"It Seemed Like the Thing to Do"

Taking a Creative Response to a Terrible Experience

Originally published in CERF+ News, August, 2011

For mixed-media artist and sculptor Kimberly Willcox, it was a studio fire. For glass blower/designer Gini Garcia, it was diverticulitis. For glass sculptor Mitchell Gaudet, it was Hurricane Katrina. But this story is not about those disasters or that illness — it’s about how artists can, and often do, respond in creative ways to experiences that others might see as purely negative.  In other words, this is about how trauma can be turned into art — and what that can mean to the artist. “The one thing you realize is that no matter what happens, nobody can take away your creativity,” Kimberly Willcox says. “So instead of going into a deep depression — and you do have those days — you learn to kind of look at what is left and make the best of it. And sometimes, doing that changes your perspective.”

Each artist’s story, of course, is individual. Here are three.

“Poof, Just Gone”

Last July, Kimberly Willcox and her partner Kevin Nordhausen were on the road doing shows when they got the calls that told them their Gainsville, Florida studio was in flames. They’d been mixed-media artists for 25 years. “It was all just poof, gone,” says Kimberly.
After rushing home, they cancelled all their shows except for SOFA (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art) Chicago, one of the country’s top exhibitions. They had invested around $1,000 in the show, which was three weeks away.
“A friend said, ‘What do you have left?’ I said, ‘I have some boards,’” Kimberly recalls. “She said, ‘Start painting.’”
The boards were large, and had water damage from the fire. Kimberly had never done big paintings before. But she started.
“It was just a huge healing process,” she recalls. “I ended up painting what the story of this was like, for me.”
Working in acrylics, pastels, and watercolors, she did eight pieces that charted her journey of recovery, with titles like “Journey Home,” “Phoenix and I Rising from the Ashes,” “Giving Back,” and “Serenity.” On each, she stuck wheels — “like old funky wheels, from strollers and stuff.” Then, because SOFA is a sculptural-objects show, she and Kevin went to a salvage yard, retrieved old, rusty sheets of steel, and cut them into figurative frames — an animal, a boat. They added more wheels and patinas, then set the paintings into the frames.
When Kimberly got to SOFA and hung her pieces, she stood back and looked at them. Then she went into a bathroom and broke down.
“I felt like I had just plastered my heart and soul on the walls,” she says.

“You Say, ‘What Happened?’”

In San Antonio, CERF+ Board member Gini Garcia went into the hospital not knowing how sick she really was. She wound up losing her large intestine and enduring a yearlong ordeal. She kept her two galleries going, but couldn’t do her own glass work. She got the idea to paint on silk, which she hadn’t done since high school. But, Gini told her sister, she didn’t have the energy to stretch the silk.
“So she put it together for me — and I was on my way,” Gini recalls. “I painted the entire process that I went through. I wasn’t going to paint pretty things, I was going to paint real things. I painted the interpretation of my illness, on silk with the brightest, most amazing colors, fuchsias and bright yellows and brilliant oranges.
“There are phases to illness: when you’re sick, when you’re being made better, and when you’re better and you have all the psychological stuff to think back on, and you have stuff like grieving. On the creative front, you say, ‘What happened in the first phase? In the second phase?’”
Gini grew close to her medical team at the hospital; and before her final surgery, she arranged for a first-class luncheon to be provided to the team, as a surprise before they operated. The dessert was a collection of hard candies that Gini had created, each with a gummi worm — which she decided looked just like a patient’s colon — suspended in the center.
“We don’t know why we do things, a lot of times,” she says now, with a laugh. “It just seemed like the thing to do!”

“Always About the Journey”

In the aftermath of Katrina in 2005, there was no question of doing art right away. Mitchell Gaudet’s home was safe, but his studio was severely damaged and his city was full of destroyed homes. As he threw himself into helping — patching roofs, boarding up windows — he saw large Xs appearing on the front of homes all over. As rescue crews surveyed neighborhoods, they marked homes that way. On each arm of the X, they wrote information such as the date inspected and whether bodies were inside. Mitchell also saw — everyone saw — the high-water marks that stayed for months, even years, all over New Orleans.
When he finally got back to making art, Mitchell produced a series of small, transparent glass pieces in the watery shapes of homes, with colored figures of people and body parts suspended at odd angles inside. Each piece is etched with a large X, and has a silver high-water mark.
That’s only one way Mitchell’s creativity has responded to the Katrina experience. Three years after the flood, he set up a dozen 14-foot poles along one flood-ravaged avenue, with blue-glass rings affixed to each one showing the high-water mark. For an exhibit titled “Living with Hurricanes” at the Presbytere, one of the Louisiana State Museum sites in the French Quarter, he attached bottles to the ceiling of the entrance hall, each with a message inside and each standing for a person who died in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. Some 300 hands reach down from the ceiling. “I want people to feel like they’re underwater, when they walk in,” he says.
One goal of his work has been that people do not forget. “This is history. To whitewash it, remove it, to me is the worst thing.”
For the artist, there is also personal healing in expression, even of the most painful experience. “As an artist I’m very connected to my work,” Kimberly Willcox says. “It’s always about the journeys I’m going through in life. I think that’s what this was — another stage in life.”  Gini Garcia has kept her series of small, brilliantly colored silk paintings, neatly stored in ziploc bags. She doesn’t plan to show them. She’s not even sure why she did them. But she’s glad she has them. “To take something physical and do something with it, it helps you in your personal recovery,” Mitchell Gaudet reflects. “I think everyone has a way to do that — my accountant probably threw himself into everyone’s tax problems. For me, this was a very handy tool, to make something and feel good about it.”

Here is a video of Mitchell Gaudet talking about his experience on the PBS Series Craft in America:

Taking Something Back from Disaster

A year after a flood swept through Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Craig Nutt visited the city to do a workshop on arts preparedness and business insurance. Mel Andringa, a visual and performing artist, as well as co-director of Legion Arts, told Craig that he encountered three types of people after the flood. There were those who wanted everything put back as it was before the flood: their microwave, tv, the vase on the mantle. There were people who wanted to get as far away from there as possible, to a place where something like this could never happen to them again. And then, there were the artists who said, "this flood has taken something away from me, and I am going to take something back from the flood." They were talking about something they could use in their work or their lives that would make them stronger artists, or express the experience they had been through.


CERF+ would like to collect stories and images from artists who have taken something back from a disaster or emergency. If you have or know someone who has a story like this, that could inspire other artists who are grappling with a disaster, we would love to hear it. If we can collect enough stories, we will use them in the Artist-to-Artist section of www.studioprotector.org, perhaps in a "Disaster Art Gallery." Please contact us at info@craftemergency.org.