Art Imitates Life After Katrina
Up a set of rickety steps on the second floor of an old wooden house in St. Petersburg is the home of Linda Newcomb.
NEWCOMB: Hello, come in. She's a slender woman with short cropped hair. Her tank top reveals tattoos on both arms.
NEWCOMB: She's a friendly old dog. She's just doing her job. I was numb when I came here and I got the little apartment because that's what you're' supposed to do. But I really was not in the present moment but your dog has to go out twice a day and just walking in this neighborhood it's so beautiful.
Those daily walks through the Rosa Parks neighborhood with her dog Chris started Newcomb - a self-described escapee of Hurricane Katrina - on a path to recovery.
NEWCOMB: She was so happy. Here she is running and leaping. She's an old dog never runs and leaps. But, there are squirrels, lizards and birds to chase, birds as big as she is. From noticing her joy, I started to look around what are you so happy about? And, dog-gone-it she was right, the flora and fauna.
It was a single leaf from a Sea-grape Tree that reignited the artist within.
NEWCOMB: This leaf had a face and there's this old thing about when you're home looking around what makes you feel good is when you look at things and things look back at you. And I looked at this leaf and it looked back at me. There it is his little face. This leaf on the ground in the dirt welcomed me to St. Pete.
It didn't take long before Newcomb began collecting seed pods and palm fronds. Those fragments soon grew into sculptures to document the mark Hurricane Katrina left on the people of New Orleans.
NEWCOMB: Here I'll show you some of my art. It's under the bed. Laughs. I don't have much storage. The gallery is keeping my wall hangings because of the humidity in here. I don't usually use my air conditioning too much.
SOUND OPENING BOX
Open windows ventilate her three room apartment. A fan hums continuously in the corner. Newcomb un-wraps layer upon layer of newspaper to reveal several handcrafted papier-m ch sculptures. She holds up piece titled Grief - its natural fibers contrast with the bright paint and Mardi Gras beads.
NEWCOMB: This is definitely a New Orleans scene. Here's the dead rising from the roof tops. But I used local materials because that's what I had. My stuff is gone. My home is gone.
Prior to Katrina, Newcomb supported her artwork with part-time jobs. She delivered newspapers and cleaned up at a dog groomers.
NEWCOMB: That's part of art, a person who sits down and says I'm going to do this. I'm going to make photographs only is not experiencing a lot of input they'd be getting if they were out sweeping sidewalks or dealing with other people or other situations.
The experience of fleeing Hurricane Katrina, watching New Orleans flood and people die changed Newcomb and her art.
NEWCOMB: I was driven with this stuff. I mean this was stuff I simply had to get out. They're dealing with a lot of Post Traumatic Stress. I'm an artist. So, I'm lucky in that I can get a lot of stuff out through my art. But other people, I don't know. They do need help. Not money. Not this, that, FEMA, whatever. I don't know what they need. But they need something in their heads to deal with this because it's huge.
Her series of sculptures to the uninitiated resemble voodoo figures.
NEWCOMB: This is not Voodoo. It's just I don't know it's just what happened.
REPORTER: What did you write on the back?
NEWCOMB: It says a strong wind came on a beautiful summer day. Our levees broke. The water rose. All was lost. Katrina ate my world. And, he looks sort of like his world is being eaten.
Newcomb thinks her sculptures will not appeal to most people - in fact - she says her art is too raw, too unfinished when compared to Florida craftsmen.
But her sculptures, wall hangings and photographs were impressive enough to earn her a show at St. Petersburg's The Studio @ 620. Newcomb's opening is September 15th.
NEWCOMB: I can use all the support I have because I don't know anybody here. Laughs.
She moved to St. Petersburg because her mother and brother live here. But she's hoping to meet new people because St. Petersburg is her new home. Having survived Hurricanes Betsy and Camille, Katrina has done her in. Newcomb does not plan to return to help rebuild New Orleans.
NEWCOMB: I'm almost 60 years old and I don't have those years to put in. Time is very important to me and I want to be able to work. So, I decided to stay here.
But, she says here artwork will always have a piece of New Orleans in it.
To view examples of Linda Newcomb's artwork, click here.
©2013 WUSF. All rights reserved.