Click "Play" above to see and hear artist Lori Gordon forage through piles of debris in the woods where her home and studio once stood, seeking bits and pieces to use for her post-Katrina works of art.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- At first, artist Lori Gordon combed through the wreckage of her neighborhood with trepidation, fearing that she would come across her husband’s cat or, worse, a human body. But that didn’t happen, and over time she came to find comfort and sanity in the activity — salvaging bits and pieces from the mountains of rubble in the woods after Katrina swept away the home, studio and treehouse retreat she shared with her husband, David Wheeler, a wood worker.
Replacing the body of artwork she lost in the storm is impossible, and replacing their home and studio is out of reach for now. But Gordon’s peregrinations have given her a toehold in the future, as she creates new mixed media pieces from the mud-caked fragments she has salvaged from the rubble.
“These collages — they’re not to everybody’s taste,” Gordon says. But she finds these works at very least generate conversation, and have largely received a positive reception in this arts-rich community.
The series is both literally and metaphorically composed of pieces of the storm, she says. "It is my way of trying to make sense of a senseless situation, and to find some peace in the middle of grief and loss."
At first, she was merely focused on finding things she and her husband had lost. She salvaged pieces of paintings and prints that she found wedged in trees or buried in the mud. Some turned up several blocks from where the house had stood. She picked up pieces of hardware from furniture that was otherwise destroyed. She came across the small stained-glass piece that had been in her front door. It was intact, sitting on the bare foundation, even though the door and the house were nowhere in sight.
She has run across fragments of art supplies she had accumulated over the past four decades, but the most valuable among them have eluded her.
“This is what kills me,” Gordon says, as she stops and picks up a plastic bag full of colored rubber bands. “I keep thinking I’m going to find one of these zip-lock bags that had all my turquoise in it or my amber — I had this beautiful Baltic amber — and instead I find my bag of rubber bands!”
“The other funny thing is that I have found so many paintings that were really shit paintings that I was going to paint over because I didn’t like them. What I really wanted to find was the painting I did of my dad who died 15 years ago.”
Click "Play" to hear Lori Gordon talk about the inspiration behind her artwork.
Nearly four dozen new works
Nonetheless, she has accumulated many treasures, and created nearly four dozen new works, some of them already sold through one of the few galleries to reopen in Bay St. Louis.’
Friends have opened up their own ruined shops and properties to her search for useful debris. She also peruses the wreckage that has been bulldozed into piles alongside the roads in the Bay St. Louis, Waveland area. Bits of dolls, picture frames, book covers and old photos all find their way into her work.
She gets excited about scraps that would be bypassed as more junk by most people. “Now this, this is a great piece of tin,” she says, picking a rusty relic out of the ditch. “The texture is good. … Look at all that different tonal stuff there.”
Some of the pieces are suggestive of the storm itself, including pieces of draped pieces of tattered fabric, like the remnants of clothes and bedding seen hanging in trees throughout the storm-stricken area. Others works include powerful symbols, such as photographs or images of eyes, angels and crucifixes that tend to elicit emotional responses and religious reflection. Some, says Gordon, simply mingle visual elements that work together, drawn from the detritus of the Katrina.
Aside from creating art, there’s little else normal about Gordon’s daily existence. She lives in a small trailer she bought on a parcel of land in outlying Bay St. Louis that owned by friends who also lost their home and business and uses what was their garage — a building with a gaping hole in the roof — for her studio. With the friends, a couple living at the same site in another trailer, they cook together outside.
Like many others, she spends a good deal of her time sorting through FEMA requirements and insurance settlements. Like other artists who remain in the community, she has applied for grants to continue her work.
Gordon and Wheeler’s home and studio were badly underinsured for Katrina. They had about $70,000 in flood insurance. That doesn't begin to replace the house, studio and treehouse, and their contents. Gordon's art supplies alone were worth $30,000, she estimates.
Insurers don't value unsold art
And there is essentially no insurance compensation for the lost artworks. Insurance companies cover only the cost of materials, Gordon says, so works that she can sell for hundreds of dollars are worth only a few dollars in insurance terms.
To save money, they aren’t planning to sign up for their property to be cleared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, because they hope to salvage lumber for rebuilding.
Wheeler has been working for friends in Minnesota since a few weeks after the storm. He needed to get out of the disaster zone, and they needed the money, Gordon says.
When he does return, he will likely do most of the reconstruction himself, but it won’t be cheap, even so. With new flood elevations expected to be adopted in the area, the house will need to be at least six feet higher than the existing slab, they figure. But the final elevation requirements for insurance aren't expected for up to nine months.
Meantime, for Gordon, art is a source of income, a psychological lifeline and her contribution to the community as it tries to shake off the nightmare of Katrina.
“A lot of this is for me,” says Gordon. “I have to do this kind of stuff as much as I need to eat and sleep. But the other thing that I am trying to do, and that I’m very happy about is, it’s a part of the building process, and I want people to be able to look and say ‘look there’s something that’s being created out of all this rubble, out of all this destruction.’ Anything that can give us any kind of hope is well worth pursuing.”
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