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Ideas

A pencil, a marker, and ‘pure magic’

How a 24-hour arts event helped bring New Orleans back

By Natalie Pompilio

Around 6 a.m. on a late November Saturday in 2006, a sand-colored Humvee carrying two uniformed men pulled up to Susan Gisleson. She was collecting sticks and stones along the railroad tracks in an empty part of New Orleans.

The city was still dark and damaged more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. The soldiers, Gisleson remembers, were “sitting in their wrap-around shades with assault rifles on their laps. You can’t read their faces because their eyes are covered. And one says, ‘Hey. What are you doing?’”

Nothing nefarious, she assured them. Later that morning, Press Street, the arts non-profit she’d co-founded, was hosting an around-the-clock Draw-a-Thon. The free event encouraged residents to take a break from the frustrations of rebuilding — and make a different kind of mark on the city. While most people would simply draw, Gisleson was also facilitating a workshop involving natural materials.

The men exchanged a glance.

“One said to the other, ‘I like to draw.’ And then the other said, ‘Yeah? I used to draw in high school,’” she recalls.

Soon, both camo-clad men had markers in hand and were drawing on sheets of paper affixed to the walls of the nearby Green Project, an environmental non-profit that had offered the space for the event. One drew an eye. The other sketched a hand holding a flower. After so much chaos and devastation, that tiny, peaceful moment was “pure magic,” Gisleson says.

It was among the first inklings Gisleson had that New Orleans would fully recover from Katrina. And it was proof of something she’d suspected in those days after the flood waters receded: that art can mobilize a disaster-struck community, long after the FEMA trucks and celebrity charities have left town.

Everyone saw what Katrina did to New Orleans. About 80 percent of the city underwater; people dying in the streets; property and infrastructure damage so extensive that some politicians declared the city a cesspool beyond repair — or at least not deserving of it. A city of bright colors felt dulled, dressed in shades of brown and grey.

In those early days after the storm and evacuation, returning to the city was hard, even impossible for some. Homes were still submerged. There were no grocery stores, no postal services, no familiar rattles of the streetcar. Still, Gisleson and her family, New Orleans natives, felt the city’s pull and came back quickly.

They thought others would soon follow suit, but they were wrong. New Orleans and the surrounding areas reopened zip code by zip code. Gisleson remembers the day residents from a particularly populous section were allowed to return. She told friends, “Don’t go out and drive on the streets today because people are coming back.”

“And nobody came back,” she recalls. “Nobody.”

In November, less than three months after the storm, Gisleson and a few friends and relatives — her sister Anne; Anne’s husband, artist Brad Benischeck; and two local writers, Case Miller and Ken Foster — sat around Anne’s kitchen table and devised a plan to jump-start New Orleans’ cultural life.

The Gisleson sisters understood the power of the arts. Susan is a visual artist whose larger-than-life creations adorn floats that roll down the streets during Carnival season. Anne is a writer whose book, “The Futilitarians: One Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving and Reading,” documents how she dealt with several family deaths and the fallout from the storm. Their late father, Keith “Big Daddy” Gisleson, was a well-known city lawyer and a gifted storyteller.

They wanted to offer arts events for those surviving in the largely-empty city. They called their organization Press Street, after the avenue that divides the Bywater neighborhood, near the breached Industrial Canal, from the next neighborhood to the north, Faubourg Marigny.

Their first projects were small: A book reading at historic music venue Preservation Hall; a passing of the hat for the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. They held an art exhibition in a gallery that had been heavily damaged in the storm — it had no intact walls, so organizers hung the works on brown contractor paper affixed to support structures.

Though the work of rebuilding was all-consuming for those left in New Orleans, people came out.

“Everybody was starved for some kind of interaction,” Gisleson says.

And the very act of creating art, however simple, was a respite. As Gisleson would later write in a book celebrating the Draw-a-Thon, “It was also a way of giving participants absolute control over something, a pencil and paper, during a time when absolutely everything seemed out of control.”

It was Benischeck’s idea to host a Draw-a-Thon event, inspired by similar programs housed in places like New York’s Pratt Institute, Arizona’s Tempe Center for the Art, and North Carolina’s Guilford College. Some of these marathon art events are fundraisers; others aim to introduce strangers or tighten community bonds.

The New Orleans Draw-a-Thon was intended solely as a therapeutic enterprise. “It was grueling being here, but also exciting,” Gisleson says. “Folks used the word ‘surreal’ multiple times a day. There was lots of drinking going on — much more than usual — and lots of folks were on anti-depressants…We did it because it was important.”

“It was grueling being here, but also exciting. Folks used the word ‘surreal’ multiple times a day.”

As planning for that first Draw-a-Thon moved forward, more people volunteered to help. The owner of a popular chain of local coffee shops found the event space — and kept everyone caffeinated. Local artists donated supplies. Kristin Gisleson Palmer, another sister and a current New Orleans City Councilmember, made a big pot of gumbo for participants. Another group made fresh fried catfish. Hubig’s Pies, a local favorite, donated prepackaged individual pies.

To give the day some structure, organizers divided it into 12 two-hour chunks. Each would feature artists, arts educators, and on-going workshops — such as one that helped participants turned empty cereal boxes inside out to create instant 3D drawing surfaces.

Still, there was no guarantee the first Draw-a-Thon would succeed. Social media sites like Facebook weren’t ubiquitous then, so organizers had no idea how many people to expect. They advertised the event with silk-screened posters stapled to telephone poles.

“We didn’t know if anyone would show up,” Gisleson says.

Doors officially opened on Nov. 25 at 6:30 a.m. The first person to arrive was a woman named Rose, who lay on the cardboard-covered floor in a patch of sunlight and began to sketch human figures. Before the 24-hour period ended, hundreds of people from all different ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic groups, aged from infant to octogenarian, had come together to create art.

Press Street, since renamed Antenna, was one of a handful of new and pre-existing local arts groups that worked to brighten the New Orleans landscape after Katrina. As the non-profit’s profile grew, so too did its funding, largely in the form of grants from organizations that support the arts. Antenna has steadily added programs in the last 12 years, creating an art gallery, a book printing press, and collaborative work spaces. The group organizes readings and salons and sponsors large-scale community art projects that address the city’s current challenges, such as gentrification.

And every year, it has continued to put on the Draw-a-Thon, which bounced around to various venues before returning to the Green Project last year. Each year, it attracts a larger audience.

The neighborhoods where the event has taken place have changed dramatically in those intervening years. New businesses — an upscale food hall, tchotchke boutiques — appeal to a ritzier crowd. The historic rows of shotgun houses and Creole cottages are interrupted by new, larger buildings, many of them filled with pricey condominiums. Undeveloped land near the Mississippi River has been transformed into Crescent Park, which has bike paths, a dog run, and free fitness classes.

Celebrities have moved in, meaning home prices have gone up and older residents have been forced to move. In 2014, Solange Knowles held her wedding at the neighborhood-church-turned-arts-venue where the Draw-a-Thon had been booked, igniting a permitting controversy that left organizers scrambling for a new venue.

“It was difficult, but we got a ton of publicity because of it,” Gisleson says.

Parts of New Orleans might be unrecognizable, but the Draw-a-Thon itself is largely unchanged. About 1,500 people are expected to attend this year’s installment on Nov. 17. They’ll be able to try screen printing, draw in blacklight, take a figure drawing boot camp overseen by a U.S. Marine, and take part in a program in which artists will transform a school cafeteria or gym into an “arts funhouse” with workshops for students.

Gisleson, who has since left Antenna and moved on to other projects, still considers her role in creating the Draw-a-Thon one of her greatest points of pride. The event, she says, is a throwback to the best part of some difficult days: “It still has that feeling like after Katrina, when everybody was helping everybody out.”

And she’s not the only one who credits art with helping the city rebound. In 2016, then-New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu told attendees of the Lincoln Center Global Exchange in New York how the arts had helped rebuild his hometown. While politicians struggled to find common ground, he said, dancing, singing, and drawing brought strangers together.

“Arts are essential,” Landrieu said. “It’s not the cherry on top of the banana split. It’s actually the banana.”

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Natalie Pompilio is a writer based in Philadelphia.

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