Born to Build Thursday, May 27 2010 

The Ms. Sarah House Project was four months old when the nation got to see New Orleans shine. That was win the New Orleans Saints won its first Super Bowl victory. Around the world, people saw that the win was about much more than football. It symbolized, among other things, the resurrection of a people whose very existence was threatened by hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Linebacker Scott Fujita explained this recently to the Times-Picayune: “It was all of us together! It was all of us in the city together for the last four years! This is the moment we’ve been working for” (February 9, 2010).

It is this spirit of determination and unity that has kept New Orleans afloat since August of 2005. Like the former “’Aints,” the city’s people had every reason to be hopeless, to give up, and to leave town; but just like the football team that rose from the ashes to win the bowl of all bowls, the citizens of New Orleans have emerged from the waters to build their home from the ground up.

The Ms. Sarah House project is proof enough. This dream has become a reality with the cooperation and creativity of many people. NOWAC, renowned international artist Wangechi Mutu, and SMFA have combined forces to build a house for Ms. Sarah Lastie. (She was forced out of her home and her community when the water levels rose too high, and had to abandon her original rebuilding effort because an unscrupulous contractor took advantage of her.) These efforts have been tremendous, but the house could not be built without the tireless efforts of Dalbert Poreé, owner of Dalbert Poreé Construction.

A life long resident of New Orleans, Mr. Poreé was practically born into the construction business. His Dad raised a family of five on a tradesman income as mason. His grandfather Lawless Honore was reportedly the first black contractor licensed in the state of Louisiana back in 1973. Poreé began his career in earnest digging foundations for his grandfather. He earned $2 an hour for his efforts and “was happy to get the work.”

Thirty seven years later, Poreé is the employer, not the employee. He is much more than a boss, however; he is a family man. Most of his crew members are related to him, his son for example, or are connected to him via a family member. He is also a community leader. After the storm, many people approached Poreé looking for work. He employed as many of them as possible to keep them from straying in the wrong direction, although at times, doing so has been a personal financial sacrifice.  Just prior to beginning this project, he agreed to hire one of NOWAC’s artist, Angelamia Bachemin. He loves her work and her work ethics and has hired her full-time on a permanent basis.

Today, Poreé continues to do the work that he has always been attracted to. Since Katrina, his company has renovated and repaired almost forty homes, always doing so with a inner compulsion to do things right the first time. “A lot of cats don’t do it like that” he told me, speaking of other workers but of no one in particular. Poreé never leaves a job until it’s done right. The proof is in the pudding; he has a thriving business and has never had to advertise to attract customers. Excellence speaks for itself.

As international and cosmopolitan as it is, New Orleans is, at its heart, a fabric woven tightly of families and communities. That is particularly true in the Lower 9th ward. New Orleans is Poreé’s home; and its people are his people. Being committed to the revival of the city, and to the revival of the Lower 9th ward in particular, is in his blood.

When asked about how this project has progressed, he said that it has been “smooth, on schedule.” Pictures of the project tell the story. In early November, the pilings for the foundation were just being installed. Some four months later, the frame is up, the roof is on, windows are in place, the tile is laid, closets are built, and the porch waits quietly for those who will soon enjoy it.

Poreé is glad to be a part of this project, one he describes as “lovely” and “generous.” He sees it as one part of a collective effort to build a whole new city, a place he believes will be “a very nice place to live.” With his help and the inspired efforts of artists, volunteers, and workers, it will be, it truly will.

SMFA in NOLA 2010 Saturday, Feb 6 2010 

DOUGLAS REDD HOUSEThe trees are bare and the ground is white with snow – it’s January and the winter chill has settled on Boston. Most people are dressed in wool sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves, and thick coats to keep warm. There are a few students, however, who are staying warm in their kitchens, baking cookies, cupcakes, and other goodies while dreaming of spring in New Orleans. The baked goods will be sold at a bake sale to raise funds for their spring break trip to the Crescent City where they will roll up their sleeves to work hard and soak up a little southern sunshine.

For the third consecutive year, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in partnership with the New Orleans Women Artists Collective (NOWAC), will send a team of students to New Orleans to engage in a service project designed to tap into their creative potential and values as artists while contributing to the cultural and physical rebirth of the city. This year we are very excited to be involved with NOWAC and artist Wangechi Mutu on the Ms. Sarah House Project. We look forward to applying the finishing touches to Ms. Sarah’s home this spring and helping to bring her back to the wonderful neighborhood that she helped shape over the years.

Beyond the rewards of contributing to the rebuilding efforts, the wonderful thing about our partnership with NOWAC is the added opportunity for cultural exchange with local artists and community leaders. Faced with the overwhelming emotional impact of the devastation that lingers, students struggle to contextualize the experience. Through a series of events and excursions designed as an introduction to the city, participants gain a better understanding of the rich cultural heritage, the inequalities, and the unflagging resolve of many to return and rebuild despite the hurdles.

During our previous spring break initiatives, students benefited from engaging with artists through the L9 Center for the Arts, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School, and the Ashé Cultural Center, to name a few. We met photographers, painters, musicians, poets, teachers, writers, and enthusiasts – all welcomed us with warmth into their homes and hearts. Our interactions and exchanges created a deep connection to the city and reinforced the bonds in our own community. Students returned to Boston with an enriched sense of their own ability to make a positive and healing mark in the world through their work as artists.

To read more about the 2009 SMFA in NOLA spring break project: www.smfa.edu/nola

Christy Cornett
Assistant Director of Student Life
School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Artist Delivers On Promise Friday, Dec 11 2009 

Mutu rebuilds Ms Sarah's house in Lower 9th ward: Week 4

If you wander down to Caffin and Charters in the Lower 9th ward and your ear gets caught by the sing-song of hammers and saws, what you are hearing is the sound of a community coming home.

As it is well-known, the Lower 9th ward of New Orleans was decimated by hurricane Katrina in 2005. Four years later, much work has been done. Walking up and the down the streets of this historic neighborhood, you see life where hopelessness and desolation once reigned. Homes that had been reduced to their foundations are popping up all over. Their bright fresh colors and architectural detail tell a joyous tale. The dark and dusty windows of houses whose owners were forced to flee are now clean and well-lighted. Lawns and yards that had run amok with weeds and debris are now neatly manicured. The silence—like the dead air of a ghost town—has been triumphantly shattered by the voice, the music, and the clatter of people eager to come back to their roots.

Sarah Lastie, wife of the late Walter Lastie, a drummer for Fats Domino, is one of them. When water levels rose too high, she left behind a home and a community she describes as “Excellent!” In a recent interview, Ms. Sarah reminisced fondly about her thirty-five years in the Lower 9th ward. She spoke of a neighborhood that functioned like one big extended family. Neighbors were friends, the kind who looked out for your kids, collected your mail when you went on vacation, and had their door open for you whenever you needed them. Ms. Sarah recounted stories of family parties and sunny afternoon barbecues. She recalled the jubilant jam sessions that sprung up when New Orleans music legends like Harry Connick, Jr. stopped by to play with her husband. She painted the portrait of a place as safe and as warm as Mayberry but as vivacious and as colorful as only New Orleans can be.

In 2008, Ms. Sarah was introduced to Wangechi Mutu, a renowned international visual artist. Mutu found herself in the Lower 9th ward in the summer of 2008 when she participated in Prospect 1, an International Contemporary Art Biennial. She saw the blighted lot, remnants of an attempt to rebuild at the corner of Caffin and Charters, the place where Ms. Sarah’s home once stood, and inquired about it, with the help from the folks at the L9 Center for the Arts. Somehow, that abandoned land had spoken to Mutu, and she longed to hear the story of the home and the people who lived there prior to Katrina.

Once she heard Ms. Sarah’s story, Mutu decided that she wanted to create a piece on the now vacant piece of land. When the two met, Ms. Sarah was at first skeptical. Like many New Orleans homeowners trying to rebuild, she had been defrauded by a contractor for thousands of dollars. It didn’t take long, however, for her to realize that Mutu’s piece came with an offering to eventually rebuild her home, a blessing of enormous proportions.

Mutu’s art installation, titled “Miss Sarah’s House,” was showcased on Ms. Sarah’s lot during Prospect 1 in the fall of 2008. According to Mutu, “Ms. Sarah’s House was a site-sensitive work that was built as a tribute and as a place of pilgrimage for Prospect 1 visitors but especially for the people of the Lower 9th ward who were struck twice in one week; first by the storm and secondly by the blow from the government’s catastrophic negligence.”

She continues explaining by saying “Ms. Sarah’s House was a drawing in light that created a kind of ghost building at night…a mirage of sorts, which represented an attempt to describe Ms. Sarah’s and others’ dream of returning home. Mutu used the footprint of the house-that-was-never-built, as a pedestal. The piece consisted of a frame that resembled a traditional New Orleans railroad house that the viewer could visit, enter, and walk throughout.”

Mutu is producing a print titled “Homeward Bound” that is being sold and used to raise funds for Ms. Sarah’s House project. All proceeds will assist Ms. Sarah in rebuilding / restoring her family home.

Once finished, Ms. Sarah’s actual home will be showcased in Prospect 2, which will take place in New Orleans in 2010.

Proceeds from the sale of Mutu’s print “Homeward Bound” will fund the continued rebuilding of Ms. Sarah’s home on Caffin and Charters. Construction began in November and is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2010. Wangechi Mutu and friend Tye Waller, Co-founder of New Orleans Women Artists Collective (NOWAC), are jointly managing the project, that is being executed by a local builder, Mr. Dalbert Poree’ of Dalbert Poree’ Renovations.

Ground has been cleared. Foundation has been laid. Framing has begun. Each day on the job workers lend their skills, their sweat, and their sincerity in the effort to rebuild Ms. Sarah’s house.

Day by day, a promise is being fulfilled. The promise is one we all make—to take care of each other and to build community, no matter where we are. Mutu is not a resident of New Orleans, but her hopeful and compassionate spirit has the same color as the soul of its people. One by one they rebuild, move home, and reconnect with families, friends, communities. In work and play, in love and faith, they re-imagine and give life to that proud gumbo of art, music, food and culture called New Orleans.

If you are interested in purchasing an archival print of Mutu’s “Homeward Bound” please contact Angela Brazda at Barabara Gladstone gallery abrazda@gladstonegallery.com, or Susan Vielmetter at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, info@vielmetter.com or Glenn Scott at Victoria Miro Gallery
glenn@victoria-miro.com

If you would like to know more about Ms. Sarah’s House project or how you can help, please contact Tye Waller at tyewaller@msn.com.

Marcia Wall,
Writer/Photographer
www.seeitmywayphoto.com

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