After Sandy, Katrina And Sept. 11, This Sculptor Finds Art In Survival

Sep 11, 2015
Originally published on September 11, 2015 2:25 pm

While driving to his studio in New York's Rockaway Beach neighborhood, artist Christopher Saucedo looks out across Jamaica Bay. He sees a glittering Manhattan and the spire of the new World Trade Center gleaming in a cloudless sky.

"Obviously, where it stands there were once two other very tall towers," the art professor says dryly.

Saucedo grew up playing stickball on the streets in Brooklyn and watching the original World Trade Center rise over New York City. His father took him and his brothers to the construction site to watch it being built. The youngest, Gregory, died in the line of duty in the north tower on Sept. 11.

"He loved being a fireman," Saucedo says, his voice catching.

A few days after the attack, Saucedo drove frantically to New York from New Orleans, where he then lived. "I'm a sculptor, so I packed my boots, my gloves, my respirator and some crowbars because I imagined I would be at the pit helping to find my brother," he says. No trace of Gregory was ever recovered and Saucedo went home to New Orleans in grief. Four years later, when Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke, his house was flooded to the rafters.

"In Katrina, we lost everything except for our Christmas decorations and our Easter baskets, which were in the attic," he says. "Things you don't want are in the attic."

Saucedo's family evacuated to Houston. Returning to a ruined house was anathema to his wife, who wanted to move back to New York, so they bought a house in Queens just steps from the beach and 7 feet above sea level. Unfortunately, during Superstorm Sandy, a 12-foot tidal surge deluged the house with 5 feet of water.

"If you were writing a story, the editor might say, 'Drop the second hurricane. It doesn't read well. It doesn't make any sense,' " Saucedo observes wryly. "After Hurricane Sandy, I really started to wonder if I was going to be forever put upon by forces beyond my control. It was really like, 'Come on!' "

Art helped Saucedo make sense of his experience living through three of the worst events on U.S. soil in the past 15 years. Still, it took a long time for him to address his brother's death in the fall of the twin towers.

"I'm a sculptor who primarily works with steel and wood and cast metals and big physical materials," he says. But after being at ground zero, he didn't want to memorialize the catastrophe with exactly the same material that comprised the World Trade Center's remains. Instead, he hand-pressed layers of linen, making 10 blue papier-mâché rectangles. It's recognizably a Sept. 11 blue — the blue of that day's sky. There appear to be clouds floating on the surface, but a closer look reveals that they're wispy renditions of the World Trade Center — two towers seemingly made of vapor, floating up and away.

"I think that they're incredibly powerful," says Russell Lord, a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where the series was exhibited over the summer. (The National September 11 Memorial & Museum has also acquired one of the works.)

Lord says imagining the World Trade Center as clouds makes something weighty feel weightless and ethereal. "And, of course, the blue paper is incredibly evocative," he says, "because we all remember the blue of the sky that day — that incredibly beautiful day against which all of these unbelievable things unfolded."

Last month, Saucedo installed another memorial in New Orleans commemorating the victims of Katrina. He says this time every year there's a flurry of interest in his art.

"I hope it's testament to the quality of my work, but I know it's testament to my involvement in these tragedies," he says. "And I'm wondering: So now am I the artist who has, you know, misfortune? Is that my new label? I don't want to be that, but I guess I don't want to not be that. I just want to be an artist who makes work that's relevant in his time."

After Sandy, the Red Cross went through Saucedo's neighborhood and gave everyone bleach, a bucket, gloves and blankets. Saucedo decided to use the blankets as the backdrop for new works of art: He's using them to embroider tapestries. "If you have lemons, make lemonade," he says. "I had Red Cross blankets; I made some tapestries."

The artist is used to awkward jokes about where he and his family plan to move next — so the rest of us will know where to avoid. "We have survived a couple of hurricanes," he says, "so you might want to move with us because we never succumb to the elements."

Indeed, Christopher Saucedo endures. He hopes his art helps people relate to his own experience and, more generally, what it means to lose and how we manage to survive.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Exactly 14 years ago today, Christopher Saucedo lost his brother in the attacks on New York's World Trade Center. Four years later during Hurricane Katrina, he lost everything he owned in New Orleans. So he moved to New York, and then Superstorm Sandy flooded his home. For Mr. Saucedo, there was nothing to do with all that bad luck except to turn it into art. NPR's Neda Ulaby met the artist in Queens.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Hi, Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER SAUCEDO: Neda?

ULABY: Hi, nice to meet you.

Christopher Saucedo, art professor and indomitable survivor, picked me up at the Rockaway Beach subway station all the way at the end of the line. He looks a bit like a middle-aged Sean Connery with a salt-and-pepper beard. Saucedo lives steps from Jamaica Bay. Manhattan glitters across the water. He points to the spire of the new World Trade Center, gleaming in a cloudless sky.

SAUCEDO: And obviously, where it stands, there were once two other very tall towers.

ULABY: Christopher Saucedo grew up watching the original World Trade Center rise over New York City. His father took him and his brothers to the construction site to watch it being built. The youngest, Gregory, died in the north tower in the line of duty.

SAUCEDO: He loved being a fireman.

ULABY: And Saucedo loved his brother. A few days after the attack, Saucedo drove frantically to New York from New Orleans where he then lived.

SAUCEDO: I'm a sculptor, so I packed my boots, my gloves, my respirator and some crowbars because I imagined I would be at the pit helping find my brother.

ULABY: No trace of Gregory was ever recovered. Saucedo went home to New Orleans in grief. Four years later when the storm hit and the levees broke, his house was flooded to the rafters.

SAUCEDO: In Katrina, we lost everything except for our Christmas decorations and our Easter baskets, which were in the attic. Things we don't want were in the attic.

ULABY: Saucedo's family had evacuated to Houston. His wife said, enough. Let's move back to New York. And that's where Hurricane Sandy flooded his house three years ago.

SAUCEDO: Oh, yeah, October 29, Hurricane Sandy is my birthday.

ULABY: All the bad luck, Christopher Saucedo knows exactly how it sounds.

SAUCEDO: If you're writing a story, the editor might say, drop the second hurricane. It doesn't read well. It doesn't make any sense.

ULABY: No one would believe it.

SAUCEDO: After Hurricane Sandy, I really started to wonder if I was going to be forever put upon by forces beyond my control. And it was really like, come on.

ULABY: Here's where being an artist helped Saucedo make sense of three of the worst events on U.S. soil in the past 15 years, even though it took him a long time to address the fall of the twin towers.

SAUCEDO: I'm a sculptor who primarily works with steel and wood and cast metals and big physical materials.

ULABY: But after being at ground zero, he knew.

SAUCEDO: My work couldn't be made of that stuff.

ULABY: Instead, the artist hand pressed layers of linen to make 10 papier-mache rectangles. They're big and blue, September 11 blue, the blue of that day's sky. Floating on the surface appears to be clouds. But look closer, and you realize they're wispy renditions of the World Trade Center, two towers floating up and away.

RUSSELL LORD: I think that they're incredibly powerful.

ULABY: That's Russell Lord, a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art. It exhibited these works all summer. Now they're on display in Brooklyn. Lord says imagining the World Trade Center as clouds made something weighty seem weightless and ethereal.

LORD: And, of course, the blue paper is incredibly evocative because we all remember the blue of the sky that day, that incredibly beautiful day against which all of these unbelievable things unfolded.

ULABY: Saucedo's become known for the series. The National 9/11 Memorial and Museum acquired one of the works. And the artist installed another memorial in New Orleans last month, commemorating the victims of Katrina. Every year, at this time, he says, there's a flurry of interest in his art.

SAUCEDO: And I hope it's testament to the quality of my work, but I know it's testament to my involvement in these tragedies. And I'm wondering, so now am I the artist who has, you know, misfortune? Is that my new label? I don't want to be that, but I guess I don't want to not be that. I just want to be an artist who makes work that's relevant in his time.

ULABY: What does an artist do but filter their experiences through their work? Having gone through two hurricanes, Christopher Saucedo's now incorporating navigational aids into his artwork, shipping charts and buoys.

SAUCEDO: I think sculpture and art are navigational aids to help us navigate safely through the hazards that we face.

ULABY: After Sandy, the Red Cross went through Saucedo's neighborhood and gave everyone bleach, a bucket, gloves and blankets. Saucedo decided to use the blankets in some new works of arts. He's embroidering tapestries.

SAUCEDO: Whatever the - if you have lemons, make lemonade. I had Red Cross blankets. I made some tapestries.

ULABY: The artist is used to the awkward jokes that he's some sort of jinx. If you ask where he and his family are planning to move next so you'll know where to avoid, Saucedo is ready with a comeback.

SAUCEDO: We have survived a couple of hurricanes, so you might want to move with us because we never succumb to the elements.

ULABY: Indeed, Christopher Saucedo endures. He wants his art to help people relate to his own experience and, more generally, what it means to lose and how we manage to survive. Neda Ulaby, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.