When Star-Ledger reporter Brian Donohue invited a small business owner who had lost her restaurant in Superstorm Sandy to an evening of Sandy-commemorating art and discussion, he was met with an interesting response: “Can the artists build a house?” The reaction was an understandable one. She has been waiting to hear about grant funds to rebuild and is now working with her ninth caseworker. Still, Donohue sees the role of art in the wake of tragedy as a very real one.
“An analogy that I might draw is…no one thought Bruce Springsteen, after 9/11, should go over and help build the World Trade Center, but he wrote ‘The Rising,’ which is an incredible song of rebirth and coming back after a tragedy like that,” said Donohue. “That’s the same kind of role the arts can play in this or after any other kind of disaster: inspiring people to overcome it… bringing people together, coping with fears or…art as therapy for people.”
Donohue would know. At the event Arts Take Action: Sandy One Year Later, held at NJPAC on the anniversary of the superstorm, his documentary with The Star-Ledger, Splinters & Sand, brought the owner of the shore’s McLoone’s Restaurants to tears.
“I think Tim McLoone’s reaction was a reaction a lot of people had, which was when they watched this documentary, they cried for the first time since the storm,” said Donohue. “People get their emotions bottled up. You know, ‘Suck it up and let’s get through this. I’m not going to cry because there’s someone worse off next to me.’”
Art as therapy was one of the many roles discussed at the anniversary event. Utilizing art for community building and recording history were also ongoing themes. The Atlantic City Ballet received a commission from the New Jersey Recovery Fund to create a new piece, “In the Eye of the Storm,” in collaboration with the community, bringing peoples’ personal stories to the stage.
“We had three workshops in Atlantic City that were on the boardwalk, so we actually got people who didn’t intend to go to ballet,” said Artistic Director and Choreographer Phyllis Papa of the creation process. “I said…if anybody had any experiences from the storm, to please come up on stage… They were reluctant at first.”
Not too reluctant, though. Papa estimates approximately 150 people of all ages contributed their stories to the ballet both verbally and through movement. She believes the opportunity to share feelings through movement can be ideal for people who don’t want to put their experiences into words.
Crisis Counselor Shawna Hinkson, who also attended Arts Take Action: Sandy One Year Later, agrees. “It’s hard sometimes for people to put loss into words,” Hinkson explained. “Clinically, the arts and stress management, they’re intrinsically linked. It’s calming. It’s a great way to create memories as well if you are letting go of something. … It’s really helpful with grief and loss.”
Overcoming grief and loss was part of the process for the ballet company, too. “My home was flooded, the studio was flooded, we lost a Nutcracker Christmas tree in the flood, my accountant lost her whole home,” said Papa. “So all of us have been affected by Sandy.”
While audiences and artists came to NJPAC for the anniversary of a tragic event, many left with a renewed feeling of hope. “There can be artwork that makes sure we never forget it and makes sure we don’t repeat the mistakes that caused so much disaster,” said Donohue. “Photography or just images of the destruction are important. Some people are taking the water lines in their houses and turning it into art…as a reminder that let’s be smart about what we do, let’s not forget it and let’s remember what we went through and what we can overcome.”
As for the question of how the arts can contribute in the wake of Sandy, Papa does not want the field to be underestimated. “If somebody came to the Atlantic City Ballet Company and said, ‘Can you help us [build a house]?’ I think we would,” she said. “We’re not construction men in that way, but we would give support, which I think they saw from this ballet — support that we felt their pain and we put it into our art for other people to see.”