Finding inspiration in Hurricane Irene

Published 12:20 am Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hurricane Irene-inspired art on display at River Walk Gallery: “I survived Irene” ceramic magnets by Carolyn Sleeper (right) and a mixed media piece called “Old Second Street” by Val MacEwan. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

To be an artist is to seek inspiration from the physical world — inspiration in those moments that catch the eye and capture the imagination.

It could be light falling through a window or the splash of a red barn in a frost-covered field. It could be rising floodwaters, ferocious winds and driving rain; or no electricity and trees toppling onto power lines and through roofs. The source of inspiration just might be Hurricane Irene.

Hurricane Irene roared through eastern North Carolina on Aug. 27, leaving a wake of destruction and creation behind. The destruction was evident during, and in the days after, the storm. The creation is quietly making its way into the galleries and exhibits of downtown Washington.

In River Walk Gallery, the back wall of the main gallery is dedicated to “Hurricane Irene Inspired Art.” The theme is evident, and while there seems to a common thread of round, chaotic movement in the artwork displayed, the mediums differ greatly. Among the art displayed are a quilt, watercolors, three-dimensional mixed-media pieces, a bowl of tiny handmade worry dolls and the more whimsical ceramic magnets bearing a swirl and the claim “I survived Irene.”

“The idea was floating around to make art during Irene,” said Carolyn Sleeper, creator of the Irene magnets. “But during the storm, all I could think about was surviving it.”

Afterwards, she shaped the miniature hurricane magnets to serve as a reminder of the powerful Irene and the larger concept of survival.

For Sam Wall, another River Walk artist, Irene unleashed an unexpected windfall of raw material in his yard.

“I’ve been inspired to create some things out of wood from the many trees that fell in our yard,” said Wall. “All those trees down, all the great wood — cedar, oak — it was incredible.”

Steps down Main Street, Kay Woolard displays her painting “After the Storm” at the Inner Banks Artisans’ Center. The acrylic painting is a storm of color, murky greens and blues creating chaos that gradually coalesces in an open bloom of pink hibiscus.

On one level, the piece is truly representative: Woolard has two large, pink hibiscuses in planters that were battered and flooded, yet survived the storm. On a deeper and more personal level, the painting represents Irene’s destruction. The flooding of Wrights Creek in the Pungo area put the Woolards back to square one on their recently purchased home’s renovation. The floor they’d just replaced must be replaced again; the ground floor drywall had to be demolished.

“For me, (the painting) is symbolic of the massive confusion coming out of the storm,” Woolard said of dealing with the confusion of insurance claims, cleanup and the general turmoil that severe flooding leaves behind. “The bloom is the moving forward —the clarity of that.”

Woolard has moved forward as well, submitting “After the Storm” to the Beaufort County Arts Council’s 2011 Fine Arts Show, the opening reception for which is 8 p.m. tonight at the Washington Civic Center.

Likely, Woolard’s work won’t be the only hurricane-inspired piece to hang in the show this year. The clarity of purpose, and the sense of relief that comes from making it through the storm with life and limb intact, is shared by all eastern North Carolinians. The local artists are simply better at expressing it.