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The State of Art in New Orleans After Katrina


On the drive into New Orleans from the airport, billboards declare "We Are Back!" but exactly who has returned? New Orleans' painters, musicians and performers are among the diaspora tossed across the country by Hurricane Katrina.

More than half a year after Hurricane Katrina, the Wild Magnolias perform a free concert in front of the Louisiana State Museum. The band is a family of what's known as "Mardi Gras Indians," black men and women adorned in brilliantly colored feathers, in honor of Native American tribes who provided safe harbor to runaway slaves. The Wild Magnolias have toured the globe, but this is their first time playing their hometown since the storm. Until a New Orleans friend set them up, Queen Rita, the band matriarch, said they had no place to live or to create their famous costumes.

"We lost everything," said Queen Rita. "When we started out, we went to Natchez, Mississippi, could not get any help there, went to Baton Rouge. From Baton Rouge went to Atlanta for 30 days then went to Gainesville, Florida for three months. We started sewing in Gainesville. We transferred everything down here, and a great family let us use their home to let us finish our costumes."

Many other musicians, says Queen Rita, have not been so lucky.

"They want to come back," she said. "But it is all in finding where to live. There is nowhere to live, which is a sad thing."

Across Jackson Square, a small brass band plays.

Every few weeks, the Cool Bone Brass band performs in New Orleans at weddings or conventions. Displaced band members must fly or drive in from as far away as Michigan or Texas. Leader Steve Johnson, now a high school music teacher in Alabama, worries that if musicians do not make the effort to return, youngsters will not be able to follow a local tradition of learning music on the streets of the city.

JOHNSON: "As long as there is one New Orleans musician still here, the music will spread on. Katrina could knock off some people and spread us out, but it cannot kill the spirit. So the thing is as long as there is one, that one will always be able to teach somebody else."

ARMAND: "My name's Phillip Armand, I am 27 years old. I am just an original New Orleans musician. I play drums, anything dealing with percussion, that is me, yeah."

The drummer for the Cool Bone Brass band, Phillip Armand was stranded on a neighbor's roof for five days after Katrina with neither food nor water.

"It was a nightmare, you know, at nighttime," said Phillip Armand. "It was a nightmare. Because you know you were hearing people hollering like 'help, help, help.' And they could not get any help. So I felt sorry for the people. I shed a couple of tears when I was on the roof. I am not going to lie, yeah I did."

While Phillip is more than willing to drive in from Houston, Texas to perform, the harrowing experience has left him torn about returning to New Orleans permanently.

"I do not know, after the disaster, man, it made me think, you know? Not to go to back," he said. "I like to move forward, I do not like to come back. That is my thinking right now."

Yet some street performers are making the best of a tough situation, trying to take advantage of the nation's attention on New Orleans and of New Orleans' pride.

Puppeteer Valentino is a Yugoslavian native, who has brought his marionette act to New Orleans streets for 15 years.

"I was called Valentino's Jazz Puppets before this but after Katrina I just made this sign and decided to call myself New Orleans Cool Cats," said Valentino.

Valentino survived the hurricane but left when he lost electricity and ran out of food. He struggled taking his act on the road.

"I came back like 10 days ago," he said. "I was performing in Clearwater, Florida. Florida, man! I felt like a fish out of water, man. They did not really get into my act as much as people do here. We are so interactive here. I know thousands of people, they're happy to see me. There is not any place like this."

On Royal Street, in the famous French Quarter, which was once lined with art galleries, "for rent" signs pop up like weeds. Kirt Smith ran two galleries for Jamie Hayes, an illustrator, artist and New Orleans fixture since the 1970s. When the artist had to move to find a school for his small son, Smith stayed behind to reopen the galleries. He compares business before and after Katrina:

"On a busy Saturday it was not unreasonable to expect a $3,000 to $6,000 in sales. The first weekend, we reopened was actually about half the sales I would have normally expected on a typical Saturday. Each week after that the sales continually got worse and worse until it was me sitting in a gallery with ten people a day walking in, potentially one of them buying a $35 poster. There was no point in continuing it. What we once have in New Orleans we no longer have."

Mr. Smith did not abandon the city, but now manages another gallery across the street, though he is uncertain whether that one will succeed either.

Amazingly, painter Elizabeth Eckman moved to New Orleans after Katrina. She and her husband Gary, own a real estate agency that doubles as an art gallery in Brooklyn, New York. They were in negotiations to buy a dilapidated New Orleans mansion right before the hurricane. They happily went ahead with the deal even though their new home took a beating during the storm.

"You're looking at what happens to bricks when they fall back into a house," said Elizabeth Eckman. "After the storm, the back wing, the two walls, fell out. The bricks went right through the neighbors and exposed their kitchen. We just figured, well it's not really that much more damaged than it was before, it's just more obvious now."

Elizabeth finds that living in this battered, but still very much alive, city inspires her artwork.

"I have been so knocked over by Southern narrative style and for someone who would have an amazing amount of trouble writing a full-length novel, the idea that I can write short vignettes on a single canvas, very exciting," she said. "And I also love the way people use found and distressed objects. I am taking all the distressed screens and window screens out of this house and I am going to paint on them."

And it is the artists devoted to the new New Orleans who, Elizabeth says, inspire her life.

"These are people who will not only survive the situation like this, but do it with grace and style," she noted. "And really this is the tribe I want to belong to. Because the other people of this world, they're going to moan and complain even in the best of times. The people who are here in the worst of times are the best of people."

The threat of hurricanes, money and politics will determine the future shape of New Orleans, but its culture will remain in the hands of the artists who call the city home. Only time will tell who they will be.

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