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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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This year the trees have made a comeback.

For the past several years, lots of things have looked like a haunted house here on the coast. Dead, twisted trees, bare branches, bark all painted in silvery grays. But this year the vegetation looks thicker and lusher.

It took me a while to notice. I spent most of the summer trying to figure out why our above-ground pool was staying so cold. (Poor Heather could hardly stand to get in it!) Then I realized that all of the trees on the lot next door had leaves on them, and the sun wasn't hitting the pool until about noon. The trees were so green that even a colorblind person like me could tell.

Life is a funny thing, and sometimes something can stay bottled up inside for years before bursting back out in a showy display.

My life has been that way lately.

A long time ago, before Heather and I moved to New Orleans, I was an artist ... or at least I liked to think that I was. It was a longtime running joke of my life that if art didn't pan out I could always fall back on something practical like music! The problem was that I didn't really enjoy many aspects of the "art world". I'm no businessman, I'll be the first to admit, and much of surviving as an artist involves having to deal with business: searching for galleries, keeping press releases updated, haggling with customers over prices, and taking commissions that one didn't really want to do, just to pay bills. So I quit. I really haven't painted, created, or shown anything since we left Mobile (the occasional coloring sheet or mask not withstanding).

But, like many bodily functions, the artistic nature cannot always be ignored. (For instance, you can decide that you're never going to exhale again, but sooner or later it's going to come out.)

Recently Heather and I took a trip up to Memphis. We drove along Highway 61, ate barbeque, listened to the blues the whole way (in addition to performing them with Vince Johnson and the Plantation All-Stars on Beale Street), saw a lot of beautiful parts of the great state of Mississippi, and came back reborn. Well at least, I did. Like I said, I really hadn't picked up a paint brush since I left Mobile.

While living in the trailer, I just didn't feel inspired to make any art, nor did I have room.

I know that lots of artists in this area have found artistic inspiration in the storm, and the ensuing debris.

I am not one of them.

Instead, I found myself inspired by the South as I know it, and how it's been my whole life: hot and humid, dripping with kudzu and Spanish moss, hot boiled peanuts eaten out a paper bag on twisty back roads, Civil War battlefield memorials, odd roadside attractions, and music that has inspired the whole world -- not the bomb crater leftovers of a monster storm.

So, when we got back, I found myself painting.

Not in the California sense of "I FOUND myself" while painting. No, more of a gentler "Hey, Look at that, I'm holding a brush and seem to be painting again! How'd that happen?"

What started as one simple blue guitar painted quickly and hastily on a scrap of broken board from my dock (not storm debris, but destroyed by me when I cut down a small dead tree which was taller than I had realized) turned into two, and then two more different ones, and then one idea led to another and another and another and ,before I knew it, I had turned my last days of summer into LOTS of new paintings.

While describing this outpouring of artwork to our bass player Jesse Loya at a gig one night, I made a simple remark: "I need to have y'all and some other friends over to have a look at what I've been working on." To which he responded, "Why don't you just bring them to the Hall and we'll have a show!"

The only word I can think of to describe my friend Jesse is "dynamo." In addition to repairing his own house, his wife Kerrie's clothing shop Jet Set and countless other contracting jobs in the area, Jesse has also completely refurbished the historic 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis (Not to mention playing gigs with our band Heather and the Monkey King. Honestly, I don't know when the man sleeps!)

The 100 Men Hall was started as an African American Social Aid and Pleasure Club (at least, that's what they're called in New Orleans). One hundred men got together to pool their money to do nice things for the community, and to have a good time while doing it. This hall was essentially their clubhouse, meeting room and dancehall. During the ‘40s and ‘50s the hall was an active stop on the "Chitlins" circuit, and played host to a number of prominent jazz and blues stars. Over the years, it fell into disrepair before being heavily damaged in Katrina.

I find it humbling, amazing and very fitting that my new artworks, inspired by the land, music and culture of Mississippi, are going to be displayed in a Mississippi dancehall, whose rafters are still ringing with the music and cheers from the very folks that did the inspiring.

And so, this year, instead of marking the anniversary of the storm, I'll be joining the rest of the arts community in Bay Saint Louis in celebrating the anniversary of the day after the storm. It's going to be a big party, both in the 100 Men Hall, and all around Main Street and the train depot in Bay St. Louis. Remember, here in Mississippi, if you know about a party, that means you're invited, so y'all are all invited. Come on by if you can make it. Unless, of course, there's another storm out in the Gulf. Then y'all might want to stay home, and we might want to come see you.

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4 COMMENTS

BRAVO! what a joy to read this celebration of life and art. can´t wait to see pics of the show!

Can't wait to hear the reports of your show. Praying that Gustav and Hannah will not attend. Love, Aunt Ruth

Congratulations on re-discovering your passion! From one artist to another, I understand how moments in your life can squash one's creativity! My thoughts and prayers are with you and everyone along the coast as Hurricane Gustoph prepares to rear his ugly head - stay safe, stay strong!

Gosh, Steve. Not only do you make great music and paint, but now you also write - and well, too. This was a pleasure to read. Susan

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