The Intersection of Art and Life (November 2005)

It stands less than two inches tall, a small black bead sitting atop an oblong-shaped piece of clear glass. Two flattened, round orange feet. A pointed orange beak. The little penguin was probably made in a matter of minutes, a simple object to form for one of the skilled artisans on staff.It came into my possession during the summer of 1972, the souvenir I chose during a family vacation that had included a tour of the Corning Glass Factory. I picked it out from a room full of pieces, all shiny, bright colors catching the showroom lights. It caught my 9-year old eye. It has traveled with me now for more than thirty years, assuming various places in various bedrooms and apartments – bedside tables, dressers, an antique printer’s type box that hangs on the wall and holds many small treasures. Most recently it sits on a shelf of the newly purchased, 1960, funky yellow, art deco room unit in the dining room.

It’s undoubtedly lived a long life, particularly considering the fate from which it was spared – a certain doom that, were it not an inanimate object, it surely would have feared. Less than a week after I took it home, another visitor graced the halls of the glass factory… Hurricane Agnes.

For three days the storm hovered over the south-central part of New York State, a torrential storm that dumped buckets of rain over the area. The rivers swelled and crested their banks, bringing about full-fledged flooding. Almost half of the 13,000 objects in the museum’s glass collection were damaged. Thousands of volumes in the museum library’s regular collection, the entire rare books collection, and every color slide in the hotographic archives were submerged in feet of water. When the water level finally subsided, more than a week later, everything was covered in a rancid, oozing slime. Yes, there is little doubt that my diminutive figurine would have been lost forever in the aftermath of Agnes.

There has been much in the news of late regarding hurricanes and the damaged landscapes they leave in their paths. Images of New Orleans, an entire city almost entirely underwater, have appeared daily in print and broadcast over the television airwaves. People have lost everything – their homes and all the possessions that filled them, their jobs, their schools, their whole lives it seems. Which may lead one to ask, when your life is seemingly swept away in the waters of coastal surf, crested rivers and broken levees, what do you replace it with? If you are fortunate enough to have not actually lost your literal life in a catastrophic event such as Hurricane Katrina, but so much of your life all the same, how do you begin to return to what you knew before?

I began to ponder this question after I heard two very different stories, different in context but perhaps not so different in theme. One was the account of a day’s events in New Orleans, the second week after Katrina had passed. There were grim reports of more violence and more looting, and more reporters asking people how they felt. Such an inane question that can only lead me to believe that the producers of these programs today believe the more tears they can show, the more gut-wrenching stories of lost pets, lost relatives and lost homes, the better.

And then there were details – and questions – of financial assistance and insurance, and who was going to pay for the unprecedented cost of rebuilding this area of the country. And of course, what would the rebuilding entail? Will New Orleans be rebuilt in such a way so that, in time, no one will ever be able to tell what happened there? Will it be restored to the “same old” New Orleans, the one the whole world has been privy to see – warts and all – throughout this disaster? Or will it be built anew, as some have suggested, the senseless tragedy providing the impetus for something different, something better, something hopeful?

The second story I heard was told by the actor Alan Alda, recounting a life-threatening episode he experienced a couple of years ago while he was filming a program for public television in the mountains of South America. A serious medical illness overcame him and he had to survive a rescue from a remote region and subsequent emergency surgery in not the best of facilities. This close brush with death left him a changed person, not so much in how he lives his life, per se, but rather in how he sees it – how he views all of life, since this event, as such an incredible gift. He described it as being highly aware of all that goes on around him now, and he noted how that awareness colors his thoughts and actions today in a very positive way.

Such a story was not all that unfamiliar to my ears. It is actually fairly common. Disaster or tragedy befalls someone – a serious illness, a close encounter with death, the sudden loss of a loved one – and the person is transformed in some way. And rather than scrambling to replace all that was once there before the misfortune, they instead decide to do things differently. Almost like being given a clean slate or a fresh start. Almost like they’ve been washed clean.

And it was this thought that made me draw these two stories together and to begin to wonder… can the experience of the individual transcend to the collective whole – to an entire community? Can a city, as a whole, having endured a disaster, undergo this same type of experience so often described by the individual? Can it see and do things differently, as one? When water comes with great force, rushing in and out and taking with it all that is clung to so tightly, leaving nothing but empty foundations in its wake, how is the void to be re-filled?

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