Artists Conservation USA

New Orleans artists react to BP oil spill

Gulf Aid charity benefits from same spirit that responded to Hurricane Katrina

Political cartoonist Steve Breen used oil from the spill in his drawings

NEW YORK. Louisiana was still recovering from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when it was hit by another massive ecological disaster this year with the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil well spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And as they did with Katrina, the region’s artists have responded to the crisis through art, many incorporating the very oil washing up on beaches in their works.

This summer, Dan Cameron, director of New Orleans’ Prospect Biennial, sent out an open letter discussing the crucial role the city’s artists have played during the oil spill “volunteering as first responders, supporting organisations that advocate for sustainable gulf economies, and documenting the crisis as it unfolds”. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Cameron said that New Orleans artists were in a way prescient of the disaster, and were creating works concerned with the fragile ecology of the gulf and the potentially devastating consequences of the oil industry years before the spill. He compared the oil spill to the catastrophic hurricane the city suffered saying: “It was like Katrina but in slow motion, it was very dragged out”. While he worries that there may be “a bit of an exodus” from the area, especially among the fishing community, which has been hardest hit by the spill, he sees artists as a key element in recovery. “Art and artists are the lifeblood of New Orleans’ cultural identity… the arts community has proven its perseverance and adaptability in the face of great adversity, and its centrality to the revitalization of the city post-Katrina. It is clear now more than ever, that the economic future of the city is closely tied to its image as a hotbed of creativity,” he wrote in his letter.

One of the first members of the local arts community to respond to the crisis was artist turned dealer Jonathan Ferrara, who organised an exhibition of prints sold to benefit the Gulf Aid charity. Ferrara approached local artists, some that he represents and others he doesn’t, and asked them to create limited-edition prints in response to the spill. “As with Katrina, people’s reactions were ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this has happened.’ And then two or three months later people start coming out with works. It takes a while to digest the tragedy… There’s no way you could live through a crisis of this nature and not have it become fodder for your art. This is the stuff that becomes ammunition for your work.”

The exhibition, held throughout July, raised around $23,000 for the relief effort. Then in August, one of the participating artists, Brian Borrello, created a sepia print of the New Orleans skyline using oil he collected from Louisiana marshes and Florida beaches, depicting a threatening miasma floating over the oil drenched city. The series was sold to benefit mental-health support for people affected by the spill. He is showing a new series of silhouettes of marsh plants endangered by the spill also painted using BP oil at the gallery in October. Another of Ferrara’s artists, Dan Tague, who is taking part in the Prospect.2 Biennial, produced a parody of BP’s green sunflower logo, using design elements from a dollar bill, floating on a wash of recovered crude oil.

Pulitzer prize winning political cartoonist Steve Breen of the San Diego Union-Tribune also felt compelled to create work in response to the spill. “I didn’t want to do just another editorial cartoon, I wanted to do something special. I wanted to do something with some impact,” he said. So Breen flew down to the Gulf, planning to collect tar balls from the beaches and use them to create new drawings. Though he was worried he wouldn’t be able to find any washed up tar, after consulting with AP reporters and geologists, he found his chosen artistic medium in Pensacola, Florida. “The beaches were worse than I thought. They’re normally long and white and pristine, and now you have these tar patties everywhere. There were BP workers cleaning them, but the stretches are so vast that I just went a couple miles down the beach where they hadn’t reached.” Breen also describes how the oil has soaked into the landscape, saying his geologist guide “took out a shovel and dug a foot and a half into the sand and there were pools of oil. If they were really serious [about] cleaning all those beaches it would cost billions.”

Breen took some of oil home and after some experimentation, was able to achieve a workable medium by mixing it with gasoline. “It was noxious and it was gooey [but] I was surprised with how easy it was in the end, I watered it down to a watercolour consistency.” His drawings depict oil-slicked sea life, a giant fist of oil knocking out the Gulf’s fishing industry, and the Statue of Liberty holding leaky barrels of oil instead of her usual torch and tablet. He says he has discussed showing the original drawings in the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama. “I would love to show them because the whole point of the project was to have people see the cartoons and think about the disaster. Even though the well has been capped the oil is still out there floating in blobs and settling on the sea floor. Plus I’m not sure that a lot of the problems that lead to the spill—the corner cutting—have been addressed. There’s still work to be done and I hope the cartoons help people realise that.”

Other artists creating works out of the catastrophe include Mitchell Gaudet, whose aptly named Deepwater Horizon Response, an installation of 53 oil drums painted jet black representing a percentage of the thousands of gallons pouring into the Gulf this summer was on display at the Longue Vue historic mansion and gardens in New Orleans. He plans to show the piece again on Julia Street during the city’s annual “Art for Art’s Sake” festival on the first Saturday in October, when visitors will be invited to mark the barrels in chalk with their own responses to the spill. Gaudet says the worst aspect of this spill “is what is unseen and what are the unknown long-term impacts. A massive unknown amount of oil and dispersants are still in and under the waters of the gulf. I was thinking that the time has come and gone for me to continue to display the barrels but now I feel I should fill the barrels with concrete and place them in a more public place as a reminder that the oil is still there and for us to stay vigilante.”

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