The many shapes and symbols to emerge from Hurricane Katrina are well-known: the letter X left on the sides of houses and buildings by rescue teams, the refrigerators left curbside, the dark lines around buildings that recorded how high the water had risen.
One object that held special relevance for sculptor Christopher Saucedo was the water bottle. He began drawing them in October 2005, several weeks after the storm, while he sat in his FEMA trailer in the backyard of his home and studio in Gentilly.
For him and many others at the time, water was at a premium. Tap water was not safe for a time, so there was no other choice but to embrace drinking water out of plastic. He began filtering the containers into his art.
Saucedo is known for large public sculptures that combine fantasy with satire and other social commentary. He was the chairman of the fine arts department at the University of New Orleans and became known for sculptures that toyed with empirical measurement, a personal obsession.
After Katrina, he played a significant role in the comeback of artists to the city. He is a founding member of the Good Children Gallery in the St. Claude Arts District and pushed to get the university to open another gallery, the UNO-St. Claude Gallery, to showcase the work of his students to tourists.
Instead of focusing on sculptured pieces, Saucedo’s interest fell to a smaller scale. He became obsessed with containers. He drew hundreds of them — gallon jugs, water bottles, quarts, pints, etc. His interest was driven by a thought that kept lingering in his head — how much space he took up in the world according to his water weight.
Soon, his drawings appeared in different mediums: on wooden blocks, in paintings, drawn on Red Cross blankets distributed to Katrina evacuees and as a wind mobile. He also created an oversize pennyweight in steel and bronze that totals his recorded weight in water.
His fascination with water and the containers that carry and distribute it can be traced to the day he returned to his home in Gentilly one month after Katrina hit. He pried open his front door and entered his wrecked house, which had taken on 8 feet of water and was caked in mold.
Even though the water had subsided, he found that his glassware — martini glasses, beer pint glasses, his mother’s Waterford Crystal collection — still held water from the flood. The discovery was as eerie as it was fascinating. “They were the physical record of Hurricane Katrina,” he says. “They weren’t an allusion to it; they were it.”
As he was moving the glasses, some of the water splashed in his face. He still remembers the salty taste.
So instead of casting the water from his house, he found a 5-gallon jug and emptied the water from the glassware inside it, then sealed it shut with duct tape. He also sealed and packed away a plastic baseball bat he found containing Katrina water. Ten years later, they are still in his possession. Holding onto them, he says, is “empowering.”
“I make a joke to my family about drinking a shot of it every year to keep us strong,” he says, laughing.
While the suggestion may sound absurd to most people — and no, the family has never tasted the water — his logic is sound: “The untold trillions of gallons of Katrina water that came into New Orleans wasn’t invited and humans couldn’t control it. If I can hold it and I can control it, then it’s a different situation. The idea is it is in my possession for me to use as I wish, not the other way around.”
Today Saucedo, 50, splits his time between New Orleans and Rockaway Beach in New York, where he teaches art at Adelphi University. He is a Brooklyn native and returned to his home area six years after Katrina to be with his family, who had relocated there over the many years their house was under restoration.
While he was living alone in his FEMA trailer, he says, his Gentilly neighborhood was lawless, without a police presence, streetlights or people.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy put 4 feet of water into Saucedo’s New York home. Not only has water remained a constant in his work, it continues to change his life.
Katrina gave the New Orleans art scene a common purpose, Saucedo says. It became less enthralled with itself, and its artistic voice became more socially aware. Many of his former students are leading the current renaissance, evident by the success of the Prospect exhibitions and new galleries that have emerged since Katrina.
To him, art that tells the story of Katrina doesn’t need realism — media images already have that covered — but instead serves a purpose when it captures emotional details or more tangential truths.
One example is “Flood Marker,” a public sculpture at Franklin Avenue and Mithra Street he was commissioned to create in 2007 to memorialize the flood. The 8,000-pound granite block, etched with waves, one for each life lost to the water, rests on large rollers and is meant to replicate the group effort that was required to keep New Orleans afloat.
“I take great pride being a part of the post-Katrina rebuilding,” he says. “I love New Orleans, and I’m at my best there.”