> I am an art teacher in Philadelphia and recently made a trip to the
> Astrodome to set up an impromptu art area for the evacuated
> children. I wrote an essay and have photos and video of the
> Art at the Astrodome
> By Rachelle A. Omenson
> September 6, 2005
> 10,000 people, one stadium, and nothing to do. I have a hard time
> waiting between commercials for a television show to come back on.
> It seemed unimaginable that these patient people might have to wait
> months, god forbid years, to regain some structure in their lives.
> Of course, after wading in contaminated water or clinging
> helplessly to your roof shingles, boredom and rest are welcome
> However, children bounce back quicker than some adults. Or at least
> they may not realize the depth of the disaster that they have just
> survived until they are much older and those shadowed images creep
> back into consciousness. It was the children who ran giggling and
> racing up and down the aisles of cots at the Reliant Astrodome in
> Houston, yelling back to their mothers and fathers, “I’m right
> here!” Their energy seemed boundless even in the face of tragedy.
> If there were no images to go with these jubilant yells, it might
> be another birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese or McDonald’s
> Playland. At those venues, however, the kids are whisked back into
> the minivans stuffed with too much pizza and sugar. Here amid
> relief workers, chronically ill elders, hundreds of police, and
> exhausted parents, the children only have their nylon cots to go
> back to.
> And that gets boring.
> I wondered on the Friday night after Katrina hit New Orleans, what
> people could possibly do to help those in need since donations were
> no longer needed. Literally, tons of food, water, and clothing had
> been donated and were being sorted through on the loading dock
> behind the Reliant Center in Houston, Texas. Hundreds of volunteers
> were continually needed around the clock but I didn’t know
> specifically what I could possibly do.
> 6am Saturday morning, I decided not to wonder anymore. There was no
> plan to this plan because if the fuzzy logic of it didn’t work, I
> was out hundreds of dollars and a whole lot of wasted Labor Day
> Let me back up for a second. For two years, I have been enrolled as
> a graduate student in an Art Education program in Philadelphia. For
> two years, I have heard the mantra of world-based art, art
> criticism, art history, and the ever-popular art production. Art
> therapy is an entirely different field; one that requires extensive
> psychology-based training. I apologize now to the true
> practitioners in that field because I temporarily faked being one
> of you. But I swear it was worth it.
> I took the first flight to Houston on Saturday afternoon and rented
> a car. The rental car agent gave me directions to the Astrodome and
> I flew down the Texas highways toward the stadium. After being
> hustled around to the correct door of the Reliant Center, where the
> volunteers apply (apparently the west door), I hurried up the
> escalator toting a carry-on size piece of luggage containing dollar-
> store versions of sketchpads, crayons, markers, and stickers. The
> volunteers giving out the volunteer wristbands slapped a peach
> colored plastic band on my wrist and sent me off. I was supposed to
> sit through a short orientation lecture but I was only going to be
> there for 2 days and I didn’t want to waste time before being
> allowed into the Astrodome. I crossed the street and confidently
> told the guard at the gate that I was the volunteer art therapist.
> Clearly this sounded logical because she yelled over to the other
> gatekeeper, “Open that gate over there, the art therapist is here.”
> Okay, that actually worked.
> I walked through and just looked down. It didn’t even look like
> people, just a slightly moving carpet of rectangles. I was slightly
> concerned that I would be caught as some art fraud so I quickly
> moved away from the guards but realized that everyone involved in
> this drama was happy to have anything positive happening at all.
> And how can art not be positive.
> I wandered through the darker concourses where typically during an
> event at the Astrodome people would be buying popcorn, hotdogs, and
> beverages. But now, cots lined the walls, crowded by precious
> possessions and newly acquired relief items like clothes and shoes.
> It was darker up here in the concourse, not like the eternal
> daytime of the floor of the stadium. Even at 11pm, when the lights
> dim, it’s not really dark.
> “Hello, I’m the wandering art teacher. Does anyone want to draw?” I
> said to the first awake group of kids I saw lounging on the cots up
> there. Surprisingly, they ran over to a nearby table laden with
> packaged snack food, and slid them aside as I removed boxes of
> crayons and markers from my vest and sketch pads and construction
> paper from the wheeled luggage. They never asked why I was there.
> They never said they were too tired to draw anything. They never
> looked suspiciously at me for one minute. They only asked if I also
> had any clay. In a fluorescently lit, dirty concourse in section
> 432, we set up art class. They called me teacher and raised their
> hands when I asked them questions. They signed all of their artwork
> and volunteered endless information about their experiences in New
> Orleans. I asked them to draw whatever they wanted and not
> surprisingly most of them drew houses, specifically houses
> surrounded by water. A fifteen-year-old girl, Sjor’Monique
> Windbush, drew a sign of sorts. In different colored bubble
> letters, it says From our New Orleans home to the Astrodome…Because
> of Hurricane Katrina. And it has the official hurricane symbol
> underneath. The back is signed with her name, age, and refugee of
> New Orleans, La. A few of the others drew before and after images
> of their homes. The after images not only contained swirling water
> marks but also mean-looking sharks and snakes and suns with sad
> faces. Apparently, there was a rampant rumor that the aquarium in
> New Orleans was going to burst and man-eating animals were suddenly
> going to be freed and swimming into their homes and streets.
> When it became too late that first evening and I didn’t want to
> bother sleeping residents, I went back to the hotel across the
> street and sat momentarily shocked at what I felt. In three more
> days, I was scheduled to begin student teaching at an elementary
> school in Pennsylvania. How on earth am I in Texas?
> The next morning, I stopped at Target to get the requested clay and
> with my wristband wandered straight through those gates and down
> onto the stadium floor. This time I carried with me a neon pink
> piece of poster board and wrote “The Art Room” on it, duct-taped it
> to the suitcase handle, and spread the supplies onto a large open
> space on the floor. Virtually seconds later, some children were
> standing there with gigantic eyes wanting to touch everything. But
> they didn’t. They asked first. Just like in school. And again, they
> called me teacher. They drew houses again, But they drew spiderman
> too. And the real little kids drew swirly stuff that could’ve been
> water, but it could have been their mom. It didn’t really matter.
> They molded clay into crosses, into balls, and into snake shapes.
> And they did one thing that is rare even in the most well stocked
> art room. They cleaned up. It was like they needed structure in a
> sea of chaos. A 15 year old boy, Alferd, took 3 more cots and
> arranged them in a u-shape in front of the piece of luggage with
> the sign and created a squared off area for creating art. Another
> 10 year old girl, grabbed a broom and started sweeping when the
> crayons got out of control within the square. I picked up my video
> camera and recorded a 9-year old girl saying, “I’m Sh’anta, I’m in
> art class and I like it.”
> For the rest of Sunday afternoon, we all stayed in and around the
> square in the center of the Astrodome. A choir showed up to stand
> in the bleachers and sing for two hours. In our square, there were
> colors, there was music, there were imaginary houses, and there was
> a teacher here. So it was ok. For Sunday afternoon.
> Rachelle Omenson
> ~~it's turtles all the way down~~