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Photos: Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun.
“The Sound of Our Resurrection Is Stronger Than the Silence of Death” is what McCormick and Calhoun call their picture of A Chosen Few Brass Band.

A recent article in Smithsonian magazine about the Louisiana photography duo Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun got me interested in learning more about them.

Reporter Amy Crawford focused on something new they were doing with old photographs: working with the Hurricane Katrina water damage to elicit the ghostly spirit of an indomitable city.

Crawford writes that in 2005, “Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans, so Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun packed their photography archive — thousands of slides, negatives and prints the couple had amassed over three decades documenting African American life in Louisiana. …

“Then they drove to Houston with their two children, planning to be gone for maybe two weeks. Ten weeks later, McCormick and Calhoun returned home to…devastation. ‘All there was, was waterlogged,’ Calhoun says. ‘Imagine the smell — all that stuff had been in that mud and mold.’

“They figured they had lost everything, including the archive, but their teenage son urged them not to throw it away. They put the archive into a freezer, to prevent further deterioration. With an electronic scanner they copied and enlarged the images — at first just searching for anything recognizable. The water, heat and mold had blended colors, creating surreal patterns over ghostly scenes of brass band parades, Mardi Gras celebrations and riverside baptisms.

‘Mother Nature went way beyond my imagination as a photographer,’ Calhoun says of the otherworldly images. McCormick says, ‘We no longer consider them damaged.’

“Today McCormick and Calhoun’s altered photographs are viewed as a metaphor for the city’s resilience. Yet they’re also a memento of a community that is no longer the same. By 2019, New Orleans had lost more than a quarter of its African American population. ‘So much is vanishing now,’ Calhoun says. ‘I think this work serves as a record to validate that we once lived in this city. We were its spiritual backbone.’ ” More at the Smithsonian, here.

From the couple’s website: “Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick were born and raised in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. As husband and wife team, they have been documenting Louisiana and its people for more than 25 years. In New Orleans, they have documented the music culture, which consists of Brass Bands, Jazz Funerals, Social and Pleasure Clubs, Benevolent Societies, and the Black Mardi Gras Indians.

“In addition to documenting New Orleans social and cultural history, Calhoun and McCormick have also covered religious and spiritual ceremonies throughout their community, as well as river baptisms in rural Louisiana. They have created several photographic series, including: Louisiana Laborers; The Dock Worker, Longshoreman, and Freight Handlers on the docks of New Orleans; Sugar Cane Field Scrappers in the river parishes along the Mississippi river; Cotton Gins, and Sweet Potato Workers in East Carrol parish of Lake Providence Louisiana.

“Calhoun and McCormick have documented the soul of New Orleans and a vanishing Louisiana [including] the displacement of African Americans after Katrina … and the cruel conditions of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a former slave-breeding plantation named for the African nation from which ‘the most profitable’ slaves, according to slave owners, were kidnapped. …

“[Angola] is an 18,000-acre prison farm where inmates are traded like chattel among wardens of neighboring penitentiaries. Although the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, its prohibition of forced labor does not apply to convicted inmates. … Calhoun and McCormick’s work restores visibility and humanity to a population often forgotten by the public at large.”

And from the Southbound Project: “The photographic emulsion merging with mold and water sedimentation left interesting patterns and color transformations. … Sometimes the textural quality of the effects even suggests physical markings and scars of trauma. Ida Mae Strickland (1987, ca. 2010), for example, is a portrait of an elderly woman shown from the waist up, seemingly lost in thought with a furrowed brow. She appears contemplative and dignified, as one whose internal strength has carried her through the years. The water damage creates rippling patterns that appear to emanate from her head and evoke wrinkled folds of aged skin. These unintentional effects reinforce qualities of the original image. The photograph, like the original sitter, has quietly weathered the influence of time and nature but still survives.” 

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Photos: Doug MacCash
A house on LePage St. in New Orleans was converted to a stationary ‘float’ by the Krewe of Red Beans ‘Hire a Mardi Gras Artist’ program.

So many things have been cancelled this year! But the people of New Orleans are not taking the cancellation of their beloved Mardi Gras lying down. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Doug MacCash writes at NOLA.com, “Carnival season 2021 may lack the usual parades, marching bands and big bags of beads, but never-say-die New Orleanians have taken their holiday back by inventing a whole new way of celebrating. …

“Socially distanced float houses have become a thing. A really big thing. … Lavishly, lovingly, laughingly decorated houses are becoming as ubiquitous as potholes. …

“Tiffany Tandecki, a marketing and development exec, said the thing she would have missed most about Mardi Gras parades is the satire. So she transplanted some Carnival-style comedy to her 5975 Canal Blvd. home for the pleasure of passing commuters. Tandecki used the characters from her TV binge-watching fave ‘Schitt$ Creek’ to lampoon the crumbling streets of her Lakeview neighborhood and COVID-19-era frustrations in general.

“In Tandecki’s view, the sweet-tart sitcom, in which a family of millionaires finds themselves adapting to small-town life, is a perfect metaphor. There’s millionaire Moira Rose shaking up an afternoon martini to take the edge off the stress of home schooling. There’s disdainful son David passing judgment on the inconvenient virus with raised eyebrows. There’s ditzy daughter Alexis stating the obvious: ‘I miss my life.’ And there’s bewildered hubby Johnny, standing beside a burglarized Lakeview car with a smashed-out window.

Tiffany Tandecki conceived her ‘Schitt$ Streets: Welcome to Lakeview’ float house on Canal Blvd to bring some satire to Carnival 2021. 

“The painted plywood cutouts of the ‘Schitt$ Creek’ characters standing in Tandecki’s front yard look exactly like the sort of thing you might see on a passing Carnival float, because they were made by professional float maker Lindsay DeBlieux, who Tandecki hired to bring her vision to life. …

“For DeBlieux, like most Mardi Gras float artists, the cancellation of this year’s parades was a catastrophe. Her employer, Mardi Gras Decorators LLC, tried to keep the staff employed as long as possible, she said, but in December, she was laid off. Thank goodness that by that time, the float house fad was fast taking root.

“Almost immediately, DeBlieux said, she was commissioned by three homeowners who planned to participate in the Krewe of House Floats, a citywide stationary house parade. … Then she was enlisted into the Krewe of Red Beans ‘Hire a Mardi Gras Artist’ campaign that is producing some of the city’s most elaborate float houses.

“Of course, DeBlieux welcomes the income at a time when many of her fellow citizens are unemployed. But the float house phenom is important in another way, too. Despite the popularity of parades, the talents of float artists can go unnoticed in the joyful chaos. Carnival 2021 has helped slow down the parade, so to speak, and let the creativity shine. …

“Megan Boudreaux, an insurance claims adjuster and member of the Leijorettes Carnival dance troupe, has made a historic impact on Mardi Gras. She’s right up there with the first person who put a plastic baby in a king cake, or tossed the first doubloon. … Boudreaux’s contribution began humbly. She just didn’t want to sit out Carnival 2021. So she planned to decorate her front porch and maybe toss trinkets to passersby on Mardi Gras morning. …

“Boudreaux didn’t invent Carnival house decoration, of course. But she made it into a movement. In no time, her Krewe of House Floats Facebook page attracted thousands of do-it-yourselfers aching for a way to safely celebrate, plus homeowners eager to employ professional artists. Before Boudreaux’s widening eyes, KOHF subkrewes sprouted up in 39 neighborhoods across the city. …

“On Feb. 1, the KOHF plans to launch an online map that will allow Carnival fans to tour decorated houses in social-distanced safety. Boudreaux said it was startling to realize that roughly 3,000 participants have added their addresses to the site. Some of them live far, far from the parade routes. …

“Artist Devin DeWulf, the captain of the Krewe of Red Beans, a marching group known for its dizzyingly complicated costumes decorated with dried legumes, has become a COVID-era hero. His organization raised more than $1 million to support restaurants by supplying meals and snacks to front-line hospital employees. To help provide float sculptors and painters with work, the krewe founded the Hire A Mardi Gras Artist project. …

“The project was conceived by Caroline Thomas, a float designer with Royal Artists. … Each house cost $15,000, paid for by donations and a lottery. DeWulf said the project has employed 45 artists and is on track to produce 21 projects.”

More here.

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kitty-photo-by-russell-haydn-for-sod

Photo: Russell Haydn
Kitty Lunn, New Orleans ballerina who refused to let paralysis stop her.

Lately, I’ve seen a number of articles about incorporating more artists with disabilities into the theater and dance worlds. Ballerina Kitty Lunn didn’t set out to be an advocate in that movement, but after a paralyzing accident, she took charge of her future in way that helps others.

As reporter Erika Ferrando says at 4WWL television in New Orleans, “A ballerina embodies grace, control, and beauty. It takes years of practice and few are ever able to dance as a profession. For dancers, that’s the dream.

“What if that dream was achieved, then stolen? What if it no longer seemed possible for a dancer to dance? That’s what happened to Kitty Lunn and it’s been her mission ever since to overcome.

‘Life is a choice. We can either live while we’re alive or wait to die,’ said Lunn, who is now almost 70-year-old.

“Life is full of choices. Lunn always chose to dance even when it seemed she had no choice but to give up her dream. …

“Lunn trained in her hometown of New Orleans until she was 15, when her work here led to a scholarship with the Washington Ballet. She was living her dream. …

“She was 36-years-old, preparing for her first Broadway show when it all changed. …

“Lunn slipped on ice and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking her neck and back. The accident put her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

” ‘I was very depressed because I had been a dancer since I was 8-years-old. I had to find a way,’ Lunn said.

“She had just started dating the man she would marry, Andrew. …

” ‘Andrew said, spoken like a true non dancer, said if you want to dance, who is stopping you? I was stopping me, fear was stopping me,’ Lunn said. …

 Photo: Dan Demetriad

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” ‘I went back to class I put my money on the table. They had to let me in, I had the ADA behind me,’ she said. …

“Surrounded by world class ballet dancers, she was forced to break down barriers.

” ‘They said ‘well you can come in, but you’re on probation. If anyone complains, you’ll have to leave. Many people have complained and I didn’t leave,’ Lunn said.

“In 1995, Lunn founded Infinity Dance Theater in New York. It’s a non-traditional dance company featuring dancers with and without disabilities. The company performs all over the world. …

“Kitty Lunn visited New Orleans this month to help launch a program that keeps veterans moving. The New Orleans VA partnered with the New Orleans Ballet Association for ‘Freedom of Movement’ classes. The program is for veterans, wheelchair-users or not, teaching them to keep moving and dancing.

” ‘It helps me move joints that are a little difficult to move,’ veteran Tina Boquet said. ‘Although I may not be able to do things like I did before my accident, I am still able to move.’

“Now Lunn travels the world teaching others to move, despite anything trying to hold them back.

” ‘I learned that the dancer inside me doesn’t care about this wheelchair. She just wanted to find a way to keep dancing,’ she said. “I think I’m living the life I was born to live. That was an accident, this is a choice.’ ”

More at 4WWL, here, and at Infinity Dance Theater, here.

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File photo of a man clinging to the top of a vehicle in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans

Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters/Corbis
Clinging to the top of a vehicle before being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard from the flooded streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 2005. The city’s homelessness problem grew exponentially after Katrina. Then a unique collaborative decided to do something about it.

Homelessness is increasing all over this wealthy, unequal land of ours. And you know what? It’s possible to do something about it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Consider this effort in New Orleans, as reported by Jeremy Hobson on WBUR’s Here and Now.

“Across the U.S., more than a half million people have been identified as homeless. New Orleans faced a major crisis in homelessness following Hurricane Katrina.

In 2007, two years after the storm, there were more than 11,600 homeless people in the city. Since then, New Orleans stepped up its effort to tackle homelessness and has brought that number down 90 percent.

“Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson the strategy to tackle the ‘unprecedented explosion’ of homelessness in the city following Katrina was threefold.

“First, Kegel says, Unity of Greater New Orleans — a nonprofit leading a collaborative of organizations providing housing and services to the homeless — had to assemble an outreach team that ‘was willing to go anywhere and do anything to rescue and rehouse a homeless person.’

“Second, Kegel says the group put all its effort behind gathering a rent assistance fund. ‘We went directly to Congress,’ she says. …

“And lastly, she says, the team took a ‘Housing First’ approach, which is ‘simply the idea that you accept people as they are,’ whether they are sober or not. … ‘Once they’re in their apartment, you immediately wrap all the services around them that they need to stay stable and live the highest quality life that they can live.

” ‘Actually, this is a very cost-effective approach, because when you think about it, it is costing the taxpayer a tremendous amount of money to leave people on the street. They’re constantly cycling in and out of jail on charges that wouldn’t even be relevant if they had an apartment, things like urinating in public, drinking in public, obstructing the sidewalk because they’re having to sleep on the sidewalk. Homeless offenses, in other words, that are costing the taxpayers a lot of money to be putting them in jail and processing them through the criminal justice system. Their health is deteriorating while they’re out on the street. They’re being taken by ambulance to the emergency room constantly. Those are huge charges.

” ‘Really what you need is, you know, a relatively small amount of money to pay for some rent assistance and they can contribute some of that rent as well with disability benefits or if they’re able to work with, you know, employment income and a little bit of case-management assistance. It really has been proven over and over again in studies to be very cost effective.

” ‘This is permanent housing. How long the rent assistance lasts depends on what people need. And we’re kind of masters at trying to spread what is always an inadequate amount of money as far as it’ll spread. …

” ‘We have reached what we call “functional zero,” which means that we compiled a list using our outreach team [and] using our shelter lists that are updated every night. We housed, in their own apartments, every veteran on that list except nine that had refused housing, mostly because of mental illness. And we continued to work with those nine, at that point, [we] have housed four more of them. Then going forward, we have made a commitment that any time a veteran becomes newly homeless, we house them in an apartment within an average of 30 days or less. And we’ve maintained that now for over four years and we’re extremely proud of that. It is very hard work. It requires a lot of organizations working together — and the VA and the Housing Authority — everybody working together to make that happen.’ ”

Think about those homeless veterans this Memorial Day. If we do “war” to them, can we also do housing with services? It’s about compassion and taking responsibility.

And I like how Kegel says, “You have to love the people in your community and want your community to thrive and care very deeply about the vulnerable people in it, that you’re willing to do, what we say, whatever it takes.”

More here.

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I’m always interested in new stories about street art and street artists. This one from the NY Times tells how street artist Swoon (otherwise known as Caledonia Curry) has been picked up by art museums.

Melena Ryzik writes, “With a glowing paper cutout pinned over her heart, the artist known as Swoon led a procession through the Brooklyn Museum early one summer night to her installation ‘Submerged Motherlands,’ a site-specific jumble that includes two cantilevered rafts, seemingly cobbled out of junk; a tree, of fabric and wire, that reaches to the rotunda; and nooks of stenciled portraits.

“A sellout crowd was there for a film premiere and multimedia concert, documenting and inspired by Swoon’s travel on the rafts. As the audience sat spellbound, Swoon, her red curls bobbing, flitted around, snapping photos, taking it all in.

“ ‘There’s that feeling that you get when you see something that you don’t understand the origin of: wonderment,’ she said. ‘It brings about a kind of innocence, and I love that. I love to witness it. I love to be a part of making those moments happen.’

“Since she began illegally pasting images around the city 15 years ago, Swoon has inspired a lot of wonderment. Born Caledonia Curry, she started her career as a street artist, but quickly leapfrogged to the attention of gallerists and museum curators, which let her expand to installation and performance art, often with an activist, progressive bent. Her intricate paper-cut portraits and cityscapes, often affixed to walls in hardscrabble places, are meant to disintegrate in place, a refrain to the life around them. Meanwhile, her socially minded work has focused on building cultural hubs for far-flung artistically welcoming communities. …

“ ‘When you look at the work of a lot of her peers, hers stands apart,’ said Sarah Suzuki, an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art, which bought several Swoon pieces for its permanent collection in 2005. …

“In New Orleans, Swoon helped create a shantytown where each house is a musical instrument. In Braddock, Pa., a dwindling postindustrial landscape, she worked on an arts center in an abandoned church.”

The rest of the NY Times story is here. And you can read more about Caledonia Curry at her website and at wikipedia.

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Candy creates interactive street art. Her “Before I Die” wall garnered a lot of attention — and contributors. Folks wanted more.

So she decided to create a website explaining in detail how others could replicate the wall.

Here she tells how it all started: “It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you. After I lost someone I loved very much, I thought about death a lot. This helped clarify my life, the people I want to be with, and the things I want to do, but I struggled to maintain perspective. I wondered if other people felt the same way. So with help from old and new friends, I painted the side of an abandoned house in my neighborhood in New Orleans with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with a grid of the sentence “Before I die I want to _______.” Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public space.

“It was an experiment and I didn’t know what to expect. By the next day, the wall was bursting with handwritten responses and it kept growing: Before I die I want to… sing for millions, hold her one more time, eat a salad with an alien, see my daughter graduate, abandon all insecurities, plant a tree, straddle the International Date Line, be completely myself…  People’s responses made me laugh out loud and they made me tear up. They consoled me during my toughest times. I understood my neighbors in new and enlightening ways.”

Candy’s how-to page reads, in part, “Once you’ve created a wall, you can share your wall here by creating a mini-site! A mini-site is a page where you can post photos and responses and document the story of your wall. It’s super easy to use, absolutely free, and no technical skills are required. Visit the Budapest mini-site to see an example.”

Everything you need if you’re going to create a “Before I Die” wall is here.

Photo: Before I Die

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Summer concerts on the lawn in front of the library mean lawn chairs and group participation. Toddlers in pajamas gradually get up their courage to dance. Young gymnastic girls do sudden cartwheels and back flips, then walk away casually, pretending not to check if anyone was impressed.

Last Wednesday, the featured band, PanNeubean Steel, consisted of steel drum, electric guitar, drums, and saxophone.

The band played some New Orleans jazz. “The Saints Go Marching In” brought back memories of my brother Will playing his sax every New Year’s Day to family acclaim.

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