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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

"Hurricane Story" is published in hardcover by Chin Music Press.

In Arts & Entertainment

Jen Shaw's "cell phone self portrait."

"Hurricane Story" documents close escape from Katrina


"Hurricane Story" is a small hardcover book about the size of a 45 rpm and it sings a unique visual song about one family's Katrina experience.

In 46 photographic tableux with brief captions, Milwaukee's Jennifer Shaw, who now lives in New Orleans, explains the just-in-the-nick-of-time escape she and her husband made from the city the day before the hurricane hit.

"Hurricane Story" is published in hardcover ($18) by Chin Music Press.

The same day Katrina arrived in New Orleans, the couple's son was born, in exile, in Alabama.

The first of the pictures Shaw shot with her Holga, depicts the back end of a red toy pickup. "We left in the dark of night," reads the first caption. The photographs are blurry and recount the story of Shaw's escape, the birth of her son, their trek around the country and, finally, the family's return home.

"It started with the idea, inspired by comics and graphic novels, knowing that in this instance words had to be involved for me to best communicate the story," Shaw recalls of the birth of "Hurricane Story."

"I began playing around with some little objects I had on hand – testing out the camera – and I liked what I got enough to start searching out additional toys. It flowed pretty organically, the sentences and images coming together to inform and support each other."

She says that it took her some time to be able to get to an emotional place that allowed her to process what had happened to her adopted city and to create these images. She initially shot more documentary-style photographs of the aftermath of the disaster and that, she said, led her to realize she needed to tell her own "Katrina tale."

Those "real" photographs also led her to the toys and to these images, which are a rollercoaster ride between playful and sinister, haunting and joyous. They allowed her to some distance.

"I wasn't really conscious of it while I was creating the images, but yes," she says, "I wouldn't have wanted to use "real" photographs – that would have been much too personal."

And the blur that fogs each photo?

"Much of that time remains a hazy," says Shaw. "But there are also some very vivid memories, and those were the ones I started with. The soft tunnel vision felt perfect for evoking the surreal dream/nightmare qualities of the experience."

I found just one line of text that ran more than 10 words. Despite the brevity and the presence of toys in the images, it's hard not to feel the emotion in "Hurricane Story." Certainly, it's because we all saw the footage on television and the disaster photos in the newspapers.

But, Shaw's personality permeates the work, too.

About halfway through, when Shaw and her husband and newborn son have taken their "hurricane sideshow on the run," trying to find a place to stay until they can return to New Orleans, she writes, "I'll confess that fall was beautiful."

I ask her if that "confession" is a manifestation of a survivor's guilt about making it out of New Orleans before Katrina came ashore.

"Yes, as well as for having the good fortune being in a space – physically and
emotionally – where we could recognize beauty again," she says.

"That's actually my Wisconsin picture. It was inspired by a moment in Door County, driving up Highway 57 with a canopy of red and gold leaves overhead and a bright blue sky above. Beautiful. And as I looked up and really savored the scene, I had the realization that this was the first time since leaving New Orleans that I had momentarily lost track of the worries and misery to see that there was still beauty to be found in the world."

Shaw says that while she was in Wisconsin, New Orleans never left her mind, but coming back provided a welcome respite.

"We had the grand idea that turning our forced exile into a big road trip would be fun. My father has a cottage in Jacksonport, so we spent some time there in mid-October. Katrina was never far from our minds, but being in Door County, utterly unplugged and away from all the bad news for a while, was a great thing."

But that didn't last long.

Photo 27: "The gypsy life was harder on the cats."

Photo 28: "My husband turned into a freak."

Photo 29: "Violent fantasies ensued."

Although they experienced some trepidation about returning to New Orleans so soon
afterward, especially with a newborn, Shaw says they were pulled back by the lure of home.

"Those concerns were overwhelmed by our desire to get back and start the rebuilding. We did not take him out further than our neighborhood for many months, with all the fear of toxic mold spores and such. There was no flooding in our neighborhood – just wind damage – so everything we had to do to put the pieces back felt pretty small compared to what most people here were faced with."

Photo 37: "Mice had moved into the kitchen."

Photo 40: "Tanks in the streets soon seemed normal."

Photo 42: "It was months till the phone was restored."

But life did begin to return to something like normal for Shaw and her family and for New Orleans.

Photo 43: "Slowly our friends trickled back."

Photo 44: "We got a new roof before Christmas."

Photo 45: "Mardi Gras was amazing."

"Having a project to focus my energy on was a great way to rise above the fear and anxiety," says Shaw.

"I was – quite literally – playing with toys. When making this work things were still in a tentative state as far as the future of New Orleans was concerned, and I'm not sure how others without a creative outlet made it through. I did not create it specifically for (her son) Claudio, but I expect that someday he will find it fascinating – or perhaps horrifying? – to see his birth story depicted in this way."

If you see Shaw's personal, yet universal, chronicle, I suspect that you, like I, will guess "fascinating."


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