The Beauty of Loss

This unusual essay topic asked students to examine how a piece of art had impacted their lives.  it was serendipidous that this mural had just come into my sights again.  Read on to see why.
Why is it that so often it takes loss to fully understand a thing’s value?  We have all experienced it–the lost friendship, the memento no longer held, the missed opportunity. In the case of this story, it was the unfortunate loss of historical art that made people aware of its value to those it represented.  And it was a piece that I designed.

Art holds a powerful place in the heart of those it represents.  In modern times we understand this to be of such great importance that many museums and collectors are returning at least some treasured artifacts to the rightful owners. France has returned war-looted artifacts to Benin, in 2018 the Berlin Museum returned Nazi-looted art to the rightful owners, and even Even Hobby Lobby, who may have been duped into thinking their artifacts were legal, eventually retuned the items to Iraq.[i]

To understand the power of art one need only look at the historical tendency of conquerors to destroy the art of the vanquished.  Art represents the culture, religion and glory of a previous ruler and so threatens the ability of a new ruler to fully assimilate a conquered population.  Some of the art offended the religious sensibilities of the conquerors and so was destroyed to honor a deity. As such, these poignant reminders of a people and their heritage were often removed, destroyed, or melted into ingots.[ii]

After hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, one of our local Commanders wanted to commemorate the Coast Guard’s involvement in a mural.  I sketched an idea on paper and was selected to head up the painting. Between about April of 2005 and August of 2006, a small group of dedicated people worked to paint the mural which depicted Coast Guard sacrifices such as lives being saved, oil spill response, and efforts to help hand out food and water to the citizens.  It was greatly detailed and wrapped inside three walls of the foyer of the US Coast Guard station in New Orleans, Louisiana. On the one-year anniversary of the hurricane DHS Secretary Chertoff dedicated it in a ceremony.

But time passed and people seemed to forget what the mural represented. One day a new commander showed up, one who had not experienced the pain and emotion of that event and went about sprucing up his new command. He didn’t understand the importance of remembering.  And thus, in a modern equivalent of melting artifacts into ingots, the man set about burying history under several layers of nondescript beige paint.

But then someone noticed the loss of the mural, someone who had gone through the agony of that eventful hurricane response and they missed seeing their history depicted in art.

And then another person saw it and spoke up, and another. And one of them remembered who had designed it.  I knew nothing of the desecration, but eventually I was contacted by the past Commanding Officer of the Station, and then the current CO.  I listened as people told me, an artist, how much the mural had meant to them.  As an artist it was one of the greatest compliments I could have received, and I was deeply touched to know it had lasting meaning.

The near-loss of our mural made us all appreciate the beauty and meaning it held. And that led to action for now we have begun to restore the mural, and in so doing, to restore an artifact to its people.

[i] 2018 Ingber, S “Hobby Lobby’s Smuggled Artifacts Will be Returned to Iraq” from: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/01/607582135/hobby-lobbys-smuggled-artifacts-will-be-returned-to-iraq
[ii] 2017 Alexander, V from http://bit.ly/2XK6PeW
DSC_0043
The dedication ceremony. Right to Left: ADM Joel Whitehead, DHS Secretary Chertoff, my stepdaughters Haley and Carter, me, and the CAPT Frank Paskewich, the unit Commanding Officer.mander.
retouched Katrina mural
Middle wall of the Katrina commemorative mural.

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