NOLA Totem: Travelogue, Hurricane Katrina and its Aftermath, 1995-2015
By Robin Glassman
On my Thanksgiving Birthday in 1995, my friend Marisa and I headed to New Orleans for a celebratory adventure. This excursion took place with the knowledge that, if we waited, we would never be able to travel together again. Marisa suffered from Huntington’s Chorea and her condition was getting progressively worse. We knew the fate of people who suffered from the disease that had killed her father and legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie. Although our trip was riddled with ups and downs, the highlights shined brightly. I will never forget the sheer exhilaration I felt watching Marisa hug a live oak tree (as seen on the log I am exhibiting) or the pleasure of listening to the music of the legendary Preservation Jazz Band music while sitting on the hard benches of the historic hall. And as Marisa and I sat outside eating beignets at Café DuMonde, she told me about her new obsession with voodoo while being serenaded by a saxophone player on the Moon Walk.
How fortuitous! The following year I was the one that would be too sick to travel and by the time I got back on my feet, Marisa’s disease was too far advanced to allow for another adventurous vacation. So it was the memory of our 1995 trip to New Orleans that lived both in my mind and photo book until Hurricane Katrina hit ten years later.
Having embraced the Crescent City’s rich culture and history, the devastating destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina hit me harder than I could have imagined. The seed of NOLA Totem began as news of the inhumane treatment encountered by the victims fleeing their homes. Magazine photos of the broken levees and other detritus covered the formed Styrofoam tower as the piece slowly materialized. . Personal objects from our trip entered the time capsule linking the past with the present. I remember going to see Marisa and I sitting outside her new rehab residence reminiscing about NOLA’s yummy foods and a Cajun band we fell in love with and crying as we talked about the stranded men, woman, children, and animals helplessly waiting to be rescued.
As the tenth anniversary arrived, The Nation magazine carefully uncovered the many messy details of the horrors of Katrina that the people of New Orleans and the surrounding areas still faced. By that time Marisa had died but her memory had become strongly infused with my recently completed NOLA Totem sculpture. Adding a voodoo doll and the collaged log honors my beloved friend’s memory as well as the buried past of New Orleans. II haven’t returned since then and hear that the tourist areas are back in full swing. But I wonder if the people in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes who were most impacted by Katrina have ever fully recovered.
Now thanks to the donor-funded nonprofit group Levees.org, the Flooded House Museum will open its doors. It is truly unique among the city's monuments to Katrina's destruction. “There are markers at various sites, including some of the places where floodwalls gave way. But there's nothing like this re-creation by artists Aaron Angelo and Ken Conner. They were tasked with depicting what homeowners would have found once they were allowed back into the area in the months after the storm hit, once the water had receded and roads were cleared of debris. Levees.org was founded soon after the storm by Sandy Rosenthal and her then-teenage son to educate the public about the causes of the catastrophe — chiefly the failures of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood walls that gave way in numerous locations.” (AP- “Sorrow revisited: Re-creating Katrina’s muck in New Orleans” by Kevin McGill and Stacey Plaisance)
NOLA Totem is made of:
Formed Polystyrene, wood board, and log painted with Acrylic, collaged with newspaper, magazine paper, plastic and sheer fabric, various paper, old paintings, NOLA vacation photographs. Personal and collected ephemera include beads, mirror, glass, 1985 mini sculpture, New Orleans voodoo doll, alabaster shell piece, mother of pearl dove, Mardi Gras coin and mask, peacock feathers, handmade gravel