The flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina put 80 percent of New Orleans underwater. That included the majority of homes and belongings owned by musicians, including the venues where they earned a living each night.
Yet, in the years just before Katrina, painter Dona Simons was creating work that imagined local musicians — many of them known only to local audiences — performing beneath the water that surrounded their region of the world.
Her surreal imagery, part of a series titled “Louisiana Music Below Sea Level,” was inspired by the musicians she had grown to love but also by spending hours at the local aquarium, watching how water moves, changes shapes and blurs reality.
How did she come to imagine music emanating from beneath the sea? “I have no idea,” she says today. “Somehow, my subconscious pulled it all together.”
The events of August 2005 brought her back to reality. The home she shared for 10 years with her husband and a cat, along with her studio and 80 of her oil paintings, among various other works, were destroyed following the levee breaches. Suddenly, she questioned the purpose of her vocation and was numbed by feelings of remorse and sadness.
“I felt I had been robbed of years of my life. I thought of the other things I didn’t do when I spent time doing those paintings,” she said. “It was all too overwhelming.”
A conservator from New York volunteered to help her restore the paintings, and she was able to save some of the largest ones. But she no longer wanted to continue her water series because so much had changed. So she shifted focus, telling herself, “I’m not dead. I can paint new paintings.”
She and her husband moved for six weeks to Crowley, where they grew closer to the Acadian culture, with which they had previously had little contact.
One musician she discovered was Michael Juan Nunez, a singer-songwriter and slide guitarist from Lafayette. His music was so intriguing that Simons returned to the area in April 2006 to attend the annual Festival International.
It was there she heard his version of “When the Levee Breaks,” an old blues song — originally recorded by husband-and-wife duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929 — that was inspired by the famous Mississippi River flood of 1927. She said that performance, in which Nunez walked to the edge of the stage and sat down, was “transcendent” and unleashed all the emotions she had bottled up after the storm.
The next year, Simons produced “Michael Juan Nunez plays ‘When the Levee Breaks’ at Festival International, Lafayette, LA on April 28, 2006,” a painting that incorporates surreal elements of her former paintings. The figure, his face hidden, seems suspended in space, despite being positioned on the stage, and the different shades of blue — on his pants, the stage, the backdrop and in the sky — suggest water or the blue tarps all around New Orleans keeping rain out of destroyed roofs.
Despite having a familiar figure as her subject, the painting is in no way straightforward realism, such as the portraits commonly available from any vendor in Jackson Square. Instead, Simons says her work tries to live in the netherworld between photorealism and surrealist symbolism.
Following the Nunez painting, she also discovered a mission: to feature only musicians who are ordinary names but who still represent an important part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans.
“There’s a huge documentary aspect of it, but it’s much different from photography. It’s capturing my experience of the concert performance, as well as the time period and the location,” she said.
The works are not portraits, she insists, but dreamscapes that summon the story of that particular musician through the use of colors. For example, she produced a series that featured only the hands of guitarist Sonny Landreth.
The Nunez painting changed the direction of her work. Over the six years it took for their house to be restored, Simons and her husband sought out small music rooms throughout New Orleans to discover artists who were little heralded but nonetheless vital to the city’s survival.
In taking breaks from their continuing restoration of their house, the couple sought neighborhood venues, such as Rock ’n’ Bowl in Carrollton, or lesser-known live music venues, such as Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar. In these places, they heard musicians such as guitarist John Mooney and British keyboardist Bob Andrews.
They, too, entered her paintings. Now, instead of the earthen colors she relied on before the storm, when yellow, burnt sienna and okra dominated her work, Simons’ new work is imbued with deep blues. They connected her with her subject.
“Katrina brought me very strongly down to Earth, back to reality,” she said. “It was a struggle. My life before Katrina was very easy. And suddenly, it became very hard.”