When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast last year, Darryl Montana lost four years of work.
As chief of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe “Yellow Pocahontas,” Montana spends 10 months to a year hand-sewing the elaborately beaded and feathered “suits” that he and other tribe members wear during Mardi Gras. His costumes have been celebrated in books and museum exhibits as colorful symbols of New Orleans folk tradition.
“Some of these people lost all their work. Without this opportunity, a lot of them felt they might have to give up being an artist altogether,” says Morgana King, administrator for the Gulf Coast Artists Hurricane Relief Program.
But when Montana and his family evacuated the city last August, he was forced to leave his collection of costumes behind piled up on his bed. The flood waters rose six and a half feet in their single-story house. Although his bed floated for two weeks, sparing some of his prize possessions, four bottom pieces were ruined.
Since then, Montana has been rebuilding his family’s life in New Orleans, with little time to think about his suit craft. But thanks to a program designed to help artists displaced by the hurricane, he recently spent one month of uninterrupted time at the 18th Street Arts Center) and supported by a $500,000 grant from The James Irvine Foundation.
The artists include accomplished painters, ceramicists and printmakers, as well as writers, dancers, musicians and performers. Like Montana, many of them lost their homes after the hurricane and have been living in temporary arrangements ever since. Many also lost studios and work spaces, supplies and equipment, and in some cases, entire bodies of work.
The residencies are a chance to rejuvenate, to reflect and to focus uninterrupted time on creating new work.
Each participant in the Gulf Coast Artists Hurricane Relief Program is receiving a stipend and a one-month or two-month residency at one of six artist residency programs in California. Artists who have completed the program say it has proven to be a welcome respite and incredibly productive.
“Many have expressed what a difference it makes to have time to relax and figure things out,” said Morgana King, the program’s administrator who herself was displaced by the hurricane. “Some of these people lost all their work. Without this opportunity, a lot of them felt they might have to give up being an artist altogether.”
Another benefit of the program is artistic cultural exchange. The Gulf Coast artists are bringing a unique perspective to share with the California artists in the residency programs, providing an opportunity for collaboration between the artists across and within different disciplines.
“New Orleans is one of the cultural centers of the country, best known for its music but for other areas as well. It has a rich folk tradition,” noted Marcy Hinand Cady, Irvine’s Program Director for Arts. “We knew there was a unique aesthetic that the Gulf Coast artists were going to bring and share with California artists.”
Once the devastation of Katrina became apparent, Cady began working with officials from the Louisiana state Division of the Arts to determine how the Foundation might assist the regions' devastated arts community. One of the most pressing needs was helping artists who had lost significant bodies of work.
The Foundation already had a grant to the Alliance of Artists Communities, which includes many artist residency programs in California. Both Cady and members of the Alliance agreed on a plan to offer residencies as a way to help artists displaced by the hurricane rebuild their work.
The Alliance, the nation’s only service organization for artists' communities and residency programs, is a very collaborative group and represents a range of residency experiences, from urban based programs to more remote locations.
Randels said the residency was an opportunity to not think about the trauma of New Orleans. “It was so important to be paid to be an artist again. It was great to take a break from Katrina and the survival mode that we’ve been in since the storm and regenerate our creative selves.”