Gulf Coast artists bring their work to Northeast Minneapolis

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More than seven months after Hurricane Katrina devastated communities along the Gulf Coast, artists from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, are showing and selling their work in three Twin Cities galleries, thanks to the help they received from some Minnesotans.

Debbie Woodward manages the Northrup King Building (NKB), a Northeast Minneapolis warehouse with more than 150 art studios. For months she has been working with charitable organizations including MinnesotaHelpers and Mission from Minnesota to help coordinate an exhibit featuring work by several artists from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi—an arts community located about 60 miles east of New Orleans that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Titled “The Katrina Collection,” the show represents work by more than 20 Gulf Coast artists, and has been on display this month at NKB and Frank Stone Gallery in Northeast, as well as Minnetonka Center for the Arts.
Woodward explained how the show evolved. “Mary Gray is the woman who started MinnesotaHelpers, a nonprofit organization that provides relief to survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In the process, she discovered Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, rated by USA Today as being in the top three small towns for arts. Mary dreamed that the art work could be brought to Minnesota and sold, so the artists could remain in Mississippi and rebuild. That’s how Art Share was born.”

After Hurricane Katrina hit, Gray said she awoke at 2 a.m. one morning with her mind spinning about ways to help survivors, and artists in particular. Last November she approached the Wayzata City Council and asked its members to adopt Bay St. Louis as a sister city, which the Council did Dec. 20.

In addition to distributing relief supplies to Bay St. Louis and surrounding communities, Gray helped artists procure gallery space in the Twin Cities and made arrangements for their work to be transported here.

Greg Zajac has been a volunteer with Mission for Minnesota—another nonprofit organization dedicated to providing relief to Hurricane Katrina victims. He made two trips to the area, driving down with supplies and returning with art work.

“I’ve been working with [Mission from Minnesota] for months, collecting stuff from around the state,” he explained. “I have an 18-foot truck that we filled up with items—stoves, microwaves, some furniture—to bring to a distribution center in New Orleans.

“Mary Gray talked to me about picking up some artwork from Bay St. Louis, and I said ‘sure, why not?’”

Zajac’s truck broke down twice during the trip, but the delay actually helped artists by giving them more time to pack and transport their work. “When I went to Bay St. Louis to pick up the artwork I saw how devastated that community was,” recalled Zajac. “Mary kept calling me and saying, ‘there’s another artist trying to rush over to get some art in your truck,’ so we held off and tried to wait for as many artists as possible. Everybody looked kind of disheveled, but they were very, very happy that somebody was taking their art.”

Lori Gordon is one of the artists from Bay St. Louis. She lost everything in the storm: her home, her studio and her custom-built tree house. “I think I’ll miss the tree house the most,” she said recently at Frank Stone Gallery’s opening reception. “It had a raised walkway. The studio stood in a grove of bamboo, and held 40 years of work and art supplies.”

Gordon spent years as a landscape painter—driven to capture the warm and varied hues of a multitude of Gulf Coast sunrises—but these days she works in collage and mixed media to create art from the rubble that was once her home.

“Five weeks after the storm, I started sifting through the rubble of my life and began creating something new from the mounds of debris,” she said in an article she wrote for Art Gulf Coast magazine. “I have found treasures in the form of clocks that stopped at the moment that destruction rained down…. Broken dolls that washed up on my lot have been transformed into visual stories of shattered lives. Plaster angels have found new halos of dartboard wire, and fragments of paintings that I plucked from tree limbs like damaged fruit have been reborn in new forms.”

Vicki Niolet is another Bay St. Louis artist who came to Minneapolis for “The Katrina Collection” opening at NKB. Niolet moved to the Gulf Coast community in 1994 and opened a vintage shop called Paper Moon. She later sold the business to concentrate on art, specifically mixed media work.

After the hurricane, Niolet began photographing the devastation in her community, shooting more than 700 images. “I wore out the film advancer lever on one of my cameras,” she said, adding that she “didn’t want to record the buildings, homes and businesses that were violated by Katrina in a somber, sad way.”

The result is Parting Shots of Old Town Bay St. Louis, a book of photographs with lighthearted captions by Niolet. The juxtaposition of the devastating images with tongue-in-cheek commentary is a deliberate attempt by the artist to cope with the tragedy. “I hope no one is offended by my captions and commentary,” she writes in the introduction of her book. “I feel that we have to laugh at some of this awfulness just to keep from bursting into tears, which we often do simultaneously anyway. Sometimes the funniest part of a joke stems from the familiarity and love that goes along with the punch line. With that said, it is with the deepest devotion and dedication that I present my observations.”

In publishing the book, Niolet said she’s offering a different perspective. “Bay St. Louis may be a place torn apart, but residents maintain a sense of humor. I feel that we will return to normal, or as close as possible, only by looking back in a positive manner. Humor can be therapeutic, so this is my way of healing the soul of my town.”

Items from “The Katrina Collection” will be on display through April, and Woodward said she is trying to locate additional venues to show and sell the artwork. None of the galleries participating in the show are taking commissions, so all proceeds go directly to the Bay St. Louis artists.

People interested in contributing art supplies, donating money or “adopting an artist” in Hancock County, Mississippi, can go to www.hancock-art. com. MinnesotaHelpers can be reached at www.minnesotahelpers.org and Mission from Minnesota is at www.missionfromminnesota.org.

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