Saturday, August 30, 2008

Day 26: Art and Rough Weather in Mississippi

August 9: Ocean Springs to Gulfport to Ocean Springs

Soundtrack: Conversation

We have a chance to renew ourselves, to create a place better than it once was.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour

Sunny and warm after the rain, the day beckoned through attic windows in Glenn Miller’s unflooded upper room; I changed into jeans and a rummage sale dashiki and knocked on the FEMA trailer. Through damp streets, under still dripping oak branches, we walked to a donut shop that featured Glenn’s etchings of local architecture, where he met with a Presbyterian elder to talk over the design for a cross he was fabricating for a church. Besides the etchings he executed murals, sketched in the local bars, and used the long slow hours tending a drawbridge to work on his own abstract paintings. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were his days off from the bridge.
The flood had surprised him, bursting through glass patio doors and washing him into the street. It ruined years of sketchbooks and the stockpiled drawings of a lifetime, but the public spectacle of drying out the salvageable artwork in his yard had made the newspapers and, if anything, further endeared him to the community. Glenn was at once the eccentric artist and tragic victim of the hurricane. But he had managed to partially restore the back garage studio, which had been on higher ground, and teams of Lutherans from the Midwest had helped him strip the moldy sheet rock from ground floor of the house. The process was physically and mentally draining, but funds had come in from a grassroots plea on the internet and a couple of nonprofit organizations.
A year before, he had visited L.A. and stayed in my studio at the Sir Palmer Apartments by Echo Park Lake, agonizing over whether to bail out of the whole mess or stay and fight. Now FEMA had come through with money to rebuild and he had decided to stick it out. THROW ME SOMETHING, FEMA, indeed.
There was a little museum down the street, enclosing the reconstructed studio of Walter Anderson, a wooden room in the back. The main exhibition space showcased works of the family ceramic business, Shearwater Pottery, and had a little store staffed by local volunteers. Glenn told me about Anderson and how he had periods of “madness,” sometimes rowing away to the island studio, leaving his wife and children, and especially the pottery business, to be close to nature. The vases and plates, figures and watercolors had a charming organic quality, but it was the little studio, painted all over with sunlight and stars and plants and birds that fascinated me. It was like Gauguin’s hut decorated from floor to ceiling with the iconography of his art.
There was also a mural in a sort of civic center next door with historical figures and planetary images, rather faded in places because of age and storm damage. Around the corner we discovered a lovely frame house with a porch and a signboard in front saying it was a model for prefab “Katrina Cottages” available as an alternative to the trailers the federal government had provided for those left homeless. We went inside. The single module was a shotgun shack with room for bunk beds in a front bedroom, bath in the middle, and kitchen in back. It was not that different from our first house in Silver Lake, but about half the size. Additional modules could be added depending on the size of the lot and, at around $35,000 per module, it was about as affordable as a small recreational vehicle. But permanent, as such things go.
I wanted to see Biloxi, because I loved the Jesse Winchester song, and we set out in my car. But we were caught in a violent storm in Gulfport, taking refuge at Vrazel’s, a famous restaurant that had just reopened near the shoreline. Hotels were being rebuilt nearby and where casinos had floated on large offshore barges, one had washed up spectacularly onto the beach and was soon to be rebuilt out on piers. The storm raged on outside the plateglass windows; the electricity went out and the entree was delayed, but there was a feeling of camaraderie in the dining hall and luckily, the blackout was short-lived.
We decided not to risk going round by the one remaining bridge to Biloxi and headed back to Ocean Springs. By the time we got there, the storm had lightened and we were able to walk about, go into a local bar and meet the mayor, Connie Moran, who offered to buy Glenn’s property to extend the adjacent park. I told him he should try to convince her to make his studio part of the park and have art programs there, but of course there was the little matter of rebuilding everything.
Next morning’s shift at the bridge started at 6 a.m., so we turned in early and I read Blue Highways as fast as I could, knowing it had to be turned back in to the library.