By Ula Ilnytzky
Coke Wisdom O'Neal looked at the soggy, stained and discolored photographs strewn about his Brooklyn studio by the salty floodwaters of Superstorm Sandy, sure there was nothing he could do to salvage them. But as he began cleaning up, he became intrigued by the transformation of a series of old family slides into cloud-like watercolors with human figures still discernible.
Now those Kodachromes, reinvented by nature, are part of an exhibition in Manhattan of art inspired by Sandy, a phenomenon that is being included in a larger look at how artists respond creatively to disasters, such as the 2011 tornado in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and California's devastating 2007 wildfires.
"The storm destroyed tools, books, old artwork, drawings and unfinished work," said O'Neal, whose studio inBrooklyn's Red Hook section was swamped by 9 feet of water. "They now feel to me like objects that were holding me back from going forward."
The "After Affects" exhibition, featuring 36 storm-inspired works by 23 artists, opens Friday at the Chashama gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood. The show is curated by the New York Foundation for the Arts, which is assisting artists whose livelihoods suffered storm losses. Many studios and galleries were in waterfront warehouse areas that suffered some of the worst damage.
"A tragedy can be inspiring or devastating," said David Terry, the foundation's curator and director of programs. "Artists are rebuilding and have to do this as a healing process."
Some works have repurposed storm detritus; Scott Van Campen made a black-and-white photograph of a 700-ton tanker ship that washed ashore near his flooded Staten Island studio. He set it in a frame made of steel corroded by sewage.
Deborah Luken, of the Long Island community of Long Beach, is showing an oil painting that she started before the storm and "took on a life of its own."
Conceived originally as an image of a spiral galaxy, it evolved into a work depicting the storm when she "realized that the patterns were very similar to that of a hurricane — the eye in the center and the spiral winds around it," she said.
Craig Nutt, director of programs for the Craft Emergency Relief Fund, a national nonprofit that helps artists in need, said he has long been intrigued by the art community's response to disaster.
"Artists and arts organizations have the skills and capacity to craft recovery projects that address the less tangible cultural and psychological recovery needs of a community," Nutt wrote in an email, citing concerts, exhibitions and public art.
In the past year, Nutt's group has begun collecting stories like those and plans to post them soon on its Studio Protector website in the hopes of inspiring arts organizations to do the same after future disasters.
After a tornado blew down thousands of homes in Tuscaloosa, resident and nonprofit program manager Jean Mills launched "Beauty Amid Destruction," a public art project featuring banners installed along the debris field. About 50 artists nationwide donated works, something Mills said helped some local artists "jump-start their energy."
"It gave the notion that there was a gift out there in the landscape," she said. "It said art has a place in the recovery."
Devastating wildfires in Southern California in 2007 were the impetus for Art from the Ashes, a group started by artist Joy Feuer. It collects disaster debris and encourages artists to turn twisted metal, wood, glass and ash into sculptures, paintings and ceramics.
For John Gordon Gauld, a Brooklyn artist whose still life depicting the remnants of his flooded studio is featured in "After Affects," making sense of the loss of materials and works to the storm means embracing it.
"In the post-storm work, there is this sense of nature taking back the objects that I've collected," Gauld said.
O'Neal is still rebuilding his studio but simultaneously readying his psychedelic-like watercolors, which he compares to Andy Warhol's abstract oxidation paintings, for a solo exhibition in March at Mixed Greens gallery in Chelsea.
"Prior to the storm I was experimenting with working in abstraction, but was questioning my motives," O'Neal said. "Sandy gave me the opportunity to take the leap."