An Artist Aground

After Katrina, the only thing Maryland-born Jonathan Ferrara is sure of is that the arts in New Orleans will rise again.

September 29, 2005|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN REPORTER

Jonathan Ferrara has never had much trouble filling life's canvas.

When, for instance, he grew disillusioned with the corporate world, Ferrara quit his job as an executive fundraiser and sold his sports car to finance a new life as an artist in New Orleans.

When he needed space to exhibit his paintings, he used his living room, then became a partner in a gallery, then turned a building in the city's down-and-out warehouse district into a thriving contemporary arts center.

Twelve years after reinventing himself, Ferrara was a gallery owner, an innkeeper and a colorful and driving force in New Orleans' up-and-coming visual arts scene.

Hurricane Katrina wiped that canvas nearly clean, and it left Ferrara - a man who has gone about life in bold brushstrokes since graduating from Towson High School 20 years ago - unsure what to do next.

"I'm lost," Ferrara said - uncharacteristic, according to those who know him - after he evacuated to Maryland earlier this month.

After 10 days at his mother's home in Havre de Grace, Ferrara, his thoughts partially collected, headed back to New Orleans.

His first attempt to enter the city last week was thwarted by the National Guard and Hurricane Rita, but Ferrara was back in his home this week, covering the hole in his roof with blue tarp, planning repairs to his art gallery and hoping to reopen his inn.

Any plans are tenuous, he realizes, as reflected in a things-to-do list he e-mailed yesterday: "Fix holes in gallery building, open bar, rent out inn rooms, drink a lot, smoke cigarettes, drink some more, and see how things progress."

He knows a long road and some lean times are ahead - especially for New Orleans' artists, some of whom lost their studios in the flooding.

"Only about 2 percent of visual artists actually make a living from their artwork," Ferrara said. "These are people who were often living on the edge anyway. The long and short of it is, they're not going to be selling their art in New Orleans."

Once they regain their focus and find a new place to work, many still will have no place to sell their product. When residents start returning, Ferrara noted, buying art will not likely be among their priorities.

For some artists, that could mean giving up their creative pursuits, at least temporarily, to pay the bills; or relocating permanently to a new town - something Ferrara refuses to consider.

After getting settled in Havre de Grace, Ferrara tracked down the artists he represents and exhibits. All were alive, though they were scattered around the country. He dropped in at a Baltimore Red Cross office, where he was handed $300 and given vaccinations for tetanus and hepatitis. And a few days later, he was headed back to New Orleans.

Originally, it was to be a visit, a chance to assess the damage to his properties. But, somewhere along the way, Ferrara decided he was going home for good - to play a part in rebuilding the city and ensure that the arts are part of its rebirth.

"The arts are really what made New Orleans the place that it is," he said, "and the place that it needs to be again."

Before the storm

As Hurricane Katrina was gaining power in the gulf the Friday night before it hit, Ferrara was playing board games with a friend. Saturday morning, he saw on TV that it was headed straight for New Orleans. His intention was to stay and ride it out.

He worked all day boarding up his properties - his Royal Street Inn, his house and the gallery that bears his name, where he tried to move all the art that wasn't on the walls upstairs. He bought water and some peanut butter and jelly to get him through the storm.

On Sunday morning, his girlfriend called. She had evacuated to Houston. "Get out of there now!" she said.

Ferrara, 38, nailed more plywood on the inn, sandbagged the entrance to the gallery and grabbed a computer, some clothes and his dog, a Labrador mix named Goatee.

"The mentality was, we'll be back in a couple of days," he said.

He drove to Baton Rouge - normally a trip of 90 minutes, it took seven hours - and spent four days at a friend's house. Then he drove to Houston and stayed with his girlfriend's family before deciding to fly to Maryland. At every stop, he waited for word on his properties.

"For that whole first week, there was just no information," he said. Later, a friend called to let him know that his house, inn and gallery were still standing.

Luckier yet, none had been looted - not even the inn's bar, on the edge of the French Quarter. "I didn't figure art would be high on the looting list," he said.

Ferrara said that while some artists' studios were underwater, many of the galleries - located, like most of the city's museums, on higher ground - were not seriously harmed.

"I have a little bit of guilt that I actually have something to go back to," he said earlier this month. "A lot of people don't have anything to go back to."

While he hadn't lost his property, Ferrara, at that point, still feared he had lost his city, and, as a result, his future.

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