Artists’ Stories from Harvey

by Glasstire September 6, 2017

An unknown number of visual artists have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. Either their homes were flooded, or their studios, or both. Visual artists face a unique challenge in the face of a hurricane: they have artwork that must be stored and protected. Often that work is vulnerable to water. Often, as is the case with Prince Thomas, their work means more to them than their house.

Stories about artists who were flooded are coming in every day. The photographer Keith Carter (who was OK after intense preparation) reported that there is still no way to know how people fared in Beaumont or Port Arthur.

We spoke with some of the artists we know so far who were affected. Here are their stories.

Prince Thomas (L) unwraps wet artwork in his storage. Photo: Britt Thomas

Prince Varughese Thomas

The water came up to our front doorstep twice, but luckily both times it receded. We were feeling pretty good, and I went to my studio, and that was dry. And then after a couple days, I suddenly thought, “We should go check the storage unit.”

When we got there and I opened it, to be honest I don’t remember much of that moment. We called some friends and just started the process of moving stuff out, and thank god they were there at that time. I was just a body being told what to do because I was in shock. Next day we went in with and vacuumed out 15-20 shop vac containers of water. It was just a mess in there. I had figured the stuff in crates was OK, but then the moment we opened one crate and there was water inside that, I turned numb again for a while.

Now the initial shock has worn off. I’m in a much better place than I was a few days ago. There is a loss of things that can never be gotten back, but then there are works that have a water line, and now I think, “These are Harvey survivors” and that’s the way I’m going to look at it. They will stay in the archive as a record of that moment. It could have been far worse. If we hadn’t decided happenstance to go check the unit, it could have been much, much worse. My error was thinking I had an insurance policy that covered that unit, when in reality the policy had changed and I didn’t realize it.

Photo: Britt Thomas

Not including the value of any artwork, but just the practical costs of materials and the frames that were lost, I’m estimating it’s in the $12-15 thousand range. But what can you do? Jennie Ash [curator at the Art League Houston] has turned me onto a conservator whom I’m going to touch base with so they can fill me in on what options I do have. I just want to make sure what was damaged can be archived as well as possible.

You see all the tragedies around you, and it’s hard to look at the tragedies of others and feel bad when I still get to live in my home, but at the same time this work feels more real and a part of me than the home we live in.

Michael Bise on the bank of White Oak Bayou

Michael Bise

Since graduate school I’ve always used house garages as my studios. I cut a hole in the wall, throw an AC in, hang lights and put up drywall. Four years ago my wife and I bought a house and I had the garage wired by an electrician and turned it into the most built-out studio I’ve had to date. We live west of Acres Homes in NW Houston and we were flooded when White Oak Bayou — which runs behind our neighborhood — broke its banks.

It’s a strange thing to watch water creep in not just under the doors, but under the baseboards along every wall of the house. It reminds you that people really have almost no control over nature. But we were prepared. My wife and I just knew it was going to flood. A few days earlier I began texting my neighbors (especially the ones with a second floor) and touching base — asking if we could come over if we needed to. One said no. He’s off the list for just about everything moving forward. I woke up a few hours before the water started coming in. I actually dreamt that we flooded. I put some bricks and a dry piece of wood next to the breaker box so we could flip the breaker when the water started coming in. Weirdly our street never lost power. My wife and I stacked the last of our decent furniture when I saw that the water was halfway into the front yard. We grabbed some bags she had already packed, picked up our dogs (one is 50 lbs) and sloshed next door to our neighbor Rojillio’s house. He’s a firefighter.

A work by Helen Altman hangs on a partially demolished wall in Michael Bise’s home.

As soon as the rain slowed down the next day and the water had dropped a few inches, we sloshed back into our house and started sweeping the water out of the doors. Sweeping water for an hour was exhausting — it’s a good thing I got a heart transplant. My studio flooded as well but I had removed all of my work. Drawings are easy to roll and store. I lost a few pieces of old work that I had forgotten to remove from the bottom three drawers of my flat file. All in all we were lucky, but also prepared. The bottom 48 inches of our house and studio are demolished but we were required to purchase flood insurance when we took out our home loan. I’d like to think we would have had the forethought to purchase it even if we had not been required to but I’m not so sure.

After the flood about a half dozen friends over two days helped us tear out the drywall and baseboards. I’ve been through a few personal medical disasters and it was the same half dozen people who were there for us then who helped us now. We’re lucky to have six people who care. We’re both exhausted and covered in bruises but we really do feel fortunate. I think Houston has handled this flood well. But the reckless disregard for rules, regulations and safety that sent civilians out into the water to help those people trapped in flooded homes and neighborhoods is the same ethos that pushes us to build (and rebuild) on swampy marshland along a volatile coast. I don’t think you can have one without the other. As an artist, I revel in this contradiction. As a homeowner and a citizen it seems pretty stupid. But we’re already rebuilding and we’re going to stay right next to the bayou for now. I’m starting to imagine I know how it feels to live at the foot of Vesuvius.

View from Dixie Friend Gay’s studio during the flood

Dixie Friend Gay

Last night was the first night I slept. It’s like having a newborn — the first night you sleep though the night it’s amazing. I got 14 inches in my studio, which was enough to get up past the electrical outlets. So I’m having all kinds of electrical issues. Light switches that don’t work, outlets that don’t work…

I don’t know, I feel like I’ve been on some kind of drunk party for some time. I feel hung over. I’ve never partied for days on end, but I think this is how you would feel like if you did. And I know I’m one of the lucky people. I’ve got amazing friends. I had people who showed up on Monday when it was still a downpour outside, and we started cutting out the sheetrock. We didn’t even know if we would have to come back and cut it higher the next day. A couple of artists from the community came by and brought food, and that helped so much when the crews were here helping. We’ve been working around the clock. It was so nice to go in there and have prepared meals. I now know what to do if someone has a disaster. I think you learn what you need by going through it.

Dixie Friend Gay’s studio drying out

I’m considering moving or trying to elevate my house, or selling half of my property. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Ten years from now it’s going to be even harder, and I don’t want to go through this again. I did it in Allison in 2001 and the house was new then, and it was our dream house, and now it’s my nightmare house. I don’t want to do the flooding anymore. But I don’t have a mortgage, so I have a lot more flexibility. I’m tapping into my little bit of savings, which helps because I don’t have to wait for an insurance payment to start getting stuff done.

If there were a way to create a website where artists could register works that were available for sale, that would be great. I’ve got some inventory that I would love to have out there, and I would love to have the cash. That would help me. Lawndale was talking about storing people’s art, and if you’ve got art to store, you’ve got art to sell.

Volunteers at Sue Donaldson’s house

Sue Donaldson

We were rescued at 5 am by three men from Memphis, Tennessee. The water was waist deep at that time and they flipped us up in the boat and off we went. We had almost 6 feet of water in our house and our studio. It will be months and months before we can get back into our house. We’re staying with one of our sons who lives in Houston.

The other day the insurance cleanup guy came and put dehumidifiers and fans in the house. You can’t shut the doors because they’re so swollen with water. I asked about some of my canvases and he looked at the back and said “There’s water there, you have to get rid of them.” So I’m throwing a lot of canvases away. It’s like, hit me in the tummy, would you please. I have a couple of shows coming up, and now, nope I guess I don’t.

Our whole front yard is piled high with debris, and all our neighbors’ yards too. And the Second Baptist Church, where I’m not a member, came and cleaned up our house. They asked if I were a member and I said no, and they didn’t mind. I’ve had family, friends, and strangers-who’ve-become-friends who have helped me. I’m wearing a donated outfit right now.

The artist Holly Nowak took one of the canvases that was ruined, and took some red paint and painted “YARD OF THE MONTH” and put it out in our yard. They do that up here in Kingwood. I’ve never tried to get yard of the month, and now I have yard of the month! You have to stay positive and know that you can get through this. I sit down, take a deep breath, and I get up again and go. I say, “OK, you can do this.”

Next month, I’ll be 80. Who wants to start over at 80? But I am.

Holly Nowak and Sue Donaldson

I’m just so grateful for all these people. I had no idea all these people loved me. It’s been an outpouring of love and caring and help, and nobody expects anything in return. And they keep helping. A lady just stopped by and said, “Is there anything I can take home and clean for you?”

I don’t want to get religious, but I’m blessed. I didn’t know that, and now I know that.

Keliy Anderson-Staley

Image courtesy of Keliy Anderson-Staley.

Keliy Anderson-Staley

My family and I have been staying with a good friend since the storm. We didn’t expect when we evacuated our house that we would be staying here long-term. They have been incredibly gracious, and our children have become like siblings.

In addition to the damage to the house, I lost my studio and some works of art. I have been incredibly fortunate, though. I have a second floor in my studio, and during the flood, I was able to frantically carry my artwork upstairs—just this summer I completed a major archiving project and got it all into plastic bins. After the storm, I started a fundraising campaign. I’ve never done something like that before, and I was overwhelmed by the response. Photographers I had never met but who I knew through their work, reached out to offer help in any way they could.

Image courtesy of Keliy Anderson-Staley

Image courtesy of Keliy Anderson-Staley.

I think artists share a sense that the lifestyles that allow us to make work are incredibly fragile—a sudden loss of space or time or means can be devastating to an art career. I worry about that. I worry about when and how I will get back to making my work. I have exhibitions opening this weekend in Maine and Ohio, shipped out long before the storm. It is comforting to know that my work is on walls to be seen, but the exhibitions feel very far away. More immediately is just a physical battle with stuff and the already creeping mold. I have been piling frames and art and equipment on the curb alongside the heaps of wet drywall and insulation. The tasks of recovery still seem so huge, and this is our work for now.

Sarah Welch and James Beard

Sarah Welch and James Beard. Image courtesy of Sarah Welch.

Sarah Welch and James Beard / Mystic Multiples

On Friday night, August 25th, Hurricane Harvey pushed roughly 15 inches of water into our Houston home/printshop/art studio.

Our building is located in very close proximity to both Buffalo and White Oak Bayou, so we’ve seen reasonable street flooding before. The building was built in 1903 and housed dredging equipment. It’s on a loading dock that is about 3 feet above street level. We never imagined we would see flooding inside the actual building.

Sarah Welch and James Beard

Image courtesy of Sarah Welch.

We use the first floor of our unit as the Mystic Multiples print shop and live in the back/upstairs loft. We were able to quickly move small things upstairs, but couldn’t save everything. The motor on James’ 1920s Kluge letterpress is gone. A huge amount of paper for print jobs and some tools are gone, some artwork, books, records, carpet tile in the back is wrecked, wood furniture is wrecked, we are unsure about the status on our stove and fridge.

Unfortunately, like a lot of people, our renter’s insurance does not cover water damage of any kind. Funding will be used to help us replace materials we need to operate the shop, make repairs, pay to temporarily relocate items that must be stored off site, and help us get by while we can’t use the space.

Sarah Welch and James Beard

Image courtesy of Sarah Welch.

We are OK. Just dealing with a lot of uncertainty and fear like everyone else who has been displaced. We’d really like to get back into our home/print shop/art studio at the end of this month and start working again, but there’s no telling at this point. We’re lucky we have other part-time sources of income, we’re lucky to have family we can stay with, and we’re lucky to be part of a tight community that has immediately overwhelmed us with support. Lots of feelings.

The Renner-Peacock family at Art Palace pictured in front of work by Jim Nolan. Image courtesy of Emily Peacock.

The Renner-Peacock family at Art Palace pictured in front of work by Jim Nolan. Image courtesy of Emily Peacock.

Emily Peacock and Patrick Renner

We were marveling that, in the wake of last week’s natural disaster, we’ve now endured just about every difficulty that can challenge a relationship: marriage, death(s) in the family, moving in together, major remodeling, pregnancy, job loss, and childbirth.

All of these things have not killed us — rather, they have made us stronger — and of course they are potential fodder for an artist. But an 800-year storm was something we could’ve done without. We woke up to find standing water in our infant son’s nursery the first day the tropical storm set in, and still did not know what to do: should we stay or should we go now? At our home in northwest Houston, we might be out of the real danger zone, but no one was certain what course Harvey would take. Close friend and fellow artist David McClain came and rescued us from our indecision, relocating the three of us to his and his wife Jane Schmidt’s Heights residence. There we rode out the storm in the comfort of a high and dry 1920’s historic home. Our son hit the 4-month mark on
Tuesday, in the middle of all the chaos.

Returning home after the squall, we knew we were among the lucky ones. Although our house did not go under feet of water, we did experience some loss: a roof leak in Emily’s studio destroyed several prints and sculptures, and half of Indiana’s nursery would require new drywall due to water damage.

The Houston arts community has come together to help one another in the wake of the destruction, showing its true nature endures. Many people have given freely their time and resources. Being temporarily displaced while we rebuild our little live/work space, Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill (aka MANUAL) have been incredibly generous to let us stay in their house. We’re grateful to friends and family (which are really one in the same) for all the support.

As we write this, we are getting ready to take off for Austin, where we will install Emily’s latest solo show at Big Medium. The takeaway, in the moment, is this: we were relatively fortunate, but also, parenthood and preparation for an exhibition are plenty stressful enough without your input, Harvey, thank you very much.

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