WELCOME to the July 2015 issue of the Natural Hazards Observer. I think this is a stunning issue, and I hope you’ll share my wonderment for the words and images in the pages that follow.
The focus of this issue is art in the face of disaster—as a form of creative expression, as a pathway to healing, and as a means for contributing to community. Although this is the first time so many contributions in the Observer have been dedicated to this topic, I hope it will not be the last.
For many centuries, artists have served as commentators on and chroniclers of disaster, war, famine, disease, and other forms of crisis. As you will see in the subsequent pages, contemporary artists continue this tradition by depicting the all-too-real, as well as the surreal, elements of the hazards and disasters that increasingly mark our lives.
The artists whose work is featured in this issue vividly capture, through their words and their art, what captivates so many who work in this particular field: disasters can be simultaneously beautiful and utterly destructive; terrifying and awe-inspiring; devastating and healing. Disasters may represent an end, but also a new beginning. They are somehow all at once all of these things, and so much more.
The artists featured in this issue—including Eyal Gever, Stephanie Peters, and Tricia Courtney—use various mediums and approaches to pay homage to the complexity and chaos that so often accompanies disaster. Their work does not offer us answers to the questions that disasters raise, but instead invites us in to explore the forces that may also simultaneously remind us of our strength and our fragility in the context of natural extremes, technological accidents, and terror.
This Observer also contains two feature articles by two women who understand the power of art when it comes to healing. In reading the pieces by Meg Bourne Hulsey and Gwen Mitchell, I was struck by the differences in their narratives, but even more so, the similarities.
Bourne Hulsey, founder and CEO of Art Feeds, is based in Joplin, Missouri, in the heart of the Midwest. Mitchell, a clinical psychologist, writes of her deployment half a world away in Nigeria with Medicines Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders. Bourne Hulsey and her team expanded Art Feeds to include more disaster-focused lessons for children after a natural disaster devastated her hometown of Joplin. Mitchell and her collaborators worked with children and adults who had witnessed brutal attacks inflicted by fellow human beings.
There are surely many other differences, but I was most inspired by the common commitment, the compassion, and the clarity of focus that Bourne Hulsey and Mitchell bring to their work. At the center of it all is not just the belief, but also the empirical reality, that art can heal the wounded. Bourne Hulsey and Mitchell each describe moments when they encouraged young people to take the lead in sharing their respective visions for the future of their communities and their lives in the aftermath of terrible tragedy. For Bourne Hulsey it was when they invited children, through the Rebuild Joplin project, to use large boxes to create and ultimately construct the community they wanted. At the end of a six-week intervention, Mitchell and her team of local counselors facilitated an opportunity for children to display their art through mobile exhibits.
Over the last decade, various initiatives aimed at bringing art to a broader public have grown across the United States and globally. You may have seen the “Art Everywhere” campaign or slogans such as “Art is for Everyone.” After reading this month’s Observer, I’m more convinced than ever that art is, indeed, for everyone. And art may be especially important for children and adults in the aftermath of seemingly unbearable trauma. Art can obviously empower disaster survivors to take control of their thoughts, their feelings, and their narratives, and thus to begin the long process of recovery.
In closing, I wanted to offer a sincere and heartfelt congratulations to your talented and endlessly creative Observer editor, Elke Weesjes. She and her husband Danny recently welcomed their own little work of art wonder into the world. As such, Elke was briefly on maternity “leave” (those are meant to be exceptionally heavy quotation marks, as Elke dedicated countless hours to this issue in the time leading up to and directly following the birth of her first child) and asked me to write this editorial.
So let me end this by offering thanks to Elke for this issue, and a wish for each of the readers: Enjoy your Observer.
Lori Peek, Colorado State University