A few years after Hurricane Katrina, artist Rontherin Ratliff stopped telling strangers he was from New Orleans.
One reason was that he grew tired of the usual questions: How was the city? Did his home survive? How did the disaster affect his life?
But another reason he stopped is that the overwhelming sensation he experienced standing in the floodwaters left him so rattled that it would be years until he could find a way to channel it into his art.
Ratliff did not evacuate the weekend Katrina was approaching the city. Mostly, he said, he stayed out of curiosity. “I had not yet done much with photography, but I was also interested in documenting,” he said. “Part of me wanted to be here to capture (Katrina), whatever it was.”
Once the floodwaters started to rise, he found shelter in the studio of an artist friend in the Central Business District. He thought his grandmother’s house in the Upper 9th Ward was probably flooded, but he knew she had packages of bottled water that he would need. He set out on a bicycle and then, when the water got too high, borrowed an inflatable raft, using the handle of a push broom to paddle. When he got to the house, it was floating off its foundation with 3 feet of water inside.
He dropped into the rising water and waded in. First, he found the bottled water. Then, on his way out, he noticed that a drawer in one of his grandmother’s end tables was open, releasing dozens of family photographs into the water. He stood there, seeing photographs of his family drift through the black water, losing their color and decaying before his eyes.
Documenting the flood with his camera now felt insignificant.
Then it hit him: “This was a disaster that was going to affect my family. This isn’t going to be something that will just blow over. Things are never going to go back to the way they were.”
Ratliff said he felt light-headed, his knees weak. He could not swim, so was scared he would fall in the water and not be able to get up. He concentrated on the photographs, grabbing as many as he could and stuffing them into his pockets.
The experience — and the photographs — returned in the form of “Things That Float,” an installation that focuses on three houses suspended in a row in the air.
Like his grandmother’s house, these miniature representations are not bound to the Earth; their bottoms are made of Plexiglas, representing water. Visible inside are crumpled photographs, suggesting the ruin of memories they carried.
The houses are partially made of pieces of salvaged furniture, such as dresser drawers and cabinet fixtures. They hang, floating, at different angles to suggest the streets where the houses were found. Even though they appear light, what the houses contain transmits emotional heaviness.
The work made its debut at the Diverse Works Arts Space in Houston in 2010 and then traveled to South Carolina and finally the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.
Ratliff, 38, is a second-generation New Orleanian who grew up in the Upper 9th Ward. Making things was in the family’s blood: His father was a carpenter and his mother excelled at crafts. “Being an artist was not something discussed. It was just something we did,” he said.
Outside of school, he enrolled in YaYa, the arts education program that connects student artists with professionals. He found a mentor in John Scott, the famed sculptor who had a career retrospective of his work in 2005 at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Ratliff recalls standing in Scott’s studio and feeling overwhelmed. “This is what I want,” he told himself.
Scott, who died in 2007, talked about the method behind his work and the dedication required to make a career out of art.
“Even as he spoke about it, things he said resonated with me,” Ratliff said.
He enrolled in Delgado Community College and then started traveling. In New York City, he lived in a hotel populated by Katrina evacuees. They would gather every night and tell stories, the sessions often ending in tears. Ratliff would join them but would usually stay silent. He would sketch his companions and then sketch the stories they told.
At the time, he didn’t want to talk about what he had gone through himself. But something was happening. “They were creative mental exercises that helped me get past this really dark state of mind,” he said.
Back in New Orleans, he returned to his work. A breakthrough came in 2009 at the Contemporary Arts Center with “Rooted,” a large-scale tree made of doors, windows and a bicycle. His work has since been shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
His murals and sculptures are also common sights around New Orleans, at the Norman Mayer Library and Musicians Village Park, among other locations.
“They all come from personal experience,” he said. “It’s like storytelling. ... I ask, ‘How can I tell this story using these objects?’ ”
“Things That Float” was pivotal to his development as an artist, he said. “It taught me to approach art making from a place of sharing.”