“Brown Eyes” 6×6, oil on gessoboard, $75 Buy Now
Today’s painting is of a little girl I’ve never met or seen.
The wonderful Kristi (also a fellow teacher at Mount Carmel Academy but not to be confused with day 5 Kristi ) sent me a story last night that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Kristi teaches theater so we were once in the same department. She’s talented. When I saw the plays she produced, I couldn’t believe I was watching high school students.
Kristi told me what is and isn’t a Katrina story. Everyone from the Gulf Coast has one and somewhere between cleaning out our homes, rebuilding our schools, and trying to find a new normal, we seemed not to want to tell them anymore whether because they were too painful or they had become too common and thus vulgar. But we’ve all organized our lives into two distinct time periods: Before Katrina and After. Two time periods that mean little to people who organize their lives by other, perhaps less dramatic events.
Kristi told me this sort-of-Katrina story about a little girl from North Dakota. She didn’t have a photograph of the girl, but, after reading her story, all I wanted was to paint her. Kristi, brilliantly, offered to describe her, and today’s painting is my attempt to paint from Kristi’s description.
Read Kristi’s story below, and you’ll see why this girl inspired Kristi and then inspired me. I know I haven’t captured her physical likeness, but I hope I’ve, in some small way, captured some of the emotional content of this beautiful story.
My story begins with my first professional job after college. I worked for Missoula Children’s Theater. The basic run-down of how MCT works is this: me and my tour partner arrive in a town on a Sunday, on Monday we audition the kids in the town and cast 60-70 of them in an hour long musical, and then we start rehearsals immediately following the auditions. We continue to rehearse until Saturday when we put up the show– full costumes, make-up, set and lights. It’s a pretty amazing company. The job is exhausting and difficult, but worth it. Many of the towns that we visited were small. Many times the only live theater experience these kids will ever have is with MCT. I worked with hundreds of kids all over the country while touring.
My partner and I traveled in a Ford Ranger pick-up truck with all of the costumes, set, props and lights in the back of the truck. We stayed in hotels and sometimes with home-stays (people involved with the school/theater/community center that brought us in and opened their homes to us). It wasn’t a very stable lifestyle. We would be in a new place every week, sometimes driving across several states to get to there.
I toured with MCT from May 2005-May 2006. At the end of the summer tour, we had a three week break where we got to go home before starting up for the fall tour. I was home in New Orleans for three days before we had to evacuate for Katrina. I won’t go into my Katrina story because that’s not really what this story is about. At the end of my break I returned to MCT. They offered to let me break my contract, but there was really no point. I had no home to go back to at that point. Going back on tour was really the best option for me.
Back on the road, I instantly became the token Katrina victim. Remember I’m in a new city every week. I have to re-answer the same questions over and over again– “Where are you from?” is always the first one. Before Katrina this was a taxing part of the job– you can only imagine what it was like after. Most people were so oblivious as to what it was really like back in NOLA, and I routinely had people say horrible things to me like “Well, why should you even rebuild?” Granted, most of these people didn’t mean it in a horrible way; they were just clueless. In a way having to talk about it was a healing process for me, but most people didn’t really care about me or what I was going through. They just wanted to be able to have a connection to the disaster.
One week we were in northern North Dakota on a Native American reservation. We did several weeks on reservations. The population was often very poor, and those weeks you could always see you were making a difference in the kids’ lives. On a snack break between rehearsals, I was eating next to a little girl who was probably around eight years old. She asked the question many of the kids did, “Where are you from?” I, of course, answered her with my standard,”New Orleans.” And she looked at me with the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen and said, “I’m so sorry. Things are really bad there right now, aren’t they?” It was such a genuine moment of concern and care coming from such a little girl– a little girl that in her short life I was sure had seen her fair share of bad times. I can see her sweet caring face in my head as I type this. If my memory is correct, this happened in November, so I had been back on tour for about three months. It was the first time someone showed a real understanding of what I was going through and seemed to really care. It was a moment that I will never forget.