

“One thing you learn when you go through a storm like this is that it goes through the headlines really quick and everyone else kind of moves on. But it takes months, years to rebuild,” says Wood. “So many people down here are still going through this. Certainly, some of these houses down here were vacation homes and that's terrible but there are also these trailer parks that were all pretty much destroyed. That's the local workforce of the Keys. Key West is approaching Manhattan-level prices to live there. There's no high rise apartments so these trailer parks are where a lot of the working class people live.”

Despite the damage, Wood encourages people to return to the Keys, especially fellow artists and musicians. Tourism brings much-needed dollars into the area and those dollars are needed more than ever now.

Prints of Wood's Hurricane Irma Projections collection can be purchased at Shop.JustinWood.us.

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