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Northern Exposure: Bringing the work of southern artists to Sag Harbor

Posted on 02 October 2008

David Ebner with a Vernon Smith Bowl

After Hurricane Katrina roared through Louisiana in 2005, David Ebner was at a loss as to what to do next. Ebner, a Baton Rouge native, was living in New Orleans at the time. But in many ways, he was also a New Yorker, having lived in the city for 20 years. He was visiting friends on the East End and was scheduled to fly home the day before the hurricane hit.

But plans changed. In the days and weeks that followed, Ebner stayed on the East End and could only guess at what was happening in the Garden District where he lived in an apartment.

“It was pretty hard hit,” recalls Ebner. “One day, the levees broke. Then next day they said the Garden District was on fire, but they couldn’t put it out with water from the lake because there was oil in it.”

“It was very surreal to be here on the beach and with my friends in Amagansett with blue skies and this destruction is going on at home.”

Before the hurricane, Ebner had planned to buy a blighted house in New Orleans, fix it up and rent part of it out with help from the Preservation Resource Center, an organization whose mission is to save historic structures in the city.

After Katrina with the city in so much turmoil, that prospect seemed rather daunting. So instead, Ebner went back to New Orleans, retrieved his possessions and moved to the East End where a mutual friend put him in touch with the owners of a furniture store who needed a manager.

Ebner suddenly had a new home, a new job and a new life. But like many people with a foot in two worlds, the New Yorker couldn’t forget about his Louisiana roots or the friends he had there who were — and still are — suffering the effects of Katrina three years later.

So he called Lisa diStefano, an artist and a friend from Baton Rouge, and told her he wanted to organize a show here featuring work by southern artists. DiStefano put him in touch with other artists she knew and this weekend, Ebner will open the exhibit with work by seven Louisiana artists affected by Katrina at the Keyes Atelier, 12 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. One of the artist’s, Bruce Keyes, will travel to Sag Harbor for the opening. The show runs through October 28, 2008 and opens with a reception on October 4 from 4 to 7 p.m., and also on view will be art by three local artists.

Ebner hopes to make the creative connection between his two worlds a permanent one and with that in mind, has started Mason Dixon Arts and Artifacts with an eye toward curating more shows like this and maybe one day having a local gallery.

“This is a new venture for me,” says Ebner, who lives in Sag Harbor. “I’ve never done this before. I don’t know how the gallery system works, but I started Mason Dixon Arts and Artifacts because I want something that keeps me in the north and the south.”

The exhibit came about when Ebner and his friend, ceramic artist Julie Keyes, realized they had a connection through New Orleans. It turns out that Keyes’ uncle and Ebner’s cousin are friends and have breakfast together once a week at the Pontchartrain Hotel. That’s just how New Orleans is.

“She has an affinity for New Orleans and said she wants to do something to help the artists down there,” explains Ebner. “I want to start this business to keep me tethered to the area. She said ‘Let’s do a show together. We can use my space and start from here.’”

Also a priority for Ebner is giving something back to the arts community in his home state. A portion of proceeds from the sales of work during the show will benefit Frederick L’Ecole des Arts Inc. a non-profit organization in Arnaudville, Louisiana founded by artist George Marks.

“Arnaudville is across the river from Baton Rouge,” explains Ebner. “I went to visit George and he’s a young, amazing painter who took over this little town that had been blighted by the economy.”

“He bought an old auto parts store and renovated it,” continues Ebner. “The town had a bunch of drug dealers and crack addicts. Over time the cops would come and run them out and George bought these cottages from the city. They’re on the bayou. He fixes them up and rents them to artists for $100 a month.”

The community is now a thriving artists’ colony. Ebner describes fiddle makers living next door to visual artists and everyone coming out on the porches in the evening for jam sessions.

The building Marks bought himself is now Nunu’s, a renowned music club that draws people from all over the world. But part of the building is still an arts studio that houses Frederick L’Ecole des Arts which is named for one of the first families in Arnaudville and offers classes for adults and children. Money raised through the art show will help pay the center’s teachers.

“What he wants is a place that’s affordable for people to come hear music,” explains Ebner. “He’s also teaching art to the kids. For $8, parents can drop their kids off at an art class and go next door to hear music. Artists come in to teach them art — it’s cheaper than a baby sitter.”

Ebner notes that Arnaudville represents a bright spot in what has been a largely dismal existence for many Louisiana artists.

“A lot of George’s paintings were in New Orleans galleries and were destroyed,” explains Ebner. “I reached out to Lisa, because she has been struggling to sell work. Getting a roof over heads and foods in mouths is the priority. People are not buying art.”

“The artists need money to rebuild studios,” adds Ebner. “I love living here but I’m still tethered to Louisiana. I’m hoping this will give me an opportunity to do more shows here of Louisiana artists — and give support to artists who lost homes, studios or places to sell their work.”

The art on view at the Keyes gallery will represent a number of mediums, including paint, glass and woodworking. In some cases, the work is directly inspired by the hurricane that changed so many lives.

“Vernon Smith, whom I’ve never met does these beautiful bowls,” says Ebner as he picks up an example. On the bottom, he shows where Smith has etched the title of the bowl, the type of wood it’s made from and the phrase “felled by Katrina.”

“They’re like his kids,” says Ebner of Smith’s relationship to his bowls. “They’ve just been sitting down there. I asked him to send a couple for the show and he sent them all. I’m hoping people come to see his work. These artists really need the outlet.”

 “One reason I love living here is the community really supports the arts,” he adds. “I’m hoping that people will still support them.”

Louisiana/New York Artists will be on view at Keyes Atelier, 12 Bay Street, Sag Harbor from October 4through October 28, 2008. The show opens with a reception on Saturday, October 4 from 4 to 7 p.m.

 (Above: David Ebner holds “Becky’s Heart” #3, a wooden bowl made by Vernon Smith from a tree felled by Hurricane Katrina)



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