Beauty and resilience highlighted in Gleason exhibit of coastal disaster 

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Apalachicola Bay Autumn Morning, by Paul Gaj. (Courtesy Photo) 

by Cynthia Sorn

Residents living by the southern coast of the U.S. have seen their share of weather-related disasters and have amazing resilience for recovery. But five years after Hurricane Katrina scoured their coastal communities, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill brought additional hardship on top of misery. The spill, which dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, was triggered by an oil rig explosion and fire that killed 11 workers. The states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were the hardest hit, with globs of tar pockmarking the beaches and bayous, and heavier oil sinking down below the surface of the ocean. Clean-up continues to this day, as well as the legal fallout. According to The Guardian, a former BP executive was recently convicted of obstructing the investigation into the spill.  

During 2010 Paul Gaj, a local artist and graphic designer, was dealing with his own private frustrations, though not on the scale of the oil spill. Laid off during the downturn in the economy, the talented illustrator was casting for a goal when, during a news report on the oil spill, he realized how little New Englanders really knew of the coastal disaster. He felt he could gain inspiration for his own situation by chronicling firsthand the coastal clean-up. After receiving financial support through fundraising and grants, he packed his paints, pencils, computer and camera and, in November of 2010, he drove south, traveling for 17 days, talking with residents, painting, photographing and being an eye witness to the aftermath. 

Displayed beautifully in the Gleason Public Library, his trip from New England through Florida to Louisiana is laid out through an array of watercolor and acrylic paintings, photographs and maps, multimedia materials and models, and a beautifully published 80-page book, Eye on the Gulf Coast: The View from a New England Artist.

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Mississippi River Delta at Dawn, by Paul Gaj. (Courtesy photo) 

Presentation and reception on February 1

Coincidentally, Gaj’s exhibit is now extended to March 8 due to the library’s own small disaster. After the recent cold snap and thaw caused a roof leak and fire safety interruption, access has been restricted to the lobby area. Gaj’s art was not affected but residents must wait to view the show until the repairs are completed, which should be within the next week. To make the viewing more festive, everyone is invited to a free Artist’s Presentation, followed by a reception with refreshments on Saturday, February 1, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Gaj said the presentation includes slides and illustrations from his travels. “I try to mix it up, tell the story of the trip, as well as the art of the trip,” he said. He added, “It was a beautiful trip. The area is beautiful and the people are wonderful.”

Connecting over meals

Gaj said he was struck by how the residents more or less took the oil spill in stride, most likely because they were still recovering from Katrina. He was careful and respectful in how he approached those he met. He explained, “I wasn’t trying to capitalize on the tragedy. I wanted to find out how people recover.” He said his plan was to connect with the locals, which he found easiest over meals. “When we’re at restaurants, at bars, people tend to talk,” he said. He frequented oyster bars and had many good meals and good talks. “I felt very at home in Mississippi. I was there three nights and went to the same restaurant there every night.” Gaj kept a journal, which he posted online, giving a summary of each day. It is still available on his website, www.eyeonthegulfcoast.com

He saw evidence of the cleanup everywhere he went. Some work was done by hand, by people walking along the beach with buckets scooping up tar balls using a tool similar to a pooper scooper. Others were raking the sand down to about six inches, cleaning up layers of sludge. Other places were more deeply affected, such as the beaches of Alabama. There he saw huge earth movers removing truckloads of sand. One day he took a boat trip out through the Mississippi Delta to see the impact on offshore sites. In the delta are shifting channels, with silt islands building up and breaking down all the time. Oil that had gathered at the silt islands was being sucked up through huge vacuums which were brought out by barges. “In the Mississippi Delta the channels are always changing,” he said. “You never know where you are.”

Lighthouse homes

Gaj, who is a freelance graphic artist, was trained in architectural drawing and he was struck by how vulnerable southern coastal homes are to hurricane tidal surge. After Katrina, homes were being raised on stilts but he wondered if there was a better solution. He has played with a home design and has a concept model on display at the Gleason: a lighthouse shaped home. “Lighthouses are a hundred years old,” he explained. “They survive the worst weather, so there must be a reason.” He said he has received some interest in his design. “If anything comes of it I’ll be the happiest guy in the world,” he said. 

Beautiful and fragile area

Adults and children alike will enjoy this multi-faceted display. Gaj said he has laid out his “tools of the trade” for viewing, including a watercolor set similar to what he used on the trip. His actual travel watercolor kit went missing sometime during his adventure but he still had his acrylics and other materials. He said he would pop out his camera to record image after image, many of which ended up in his book. He also has a fascinating map of the gulf coast. “It took me close to three weeks to do it,” he said. Gaj will have copies of his book for sale at the reception. Prints of his painting are also available, and 50% of his commission is being donated to the Gulf Restoration Network.

Through his exhibit Gaj has created a window allowing visitors to view the fragile beauty of the southern coast and the choice that has to be weighed daily to allow industrial development side by side with this important environmental treasure.  ∆