Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Brad Benischek

By Jane Ciabattari

This is the eighth in our occasional series about New Orleans writers. It's hard to judge how many writers have been displaced, dislocated and disoriented by Katrina and aftermath. Brad Benischek is an artist whose “post-disaster graphic novel of sorts,” titled “Revacuation,” depicts animal/human figures and blockheaded bureaucrats rebuilding New Orleans. Brad, his wife, writer Anne Gisleson, and sons Silas and Otto live in the Bywater district of New Orleans, where they founded an arts-oriented small press after Katrina. The first publication was “Intersection New Orleans,” which linked 25 artists with 25 writers at 25 intersections in the city post-Katrina. New Orleans Times-Picayune book editor Susan Larson called it “a striking reminder of the collisions of cultures that shape our city, especially the present moment, poised as we are at the corner of Past & Future.” Larson continued, “Diego Larguia's painting of Chartres & Ursulines is a perfect match for the interrupted peace of Andrei Codrescu's Sunday morning. Brad Benischek's jangly, busy depiction of St. Bernard & Claiborne complements Anne Gisleson's tale of 'This and That Salvage.'And Tom Varisco's visual directions to the Cafe du Monde are the cream for the coffee of Martin Pousson's poem 'The Fear of Tides,' about whiling away the hours at the corner of St. Ann & Decatur while the water is all around us.” I asked Brad a few questions just before the book was launched on June 1, the day that marked the advent of the 2007 hurricane season.

Q.How are you feeling about the coming of another hurricane season?

A.Last year's season very quiet, but they're predicting a lot of activity in the Gulf this year. We live in the upper Ninth Ward in the lucky 20 percent of the city that did not flood (“The Sliver by the River”), but when the Army Corps of Engineers “repaired” the Industrial Canal breach about a mile from our house, the one that inundated the Lower Ninth Ward, they built the floodwall higher on that side so if it overtops, the water will most likely flood our neighborhood this time. I've got a wife, a one year old and an eight year old, so the decision to go or stay isn't very complicated, but having to prepare and structure your life around the possibility of leaving can be stressful. Hurricane season has always been part of
life here but nowhere near the prominence it's had since 2005. It's been elevated to a part of our cultural consciousness, like Carnival season or Jazzfest, only without the fun.

Q. What were the first signs for you that 2005 would be rough? Where were you
during Katrina? Rita? In the months after?

A. Looking back, we all should've known something big was going happen when it snowed on Christmas day in New Orleans in 2004.

We left at the last minute on Sunday evening before Katrina made landfall, drove to Tuscaloosa and met up with some of my wife's family there. They had some friends who had some friends who ran a church camp. We all slept in a huge Quonset hut gymnasium but the storm came up that far and we lost power. When we realized the levees had broken and we wouldn't be able to return to New Orleans, we drove across Mississippi and Louisiana, around downed trees on the highway, to Houston and met up with my parents.My brother was getting married in Alaska that weekend so we headed up there. A week later we were back in Texas and just kept driving west to visit friends and to keep moving. We were in LA for Rita. That's where I started “Revacuation,” which was just a sketch book, a way for me to respond imaginatively to what was happening. When I think about the word revacuation now,it's about leaving and coming back and that time, I really wanted to go home.

We came back as soon as our neighborhood was legally reopened, the first week of October. It was a completely surreal environment. We had no power because of the pecan tree that fell and hit our house and the neighborhood was mostly empty. Our six year old was like a rock star because he was one of the few children around, the military presence was heavy, there were fires almost every night. General despair and shock. And my wife was pregnant.

A year later, we had a new baby, a new literary and visual arts collective, Press Street, we had put out the book of collaborations featuring 25 local artists and 25 local writers. There is an unbelievable amount of activity in this town now as it tries to rebuild. The people here seem very invested and there's been a groundswell of civic activism. Since there's no leadership coming from the government at any level, people are just making things happen on their own.

Q. How did “Revacuation” evolve?

A. When we returned to New Orleans, I got into the rhythm of working on houses during the week and on Saturday mornings going to the one coffee shop open in the area and drawing the weekly outrages. The images are stream-of-consciousness pen and ink, including misspellings and scratchouts, because these were immediate reactions to absurd events. I finished it on the one-year anniversary of the hurricane.

Q. I'd be interested in why you chose to use the graphic image of birds to
reflect evacuees and returnees.

A. While it was an obvious intuitive choice,these birds have one arm and
one wing, making their progress in the world somewhat frustrated.

Q. How have you adjusted in the post-Katrina world.? With the publication of this book, what memories are most prominent?

A. Luckily, the film industry returned to Louisiana and I've been steadily employed as a scenic painter; my wife kept her job and the house was more or less fine. We are true exceptions in a town of severe upheaval. We feel extremely lucky and have had the opportunity to work on all kinds of community-based art events and other things. But even two years out, there's demolition happening all over town and
our friends continue to leave for Functionburgh. Loss and renewal have become our life.

The most prominent memories that resurge with the publication of “Revacuation” are the initial visceral despair and then giddy hope that big, positive changes to this already troubled town were on the way and then the extreme disappointment and frustration that a lot of people in power weren't willing to step up to the demands of the reconstruction. But also the generosity and friends and strangers showed us and continue to show us.

Q. How is the Bywater doing these days?

A. It's up and down. There are a lot of amazing artists, writers,performers and individuals who live here and are making it an interesting and vibrant place to live. But because it was unflooded, there are also divisive real estate developments in the works. It's become some sort of petri dish for developers. And unfortunately crime is still a big issue.

Q. How has Katrina changed your creative life? Your personal life? Your plans for the future?

A. It's given my work a more social focus and a more sympathetic view of the world. A much more intense connection to the community and landscape. We're in the middle of a huge narrative that needs to be explored and communicated to the outside world.

The future? We plan to stay and raise our kids here, because despite everything it's an extraordinary place and my wife and I have a lot of family here, who are also dedicated to the city. We plan to keep making books and art and to help out wherever we can.