Friday 5: Arts & Writing as a Response to Disasters

Hurricane Sandy continues to be felt in the art community when she flooded out art galleries in Chelsea, the Lower East Side, and Red Hook. Yet, arts and creativity is still alive and has maybe even surged in the midst of this disaster as seen by this sketch called Frankenstein by Richard Cox. One way art is still going strong is in social media as Hurricane Sandy occupies online conversations on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. For example, GalleristNY has started a live blog to report on Hurricane Sandy’s effects on the art industry and Huffington Post has an online community known as HuffPost Religion, which allows users to post written prayers to Hurricane Sandy victims.  Yet, Sandy has left the biggest impression on Instagram as users constantly share millions of photos of their experiences from flooding to long gas lines. But now, according to Bianca Bosker, the Huffington Post executive tech editor, these photos have evolved creatively in that forms of artistry from use of color to angles to texture are used to more adequately express individual emotions and interpretations of the storm’s impact. In general, history has shown that the arts and writing creates a space for self expression through difficult times and Hurricane Sandy is no different.

Artistry, whether through social media, paint on a canvas, live performance, or writing can be seen  as a form of healing because it provides a space and an opportunity that might not be visible for one to find their voice  and communicate their personal experiences. Thus, the field of art therapy is booming such as in Dallas, Texas at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, which aids thousands of abused children. One of the ways the center assists children is through painting and drawing. Julie Espey, an art therapist at the center states that for these children their drawings allow them to tell their story: “The art process comes from the almost unconscious, so it’s just raw communication.”

Writing can have the same impact and we see it constantly through NYWC where members of underserved populations find their voices through free creative writing workshops. Thus, when the NYWC resumed workshops this week for the first time since Hurricane Sandy, at the 14 Street Y workshop which services retired adults, one senior participant took a taxi all the way from Brooklyn to Manhattan just to be a part of it. Here are five other examples in which individuals have turned to creative outlets in response to disasters:

“Inner Force.” Phillippe Dodard.

1. Phillippe Dodard, a Haitian artist from Port-au-Prince, Haiti lost many of his loved ones following Haiti’s Earthquake in 2010. He was speechless until he started painting and found that it was a way to communicate his feelings and then heal. Dodard went on to create the Haiti Art Expo in 2010 that featured his works as well as the works of other Haitian and American artists and all the proceeds went to victims of the earthquake. He also created Plas Timoun, a program that allows children ages six to ten the opportunity to express themselves through art forms such as painting and music. Dodard stated in The Chart: “It’s only when I started painting, all of my emotions that were buried inside started coming out.” This painting featured is called “Inner Force” and it explores the power that lies within.

2. On October 13, 2012, the Center of Performing Arts at the College of Staten Island featured the stories of five 9/11 survivors about the day that forever changed their lives.  Ordinary people, and now oral historians, sanitation worker Anthony Palmeria, office manager Gerry Bogacz, Aon employee Desiree Bouthat, firefighter’s wife Ann Van Hine, and Lower Manhattan resident Donna Laz, shared their personal narratives aided with projected images to a modest crowd for a performance titled “9/11: ordinary people, remarkable stories” by the Performing Tribute organization . Ordinarily, it is a touring theatre piece that features six individuals. Joelle M. Morison writes for that for each person the power of listening is what brought them to share their experiences with others:

“Listening helps both those who are doing the talking and those who are hearing. The need to talk is individually healing, and listening makes for collective healing. It’s also the search for acceptance. They know they will never fully get over what happened, but they want to focus on what lies ahead as well.”

“ReBuild.” For its “Pika Pika” project, artist group Tochka.

3. Art was also a response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami and nuclear crisis of 2011. Cultural facility Art Tower Mito produced one show called “Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress” which featured the “Pika Pika” project by artist group Tochka. “Pika Pika” captures photographs of people writing words or drawing images in torchlight. Three days after the disaster a website was established asking people around the world to make their own torchlight messages of encouragement for victims. The messages were then formed into a collage. Edan Corkill from The Japan Times writes that this exhibit spreads a new light on the purpose of art: “For such artists, art is indeed not just about something; it is for something.”

From Katrina through the Eyes of Children

4. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a large white tent was established as a community gathering place in Renaissance Village, the largest trailer park for evacuees.  There art therapists housed sessions for young children where they would draw and paint. A common theme in these drawings were triangles which represented the roofs of their homes (where they fled to during the storm). In addition, many of the children’s drawings were populated by alligators, birds, and snakes. Their artwork was turned into an exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art called Katrina through the Eyes of Children. The art showed the trauma that these children were facing and then the exhibit was an opportunity for others to experience the stories of these children as well.


Tommie Elton Marby

5. From August 2005 to October 2005, Tommie Elton Mabry used the walls of his B. W. Cooper public housing apartment in New Orleans, Louisiana as a place to write his story and feelings after Hurricane Katrina. The four walls from top to bottom surfaced as a diary and represented an urge to communicate even when there was nobody around. As to why he started writing, he stated: “I was feeling lonely… Expressing yourself is kind of like a breath of fresh air.” Today, the B. W. Cooper housing development no longer exists but Mabry’s wall diary was removed and is now on display at the Louisiana State Museum.  Maria C. Montoya for The Times-Picayune writes:

Before the walls came down, the place had a sacred feel about it. It was a testament to an epic event, represented by a simple record of the experiences and emotions of one man. The subjects of the diary are mostly mundane: a sore throat, the rain, some pizza, a conversation with a friend. But it’s the kind of mundane that is the essence of daily life — anyone’s life — and in the aggregate, the dailiness seems profound.

In response to Hurricane Sandy, NY Writers Coalition decided to provide a space for people to find community and write in a supportive environment. So, we’ve started two new free, drop-in workshops. Click here for more info.