When the winds of Hurricane Katrina arrived, artist Lin Emery stood at the windows of her house and watched the show.
The kinetic sculptor’s midcentury modernist home in the Riverbend area of New Orleans is constructed primarily of glass, so Emery got a panoramic view of the spectacle outside. Despite the destruction unfolding before her, she found the actual movement of the tree stems and branches a stunning show of nature.
“Watching the trees around me bending and struggling was quite marvelous to watch,” she said. “It was rather amazing.”
Since the early 1960s in New Orleans, Emery has been making large-scale aluminum sculptures that are constructed to work with the wind: They sway, rotate and bend. The shapes are positioned to give the sense they are dancing.
Typically, they are brightly colored, are installed outdoors and are intended to comment on spatial differences between objects.
That changed drastically with “Katrina,” a set of two sculptures she debuted in 2008 at the Arthur Roger Gallery. The objects in those pieces, dark and colorless, are not meant to be soothing but instead feature harsh edges. And because the elements pivot on top of one another, there is the suggestion of cause and effect: The bottom elements — curved violently upward as if cutting the air — resemble giant waves or wind gusts, and the top elements are circular, like open mouths screaming for help.
“It is a very literal translation of what I remembered seeing,” she said.
She designed the sculptures within weeks after the storm. At the time, she was in New York City, where she fled after siphoning gas into a friend’s car and driving north.
The Art Students League of New York, an art school where she studied as a young woman, became her new home. She showed up at the front door and said she was displaced from New Orleans. In no time, she was given a corner workspace in the basement. She started making models. Two months passed.
“I started making shapes and they reminded me of the wind, so I didn’t stop,” she said. The models were made of cardboard at first. Upon returning to New Orleans and salvaging her Mid-City studio, which was completely destroyed, she set out to make full-scale versions. Both are now in private collections.
She said she would never try to reproduce the Katrina pieces, or even borrow their shapes for other sculptures, despite the personal connection they have to her and to her city. “The shapes were so specific to that experience,” she said, “that I could not use them again.”