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Artist Pieces Life Back Together After Katrina

Lori Gordon found meaning in the debris of her destroyed home

Mississippi artist Lori Gordon works on a new outdoor piece, made from almost all Katrina debris except for a few glass prisms and the hardware holding it together.
Mississippi artist Lori Gordon works on a new outdoor piece, made from almost all Katrina debris except for a few glass prisms and the hardware holding it together.

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Rhonda Miller

Six years ago, on August 29, Hurricane Katrina devastated communities along the Gulf of Mexico. Images of New Orleans spread around the world, but east of the Louisiana border, much of the Mississippi coast was also wiped out.  

In the past few years, towns have been rebuilding. Mississippi artist Lori Gordon took pieces from the debris and built a new home and a new life.

Losing everything

In a small art gallery in the seaside village of Bay St. Louis, Gordon is drilling a piece of wood to mount a new piece of art. Her drill is one of the few things she has from before Hurricane Katrina. When she and her husband evacuated their home near the water, they boarded up the house. Her husband took the drill so he could remove the wood from the windows when they returned.  But there was nothing to come back to.

Lori Gordon created 'Habitat', made from Katrina debris, for former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who came to rebuild with Habitat for Humanity in spring 2008.
Lori Gordon created 'Habitat', made from Katrina debris, for former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who came to rebuild with Habitat for Humanity in spring 2008.

"Hurricane Katrina hit, the house went, the studio went, even the tree house didn’t quite make it,"Gordon says, "and of course all of my art supplies and tools went with that."

As did 30 years worth of her art that had been in the studio.

"I lost all that, but what was really hard at the time was not only not having a place to live, but not having a place to work and not having any tools to work with," Gordon says. "With what happened, the loss of home, the loss of community, which was really tough. And the only way I’ve ever had has been my art."

Emotional survival

Before Katrina, Gordon mostly painted landscapes of the land and water around her. Her focus changed with Katrina. She says art became emotional survival.

"I started digging through the rubble where my house had been and pulling out bits of broken furniture and broken dishes. Anything I could find. It’s really weird, when you’ve lost everything, a broken coffee cup can take on really significant meaning."  

Once Gordon discovered some pieces of debris had meaning, she knew she was onto something.

"So I just started pulling all that stuff together and, because I was really feeling pretty crazy, I started gluing it together any way I could, making mixed media pieces."

Visitors check out Lori Gordon's work at Gallery 220 in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Visitors check out Lori Gordon's work at Gallery 220 in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

Gordon was not the only local artist set adrift by the hurricane. Jenise McCardell, a gallery owner who works in clay, also lost her studio. After the storm, she and her husband purchased an undamaged building in town and opened a door to hope.

"So then there were quite a group of artists, 10 artists that needed a place to work and create their art," McCardell says. "Some were homeless, some had nowhere to work, so we began a coop art gallery here at 220."

Transformation

It became Gallery 220, named after the street address. In a town known for its artists, they found strength in each other’s company. Artists from other states heard about the gallery and sent tools, clay, paint and canvas.  

"We put up tables," McCardell says. "This is where we worked because we had nowhere else. Lori had nothing, you know, was living in a tent."

Gordon was surprised to see her Katrina pieces sell quickly. Many of the buyers were volunteers who came from all over the country to help after the disaster.

'Angel of St Rose,' made mostly of debris from Hurricane Katrina, by artist Lori Gordon
'Angel of St Rose,' made mostly of debris from Hurricane Katrina, by artist Lori Gordon

Local residents also bought Gordon’s art, often recognizing pieces of their lives in the collages.
In the process, she began to see her work in a new way.

“I was able to take bits and pieces of all that negative stuff, and put them together and transform them not only into something I found beautiful and life-affirming," Gordon says. "But that made me some money, which was very significant at that point in time.”

Margaret Woodward,  who is still repairing damage to her home in nearby Long Beach, owns several pieces of the Katrina Collection.

“Lori made the impossible seem possible and not only possible but beautiful again, there was very little that was pretty after the storm," says Woodward. "It was just tragic.”

Gordon, who now shows her work across the country, still works at the artists’ co-op two days a week.

“You don’t have to have experienced a Katrina to understand what loss is," she says. "Whether it’s the loss of your community, whether it’s much more singular and personal, like a divorce, we all have to do the same things. We have to pick up the broken pieces and put them back together in a way that makes sense, and in a way that will bring happiness and joy back to our lives.”

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