Having grown up in New Orleans, Adrian Deckbar was accustomed to water. She swam in the Florida Gulf on vacations and sat by the lake to watch sunsets in the summer. She ate food drawn from nearby fishing spots and enjoyed leisurely walks along the Mississippi River levee.
Water, to her, represented recreation and beauty and health. But then it became a threat.
Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst. The day before the storm hit, she and her husband left their Uptown house to travel to a cabin they owned in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. They later returned to find her painting studio damaged and the family home in Lakeview covered in what she can only describe as “black slime.” The house owned by her in-laws in Chalmette also was destroyed.
She remembers watching footage on CNN while living in exile. On the screen, day after day, water filled the streets of her city.
A photorealist who for decades made large-scale portraits and, more recently, landscapes, Deckbar knew she could no longer adhere to the signature style she developed through a lifetime of work.
She said that when she finally returned to making art — refashioning the Lakeview house into a new studio after having it gutted and raised — she wanted to paint nature in a way that wasn’t sedate but that suggested its “power and treachery.”
“I don’t want to have my work appear to be threatening, but I want people to understand the primal nature of everything, of this planet and that we are subject to whatever nature does — no matter how busy we are, no matter what we’ve got planned,” she said.
Starting in 2006, Deckbar started on a series of works — totaling nearly 50 in all — that synthesized the beauty of nature with the threat it poses at any moment.
She traveled into the endless swamps, waterways and nature reserves that inhabit the Louisiana Gulf region and photographed water to get a sense of not just its volume but its potency as a living thing, something people often have little relationship to or comprehension of. “I became fully aware how it was surrounding us,” she said.
A resulting early work that set the template for many others was “Primeval,” an oil painting from 2006. The setting was familiar: canopies of trees emerging from a swamp, their branches intertwining and the light shining upward from their reflection in the water. For reference, she used a photograph she took at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve on a day the water was serene, the air was calm and alligators sat motionless nearby while she stepped across the wooden walkways.
But the painting is not representative of what she saw with her eye. Instead, harsh strokes of both green and red emanate from the landscape, suggesting a hidden danger rising from behind.
For another painting, “Primordial,” moss, twigs and branches snake together, all of them glowing in harsh colors that together create a beautiful hue but appear supernatural or sinister.
Deckbar said the intention with her post-Katrina work was to show the fragility of the places where water exists and the threat it can pose when it gets churned up in a hurricane.
“When I go out to take photographs, I don’t look at how pretty it is or what a nice scene. I look at the dichotomy between the dark and the light, the churning and the peaceful, the seemingly relaxing element we all love in nature and the awareness it can all turn on a dime,” she said.
Deckbar grew up in the Carrollton area of New Orleans and briefly left in the mid-1970s to get her master’s in painting and drawing at San Francisco State University. She returned in 1978 and never left. The tight-knit community of artists in the city has remained nurturing despite great odds.
Before Katrina struck, Deckbar was scheduled to show her work in a group show in October. The show went on and became a galvanizing moment in the city’s art scene. “People were looking for something cultural other than music, something stimulating, something that wasn’t horrific to look at, and to socialize,” she said.
Many of her works in her “Primal” series are in private collections, and since Katrina, the work has been shown three times, most recently in 2014. She said she continues to find water unsettling. Even an event as innocuous as watching July Fourth fireworks on the lake had her focused on the water and the strength it yielded 10 years ago.
“We’re living on the edge here. It’s fragile; it’s below sea level; it’s an old city. I do believe we can stave off the threat of nature somewhat longer. But how much longer? I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t dwell on it. I try to let it go and just keep going.”