Rock Star – Connie Born, artist
Inspired by Rush’s Neil Peart.
Not long ago, I ran into artist Connie Born’s husband, Dean, at an event and he extended a hand to me, saying, “I cannot begin to tell you how excited Connie is to be part of the Hope for Habitat: Katrina X exhibit. She’s got her fire back.”
When Hurricane Katrina hit Slidell in 2005, it took with it Connie’s entire business, her livelihood. She put her heart and soul into her Mardi Gras MisChief Creations, unique celebrations of New Orleans culture that had amassed a national, even international, following.
But in a single night, Katrina took all of that away. And so much more. The storm stripped away her inner spirit, her joie de vivre. She was broken.
At the time Katrina hit, both Dean and I worked for the City of Slidell, he as the Director of Building Permits and Inspections, and I as the city’s Media Specialist in the Department of Cultural & Public Affairs. While he was charged with the daunting task of ensuring that the massive rebuilding efforts were completed to code, it was my department’s challenge to keep citizens informed, and to rebuild people emotionally and spiritually. Slowly but surely, this was achieved through the arts, through moments of normalcy amidst the chaos.
That’s not to say there were times we weren’t ready to give up. There were days it seemed like the devastation was insurmountable.
Everywhere we turned, there were mounds of debris, tattered homes fragmented families and broken hearts. We fought many demons, wondering if rebuilding was the right thing to do, or if it was time to close the door and move on to the next chapters of our lives.
For Connie, this meant abandonment of the art she dearly loved.
It would be nine years before she returned to creating. And, as it turned out, it would be the invitation to be part of the Hope for Habitat: Katrina X exhibit that provided the catharsis she needed to heal.
“She’s back,” Dean stated, “and she’s having a great time! So thank you for this opportunity.”
When asked of what she would like to create for the exhibit, Connie immediately replied, “A Rock Star.” A huge fan of Rush’s Neil Peart, it was the legendary drummer who inspired the design her Katrina X creation.
As has been the case with the recent Beatles Adventures, it would seem the stars had once again aligned.
We learned that Rush would be performing in New Orleans just weeks after she completed her Rock Star MisChief Creation. So naturally, we had to go for the long shot and see if her favorite drummer would add a signature to the piece as a show of support for the artist and the cause.
The outreach has begun, and we are eagerly awaiting what will hopefully be the “yes” that will, quite literally, rock Connie’s Rock Star creation.
For Connie, it will mark the final farewell to the demons of Katrina, and a celebration of a new beginning.
August 29, 2005, was a very important date on my calendar at the Mardi Gras MisChief Art Gallery & Studio. It was the date I eagerly had awaited for over fifteen months. Eighteen months earlier, Southern Living magazine had in hand a feature article written by one of the magazine’s writers who had visited my shop, and it sat in wait for a special photographer from New York, an expert in capturing color, who was scheduled to fly into New Orleans on that August day.
In preparation for the Southern Living photo shoot, I had over 450 creations displayed, patiently awaiting their magazine debut.
I remember locking the door to the gallery on Friday, August 26, with a second glance back to make sure that everything was in order for Monday.
Like many, I felt that the storm would blow east or west of us, as hurricanes often have. By contrast, my husband and son diligently prepared to evacuate if necessary. But evacuation wasn’t on my mind. I had been through many hurricanes since moving to Slidell in 1981, and my home was always high and dry. Even though in the past I had taken the precaution of moving the Mardi Gras MisChief shop contents up to high spots in the gallery, I had not done so this time. After all, the Gallery was housed in a pretty stout little structure built in 1940, and according to our landlord, there had never been so much as an inch of flood water in it before.
As Saturday passed, my husband and son continued to work on boarding the house and packing the van. I remember being pretty calm through all of it. I just knew I couldn’t leave. I had the much anticipated photographer arriving in a few days.
We soon learned that the airport was shutting down, so that arrival might not happen as planned. As Sunday rolled around, my husband was ushering two boxes with our most precious items to the van. He picked up our fluffy Persian cat and told me it was time to go. So here was this big, strong, tough man with a “foo foo” cat tucked under his arm, telling me it we needed to leave. It was then that the reality of the situation hit me, and I took it quite seriously.
I didn’t know it at the time, but life was about to take a turn down a path over which I had no control.
In 1981, I was in the city of Grand Island, Nebraska when nine tornadoes hit that town in two hours. So I am no stranger to chaos caused by natural disasters. But Hurricane Katrina was about to kick it to a different level. We evacuated to El Dorado, Arkansas, the closest place in which we could find an available motel room. We were able to stay there for only two days, as the facility had a previously booked convention arriving. So we made our way to Atlanta to meet up with fellow evacuees.
At the time, Dean was the City of Slidell’s director of permits and inspections, charged as the building official, so he had orders from the Mayor to return to Slidell as soon as the storm had passed. So we headed back home in a convoy, joined by a retired assistant chief of police and other city employees. While in Atlanta, we had seen on the news that the twin spans of the interstate connecting Slidell to New Orleans had been taken out by the storm, so we knew it was bad.
My family made it home and we were so grateful that our house had not flooded, though we could barely see it through the downed trees. Several trees had fallen on our house, so we had a few holes to patch. Both the garage and my husband’s workshop flooded, but the house was basically unscathed. We felt blessed, thinking that because the house had fared well, I could assume the same of the gallery.
It would be a couple of days before we made our way through the rubble into the downtown area to check on the gallery. As I was walking up to the door, I realized that things were not okay inside. The building had taken in 58 inches of water and raw city sewage had backed up into it. Everything from one side of the building had floated to the other side. Though 2582 Front Street was five miles north of Lake Pontchartrain and on the fringe of Olde Towne Slidell, it had been submerged by the unprecedented storm surge.
The days and weeks ahead were just awful. It wasn’t long before mold began to grow throughout the gallery. It was so bad, so overwhelming, that that we could spend only a few hours a day in there sifting through the remains.
Everything was lost. Three computers, five sewing machines, all of our paper files. Bolts of fabric, buttons, feathers and far too many other items were all just shoveled to the street. I had placed my backup disks on top of the refrigerator, which as it turned out was a bad idea, as it probably was the first thing that tipped over in the water. All of my photographs of past creations were lost–the only archive I had left was the one at the Library of Congress with my copyrights.
Our patented, one-of-a-kind stuffing machine was full of water, along with our jig fabric cutter. All of the fantastic little Cajun houses my husband had built to house the dolls were destroyed. I walked away from the building with four dolls, a few rolls of leather and small bits of fabric that had been stored up high.
While my husband was working long days establishing the City’s makeshift FEMA “trailer city,” I was pretty much dazed, as were so many of our residents. My son and I were just trying to survive at home like everyone else. With many businesses closed for months after the storm, we would drive to the nearby emergency relief site staged in the Walmart parking lot to pick up military MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) and ice. The City did an excellent job of feeding its employees during their extended hours on the job, but at home we were on our own for the next several months. Neighbors all came together and tried to help each other out. Our cell phones didn’t work, we had no visual media and relied on our generators a few hours each evening to enable us to keep up with the news via the Emergency Broadcast System.
When schools reopened and my son returned, I began volunteering with Operation Blessing, a relief organization that had set up services in Slidell. Two weeks into such, I was offered a job as the organization’s public liaison and assistant to the project manager. It was concurrently ironic and comforting that I could somehow fill the void of losing my gallery by helping others.
This, along with my work as a board member for the St. Tammany Convention and Tourist Commission, helped me fill my days. My joy of creating my artwork seemed far behind me.
Not long after the storm, I was contacted by the House of Blues in New Orleans, as well as a large insurance company up north, each of which wanted me to create again for them. It was painful, but I had to turn them both down. With all that was going on, it seemed like an impossible task at that time to even consider starting again. The area didn’t even have the supplies I needed. Months turned to years and my heart still had not healed. My spirit was broken.
Over time, the people of our hard hit community came together and did what needed to be done to rebuild. It took me just a little bit longer to rebuild myself.
It would be nine years until I could consider creating again, with a little encouragement from my family. My father back in Nebraska had a stroke, and spent his 81st birthday in the hospital. Dad has always been a fighter, and upon leaving the hospital he was determined to rehab and regain the use of his right side. Through that process my stepmother encouraged me to make a few dolls, one for her and one for my stepsister. But my tipping point came when my father made a phone call to me in Louisiana. I remember exactly what he said.
“Do you know what I want for my 82nd birthday?”
Well, no I didn’t, as in all of his 81 years, he never had asked me for a thing.
He then challenged me, saying that if he could fight his way back from his stroke his daughter could fight her way back to creating MisChief again. He asked me to make him a “Johnny Rodgers” MisChief Doll for his birthday. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers is my father’s all-time favorite Nebraska Huskers player.
I made him that doll, and then created an additional one for Johnny Rodgers. Johnny smiled when he received his and called to personally thank me. That did it for me, when I realized I could still make people smile!
The MisChief was back and on January 1, 2015, I began creating again.
On August 29th, 2015, I vowed to finally put Hurricane Katrina to rest.
She had kicked me hard and had held me down for way too long. I shared in the healing process with the rest of the Slidell community on the tenth anniversary of Katrina, letting go of the stories, and putting the storm behind us for good.
Each member of our community shares a common bond that we did not have before August 29, 2005. Her name is Katrina. She has made us stronger, kinder and better people than we were before. We share a common commitment to heal our hearts and the hearts of those around us.
Because of Katrina, I am a stronger person today. My art reflects a slightly different look, as I am bolder and more courageous. I am coloring outside the lines more frequently and thinking outside the box.
I am Connie Born, and my art is Mardi Gras MisChief Creations. Let the MisChief and revelry begin anew.
See more of Connie’s work at Facebook.com/MardiGrasMisChiefCreations.