VAN May/June 2012: Ebb and Flow

Katie Holten, ‘Sediment Drawing’ (Bayou Cantelle), sediment collected from the Missisippi River, water, graphite on paper


I’m always thinking about time and how there’s never enough of it to go around. But during my residency in New Orleans I was able to really lose track of time.Last year, Susan Taylor, director of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), visited my studio and invited me to develop a public art project for NOMA and the City Park of New Orleans. Specifically, she invited me to make a new work addressing the ecosystem of the city and its relationship to water.

As part of my working process I do on-site research, so I needed to find a space in New Orleans where I could spend some time in the city to begin researching and developing the project. Susan suggested A Studio in the Woods (ASITW) and I was thrilled to be awarded a six- week residency from 5 January – 16 February.

Lucianne and Joe Carmichael bought the 7.7 acres that make up ASITW in 1969 and built a house and studio, with their own hands, in the early 1970s. It has been their home and studio, as well as an environmental preserve, ever since. In 2000, they started a residency programme, and in 2004 ASITW was donated to Tulane University in New Orleans as a way to formally preserve the land. They are kind and gracious hosts and with their intuitive understanding and appreciation of the local environment they have created a beautiful haven right on the edge of the Mississippi River. While their neighbours have replaced magnificent oak trees with insipid lawns, the Carmichaels have let the native hardwood forest do its thing. After Christmas in Ireland it was a lovely shock to the system to arrive in the forest, bursting with lush vegetation, palmettos, turtles, lizards, armadillos, racoons and all kinds of colourful and chatty birds.

The on-site staff members: Ama Rogan, Director, and Cammie Hill-Prewitt, Programme Coordinator, are as sunny and down-to-earth as you could hope to find. David Baker, the Environmental Curator, is a botanist who spends Mondays working the land, mostly removing non-natives and hacking through the undergrowth, and the rest of his time participating in triathlons and traveling to faraway places like Peru to study other disaster landscapes.

Katie Holten, ‘Shadow’, 2012

ASITW hosts writers, filmmakers, poets, musicians and visual artists. The residents, one at a time, share the main house with Joe and Lucianne and have their own private studio. Located on the bend of the Mississippi River known as English Turn, ASITW is 30 minutes east of the city centre. The seclusion and quiet was just what I wanted and needed, although the residency itself wasn’t as isolated as I’d expected as the main house and kitchen are shared with Joe and Lucianne and the staff members during the week.

My residency came with a stipend and supply budget. Not only did I have a beautiful space to work in, but I also had funds to support myself and my research. Most of my supply budget went into books and, as I can’t drive, the hiring of local artist, Monique Verdin, to take me out on little expeditions. Monique is a native and her knowledge of the place and its people goes back generations, so she graciously introduced me to aspects of the city that I never would have found on my own.

The other luxury of working at ASITW was the opportunity to split my residency between quiet and active research. Quiet Research = reading + drawing + writing + reading some more. I spent most of the time on the porch swing outside my studio. It was one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever worked. Mostly it was completely still and silent, but the gentle chatter of birdsong and gurgle of river-boats was my soundtrack, while the little anole lizards were my reading companions. During this quiet time at ASITW I made a lot of drawings and organised my research – focusing on the city and its relationship with the river, both through the slow processes of geologic time and the rapid changes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But of course there’s no way to completely remove yourself from reality, so I had to spend some time on all my other projects. I tried to limit that as much as possible.

Active Research = site visits + meetings + expeditions around the city + expeditions further afield. ASITW introduced me to several specialists in different fields who were gracious enough to meet with me. Daniel Etheridge (geographer, Tulane University) brought me on an ecosystem tour of the places where architecture and ecology meet in New Orleans; Alex Kolker (scientist, LUMCON) gave me a tour of his research facility in Cocodrie and, using Google Earth, we flew over his research sites in the delta before he sent me out into the salt marsh in a canoe; Captain Richie Blink brought me out in his flat-bottomed boat for a tour of abandoned forts along the Mississippi River and oil and gas fields in Venice, Louisiana. Richie grew up not far from Venice, in a town called Empire. He’s seen first hand how the land is disappearing, and has undertaken coastal restoration work in an effort to try and slow the inevitable.

Almost as soon as I arrived, I realised that I needed to see the landscape from the air. After visiting the water’s edge with Monique and Richie I realised how fundamental an aerial view was to my understanding of what was happening. The land is literally disappearing in Louisiana. Since the 1920s, oil and gas companies have been dredging access canals without any foresight, and the salt water has steadily moved in, claiming thousands of acres of land every year. During my residency, I had a palpable sense of the tragedy unfolding throughout the state. Some experts say that within 50 years there will be no land south of Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get up in a plane during my residency.

At a time when ‘peak water’ is increasingly an issue, the Ebb and Flow Residency (as they call it) is an important programme for looking at this fundamental problem. It is vital that we have places such as ASITW where people can spend focused time investigating these issues. It was the ideal location for me to contemplate water, the river, the city and our place within it, the relationship between natural and man-made, the geological history and the future.

During my residency I gave a talk on my work at NOMA and out of that came two exciting projects: NOMA’s curator, Miranda Lash, invited me to create a new work for the Great Hall – the main lobby of the Museum; Rebecca Snedeker invited me to make drawings for the forthcoming book that she’s editing for Rebecca Solnit entitled Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (a companion to Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas). Over a Valentine’s Day dinner with the two Rebeccas, we talked about the infinite ways that water is connected to life in the city and, as a special treat, Rebecca Solnit showed us her beautiful photographs from a recent trip to the Arctic.

A Studio in the Woods, New Orleans

My residency overlapped with the start of Mardi Gras season, a month-long party that locals spend the rest of the year planning for. For one week of my residency, I stayed in an apartment on the edge of the French Quarter. I went from the quiet solitude of the forest to the charm of $5 Bacon Bloody Marys, free crayfish and jazz. Before I went to New Orleans I’d heard about the large parades of Rex and Proteus, which are also the oldest, but my favourite parade was T-Rex, one of the newest and definitely the smallest parade. The floats are the size of shoeboxes and are pulled through the streets on strings with fairy lights illuminating their tiny stages.

Now I’m back in my New York studio and busy with all my other projects. I’m making three new works for a group exhibition at the Storm King Art Center and I start installing tomorrow. After that opens in May I’ll fly south to prepare for my solo exhibition at NOMA. I’m excited to get back to New Orleans and can’t wait to get up in a little airplane to fly down the river and see Google Earth come to life.


Katie Holten is an artist currently based in New York. She represented Ireland at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. Her exhibition will run in NOMA from 15 June – 9 September 2012.

A Studio in the Woods is currently accepting applications for residencies in 2013.

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