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.

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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