All of a sudden the house swayed to the right, and then it swayed to the left, and there was nothing I could do. At some point I said, 'This is it. I think we might die ... .'" But the moment passed, and when Hurricane Katrina finally gave way to an eerily silent new day, painter Jacqueline Bishop and husband Herbert Halpern, a St. Charles Avenue retailer, stepped out to a very different city. "Downed trees and rubble were everywhere," she said of their Garden District neighborhood, where a few speechless survivors strolled amid the wreckage. "It was so quiet. There were no birds. We walked down Prytania and saw some people who were sitting in a room that we could look right into because the brick outer wall had collapsed. They just sat there, stunned."
No strangers to hurricanes, they had never left for previous storms, but Katrina was different. A noted painter of surreal landscapes inspired by tropical ecology, Bishop also taught a course on "art and the environment" at Loyola. Although an avid student of nature, nothing had prepared her for this. Yet, they were alive and their home was still standing despite wind damage that included a chinaberry tree falling through the roof of her studio. The worst was over, or so they thought.
"We had no power, no television, but we had plenty of food and water, and I'm used to camping out," she says. But then they heard about the levee break and the rising water that seemed headed their way. And while they were ultimately spared the flooding that swamped so much of the city, they soon heard about a different threat from some neighbors who were hurriedly loading their own belongings into a car.
Asked why, they said, "There's a lot of looting going on and it's not safe here anymore." Another neighbor told them about the plundering of the nearby Wal-Mart. Later, she heard noises on the street outside and saw "people pushing grocery carts filled with TVs, clothes and toys. They were laughing, and it reminded me of Mardi Gras until I realized what was happening."
On the way to check on Halpern's store, they saw people breaking into the St. Charles Avenue Walgreen's and the Office Depot. Soon they were hearing stories about gangs of crackheads attacking hospitals and shooting at rescue helicopters. A friend reported seeing a dog eating the fingers off of a corpse. By Wednesday, after seeing too much chaos and no police, they decided they'd had enough and began navigating their car through the rubble-strewn streets that would take them out of town.
They were staying with her sister in Houston when a neighbor in New Orleans called with the devastating news that their house had been looted. He had boarded up the breach and painted warnings on the gate to their yard, but the damage was done. Friends invited them to stay in Mobile, Ala., where Bishop was given a studio -- and a challenge.
Space 301, Mobile's nonprofit contemporary gallery, had scheduled a November show of recent New Orleans art, but the curator had quit when Katrina hit. Could Bishop step in and pull the show together? She would be starting over from scratch, and all the details had to be finalized in a week's time.
Although profoundly shaken by all she had seen and heard, Bishop agreed.
"I didn't think I was in any state of mind to do anything like that," she says. "It seemed impossible, but I couldn't say no."
Convinced of the importance of the project, she made calls and sent out emails to people who were scattered far and wide, and managed to put together an exhibit of work by 30 area artists.
"It's not about Katrina, but it has everything to do with the sensibilities of New Orleans," she says. Since returning to her comfortable, if battered, home in late September, she's had time to reflect on how she was affected by putting together a show for a community of artists at a time when so much else in her life was falling apart.
"Curating Made in New Orleans saved me in a way," says Bishop. "It was part of my survival."
- D. Eric Bookhardt
- Artist Jacqueline Bishop stands by the gate to her yard where a neighbor painted warning messages after her home had been looted.