Artist Jan Gilbert grew up in a modest brick ranch house in Lakeview that her 87-year-old mother evacuated as Hurricane Katrina approached.
Her family never inhabited the house again. The storm sent nearly 11 feet of water inside the house, forcing her mother to relocate to Metairie.
Gilbert had been living in a house near her childhood home, and there, too, disaster struck: The house took on 3 feet of water and she, her husband and their two cats had to make do in a studio apartment for two years.
Through the chaos of arranging and rearranging their lives, Gilbert decided to make the ruins of her childhood home a work of art.
In 2007, she debuted “Biography of a House,” a 300-foot ribbon of family photos she wrapped along the flood line of the ranch home. She envisioned the installation as one of many that would unite local artists at a time when they craved structure and purpose, not just in their art but also in their lives.
“Everyone was wounded; everyone was hurting,” she says. “The idea was that all of the people in our support group would attack this problem together.”
Gilbert has sought collaboration in her work ever since she earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Tulane University in 1982. Her work is most frequently created in partnership with longtime collaborators Debra Howell and Kristen Struebing-Beazley, but she also has worked with various filmmakers, writers and theater directors and performers.
She exhibited “Biography” the first weekend of June 2007. Participants were invited to arrive at the site of Bruning’s Restaurant, which also was destroyed in the storm, and board one of two school buses that traveled to Holt Cemetery, Lakeview Baptist Church and other spots where they would exit and take in both installations and performances by artists who lived in, or had strong connections with, the neighborhood.
At the Gilbert home, people entered a kind of sacred memory space: Not only were they confronted with the act of walking around four walls of family photographs that were once taken inside the home, but they did so while listening to a sound installation designed by Gilbert’s nephew, William Gilbert, who used home tape recordings Jan Gilbert’s father made during her childhood.
In combining the familiar warmth of family life with the physical reality of nature’s power, the effect was startling. She says she wanted the work appreciated as a “celebration of the histories of what had actually happened” in neighborhoods like her own.
Gilbert credits her victory over a 1999 diagnosis of breast cancer as the reason why she runs headfirst into projects even when they might involve revisiting personal pain. For her, she says, her art continues to be a tool to confront grim realities and learn from them.
“Biography” was not her first Katrina-influenced work. In 2006, the Contemporary Art Center debuted “Waterworlds,” a collaboration with Howell that was exhibited in three of the center’s exterior glass windows. Subtitled a “Katrina Pictionary,” the work connected images of a submerged New Orleans with “new words” such as “water buck” (“a dollar bill that has soaked for days or weeks in water in your home”) or “water glass” (“a drinking glass or goblet filled with muddy water in your home”). The exhibit was shown for a full year.
After “Biography” came 2008’s “Flood Lines,” another collaborative work with Howell as well as Krista Jurisich, that featured large-scale photographs of street scenes and buildings separated by a flood marker that serves as an impenetrable memory of the storm.
Gilbert, 62, says New Orleans is a perfect place for her work, which combines memory and loss with celebration and the sanctity of ritual. The city “is not preserved but rather pickled,” she says. “There is a slowness that we all love here. The unvarnished nature. The humidity. All of these layers, I just adore it.”
Elements of “Biography” and “Flood Lines” will be remounted in late August at the Reese Gallery in St. Louis.
For the Katrina 10th anniversary, she says she plans to return to the site of the Lakeview house and display the photos along the sidewalk and take a picture of them. At the St. Louis exhibition, the photos will run along the entire trim of the ceiling.
The exhibit, which also is credited to Howell, will run through late September.
One memory Gilbert has of the original mounting of “Biography” is the appearance of a living work of art: her mother. While visitors walked around taking in and listening to memories of her life, Gilbert’s mother sat in a folding chair and watched. It was the first time she had seen the house since Katrina.
“It was this amazing thing about healing on so many levels,” Gilbert says. “She was so enraptured.”