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New Orleans Artisan Turns Tragedy into Beauty


New Orleans resident Stefano Velaska makes jewelery from scraps of metal left by Katrina

New Orleans resident Stefano Velaska makes jewelery from scraps of metal left by Katrina

In New Orleans, five years after Hurricane Katrina, there are still many reminders of the storm's destructive power in the form of empty lots where homes once stood and in the form of empty places in the hearts of families who lost loved ones. But at least one local artisan has found a way to make something positive and even beautiful from the debris left by the storm.

In the covered French Market in the southeast corner of the New Orleans French Quarter, business has picked up since Hurricane Katrina. But five years later there are about 100 fewer merchants than there were before.

One of the remaining stalwarts is Stefano Velaska, a survivor of both Katrina and of the 1968 invasion of his native Czechoslovakia - by the former Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.

At the age of 18, he fled the communist country and ended up here in southern Louisiana, with its mix of Creole, African-American and French-descended Cajun people.

"I defected from the Czech Republic in 1968, right after the initial invasion," he said. "In Italy I got asylum and then right after that I came here, so I have been here a long time. I am almost Cajun!"

Velaska found work in a restaurant, but soon developed a skill in metal working and started making jewelry.

But Hurricane Katrina hit him hard. It took the lives and property of close friends and destroyed much of the market area where he worked.

"It was rough," recalled Velaska. "It does not matter if it has a small effect on your house or if you lost everything. It does have an effect on everyone."

Among the first to return, Stefano Velaska looked for a way to make something meaningful from the tragedy.

"After the hurricane I was already metal-smithing so I was trying to find out some way to somehow promote New Orleans, because we lost a lot of people. We didn't at that time know even if this place was ever going to come back to life," added Velaska.

He found his inspiration in the scraps of metal left scattered all over the city by the hurricane. From ugly scraps of metal left by a killer storm, Stefano Velaska makes things of enduring beauty.

Tourists, like Sara from Los Angeles, find something special in these small works of art.

SARA: "I think it is one of the most beautiful things you can do and I come from a family of jewelers so I appreciate something like this, so beautiful and unique."

VELASKA: "I want to be able to give to someone who comes to New Orleans something they can take home that is a piece of New Orleans instead of trinkets made in China or some other countries, because this way you actually take home something from here. It is a small piece of New Orleans, a small piece of history."

It is, perhaps, one man's way of turning tragedy into triumph.

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