Twenty-five works will hang in Charlie T. Johnson’s solo show, “Art Reclaimed and Reconstituted,” in Southern University’s Visual Arts Gallery in Frank Hayden Hall. Randell Henry is curating the exhibit of works salvaged from Johnson’s Broadmoor neighborhood basement in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters destroyed most of his art 10 years ago.
These days, Johnson has a plan. If a storm threatens to head Louisiana’s way, he carries all of his artwork to his wife’s studio upstairs. Louise Mouton Johnson is a printmaker, but she may be best-known in New Orleans for her 1990 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster depicting jazz trumpeter Kid Sheik.
“We had her posters in the basement,” Johnson says. “They were destroyed, too.”
The Johnsons’ basement isn’t a basement in the conventional sense. Their house is raised, with the first floor meant to serve as storage space. It’s called a walk-out basement, with its door opening into the front yard.
Johnson uses it as his studio, because his wife’s studio isn’t large enough to share. The basement is where he stored a lifetime of paintings and drawings.
“I stored the drawings high, because I didn’t think they would get damaged there,” Johnson says. “We’d never had any problem with flooding.”
Johnson was in the first group that returned to New Orleans after Katrina. He discovered 6 feet of water in his walk-out basement.
With his family staying in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, at the time, Johnson took up residence in a local bed and breakfast near New Orleans. He commuted to Baton Rouge each day. Also a professor of art at Southern University in New Orleans, Johnson and other faculty members were moved to the Baton Rouge campus after the hurricane. Johnson worked his job during the week, visited his family in Hot Springs on the weekends, and somehow found time to make his home livable for his family’s return.
“I didn’t think about it at the time,” Johnson says. “I just thought of myself as a worker bee, doing what I needed to do.”
Part of what needed doing was salvaging what was left in the basement. Johnson is primarily a painter, and hundreds of his paintings were destroyed.
“But the art on paper was intact,” he says. “I laid them out in the yard and driveway and let them dry in the sunlight. I used baking powder to destroy the mold.”
Johnson learned of baking powder’s mold-zapping power from a cleaning business he hired, which used a sandblasting method with baking powder.
“It not only cleaned everything, it removed the smell,” Johnson says. “So, I used it to clean my work. Some of these were drawings from my childhood. They were all there.”
Katrina may have destroyed some of his work, but a new way of seeing things rose from her floodwaters as Johnson began reworking them.
WWHe’d started working with designs in African textiles before the storm. Why not incorporate those designs in these drawings?
The result is a colorful series of mixed media pieces that is as much a testament to Johnson’s resiliency as it is to his artistry.
The show runs through Oct. 1, and Johnson will deliver a lecture on campus at 11 a.m. opening day. He and his wife also are working on a Katrina-themed book with essays by some 70 contributors. The book will be released later this fall.