re/cover: After the Fire

 

Hi everyone, I wanted to share the whole story but the shortened version is at the bottom. Thank you so much for your support. The power of community has really been shining through this experience.


    In May 2016, I was given the opportunity to be a part of the Aquarium Gallery and Studios as artist in residence, located in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, LA.


    I spent a month creating new work to show at a solo exhibit in Rochester, NY, making figures on maps mounted on circular plaster backs. The intention of the series was to draw parallels between systems of celestial and earthly bodies; I called it Naked Planets.

Since visiting New Orleans for the first time in December, I've felt a pull to be there, a magnetic feeling I've never felt before for a physical place. I felt so lucky to find the Aquarium (just to clarify, this has nothing to do with the actual aquarium, it's the name of the art space), and was warmly welcomed by Jacob Reptile Martin, artist and owner of the building, and my new studiomates. I went in to the studio every day, feeding off the creative energy of the place and the artists around me. By May 31, I had 20 finished "planets" and showed them in two open studios.
 

The Aquarium Gallery & Studios

The Aquarium Gallery & Studios

Naked Planets

Naked Planets


    Early on the morning of June 1, 2016, I received a message that the Aquarium Gallery had burned down. I jumped on my bike and vividly remember the 6AM ride to the Bywater from Bayou St. John, in a daze, thinking about what I'd left in the studio, and wondering what "burned down" meant. The night before, Jacob had come into my studio around 12 AM and asked if I was burning incense. I said no, but I could smell something too. It smelled sweet, not like a fire. More strongly on the other side of the building. We figured someone on the block must be having a campfire. I left around 1:30 AM.

When I turned the corner on Rampart St. I saw the second floor, where Jacob lived, black and hollow, pretty much just beams. I think I was off my bike before I stopped, and sprinted for the steps, but stopped when the fire marshal across the street said YOU CAN'T GO IN THERE. I waited on the curb to talk to somebody. Meanwhile someone else approached me and asked if they could interview me for the news, which I declined.

Finally the fire marshal told me I couldn't go in but I could look in from the doorway. My studio is just inside on the right side of the house, and I could see my laptop sitting on my desk, soaked from the fire hose. My side actually didn't get burned much, but parts of the ceiling had fallen in, everything was drenched, and there was various damage from smoke and debris. I asked if I could please have the small metal box on the desk, it had all my cash sales from art markets. He said he wasn't allowed to, but eventually took my info and gave it to me. ...It didn't really matter because when I went back a couple hours later, several of the artists were there combing the rooms. We probably shouldn't have been in there because the building was so weak, but we were able to grab some things.

The Aquarium, and Jacob's home (second floor) Wednesday June 1

The Aquarium, and Jacob's home (second floor) Wednesday June 1

My studio (I know in retrospect it seems like some of the planets are not that damaged-- for some reason it didn't make sense to me to save them in the moment, still don't understand why)

My studio (I know in retrospect it seems like some of the planets are not that damaged-- for some reason it didn't make sense to me to save them in the moment, still don't understand why)

It was hard to tell what was there because of the debris, so I had to try to think of things to look for, and as you can imagine it was hard to think clearly. I ended up taking my laptop even though it probably can't be saved, some paints and brushes, and one map piece from Naked Planets that was personal to me.

It was my last day in New Orleans. That morning I wandered around St. Claude, trying to organize my thoughts. I had texted my friend Lauren, the gallery manager in Rochester, saying my studio burned down and I had to cancel the show, which we were supposed to hang in 3 days. I called my parents. I got some coffee. At some point I thought, I do still want to go to Rochester, but I don't want to go without a show, so I started figuring out how to make one. I rode to my friend's bike shop and asked for some cardboard which I cut into approximately 14" squares. He let me process some feelings and set up painting outside the shop. (P.S. if you're ever in New Orleans, get your bike needs from Alex's Bikes in the Marigny) I messaged Lauren, saying I'm making a new show and I'm calling it re/cover.

That night I started painting faces on the cardboard, and by 2 AM I had 9 pieces. The next day I packed everything up to fly back to Philly. I had gotten a text from Jacob saying one of the other artists, Sadie, had cleaned my backpack for me and I should stop by the cafe she works at to get it. When I got there she handed me the bag, and a stack of planets-- she had gone through and picked out 14 of the map pieces from the rubble and cleaned them. I was speechless for a moment-- and thought why did I not do that myself? She said she gets it-- a lot of the others had saved each others' work but for some reason not their own. ...My heart swells when I think about it. A couple of others were at the cafe, already making plans to rebuild. It was really hard to leave.

When I got into Philly around midnight, I took the cardboard paintings out of my bag and realized something was missing from them. I had been thinking about the fierce kindness and resilience of the community as we supported each other because of what happened, but that for anyone who didn't know me, there was no way to know what I was wrestling with. I remembered that I cross paths with people everyday who might be invisibly deeply struggling, and I thought, "What if we committed to see each other as if we are all recovering from a great personal challenge?" I thought about how we can't read peoples' stories just by looking at them, and I added undecipherable text to the faces, personal experiences that have affected me. When I laid them out on the floor, I suddenly had an urge to ruin what I'd made, in a strange act of solidarity with the damaged planets. I covered parts of them with fresh white paint, obscuring the faces directly with my hands in a raw burst of emotion.

A few hours later I left for Rochester, taking the cardboard paintings and the surviving planets, which I hung across from the new work in the gallery the next day. The community in Rochester held me well-- I felt so supported and cared for while feeling so vulnerable.

 

The fire was one week ago today. Looking back, I wish I'd stayed in New Orleans. I wish I'd postponed my show in Rochester, stayed another week to settle and process, and to be as much a part as I could of the rebuilding of the Aquarium that's already taking place. It felt so wrong to leave so quickly, and I didn't act on that feeling at the time.  I guess part of me wanted to keep going, keep making something, and I wish I had channeled that there.

This experience has been a reminder of the power of community, and the importance of seeing each other. I got home to Philly late last night, and I'm figuring out the best way to get back to NOLA soon, while still trying to be present in Philadelphia. I can't thank my community enough for the support I've received, and I know I will pay it forward in the future.



    This show is dedicated to Jacob Martin, Ursa Eyer, Sadie Sheldon, Jenna Bonistalli, Maddie Stradt, Logan Ledford, and other artists and individuals connected to the Aquarium Gallery. Many thanks to Hannah Sadtler, Lauren Blair, Alex Kriegsmann, Ursa Eyer, Sadie Sheldon, and Sam Sadtler.


    Joey Hartmann-Dow

P.S. There will be more information about how to support the rebuilding of the Aquarium Gallery and Studios soon.

 


SUMMARY

    In May 2016, I was given the opportunity to be a part of the Aquarium Gallery and Studios as artist in residence, located in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, LA.


    I spent a month creating new work to show at a solo exhibit in Rochester, NY, making figures on maps mounted on circular plaster backs. The intention of the series was to draw parallels between systems of celestial and earthly bodies; I called it Naked Planets.
 
    Early on the morning of June 1, 2016, I received a message that the Aquarium Gallery had burned down. The artists who worked there and the people who lived there lost everything in the fire. When I arrived to see what I could salvage of the 20 pieces I had made for the show, I found that everything was soaked from the fire hose, damaged by smoke, and crushed under parts of collapsed ceiling and walls. For some reason in that moment I couldn't bring myself to pull the pieces together.

That night I started making new paintings with what I had-- remaining paints, and cardboard from a local bicycle shop. I was thinking about the fierce kindness and resilience of the community as we supported each other because of what happened, but that for anyone who didn't know me, there was no way to know what I was wrestling with. I remembered that I cross paths with people everyday who might be invisibly deeply struggling, and I thought, "What if we committed to see each other as if we are all recovering from a great personal challenge?"

The next day was my scheduled flight out of New Orleans. I met with a few of the other artists before leaving, and found out that one of them had picked the remnants of several pieces from Naked Planets from the rubble, cleaned them, and brought them to me. I was so touched by this act, and they now hang opposite the new work. The whole show is called re/cover.

This experience has been a reminder of the power of community, and the importance of seeing each other.


    This show is dedicated to Jacob Martin, Ursa Eyer, Sadie Sheldon, Jenna Bonistalli, Maddie Stradt, Logan Ledford, and other artists and individuals connected to the Aquarium Gallery. Many thanks to Hannah Sadtler, Lauren Blair, Alex Kriegsmann, Ursa Eyer, and Sadie Sheldon.


    Joey Hartmann-Dow

P.S. There will be more information about how to support the rebuilding of the Aquarium Gallery and Studios soon.