Flat on the Floor | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Flat on the Floor

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The "Aggregate of Past Events" sculpture, produced by artists H.C. Porter and Gretchen Haien, is a historical marker depicting the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The sculpture is part of the 2011 Mississippi Invitational at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

The sculpture of tiles is made of black-and-white photographic images of floors stripped of possessions and lifelines. Left on the homes' slabs are scatterings of personal items discarded after a deluge of waves and wind. The tiles form checkerboards of destruction: the historical marker of Hurricane Katrina.

H.C. Porter and Gretchen Haien, Mississippi natives and artists, unveil the lives lived on the floor slabs in their photographic sculpture, "Aggregate of Past Events," on exhibit in the 2011 Mississippi Invitational.

"Visitors (to the museum) can stand on what people returned to (after Hurricane Katrina)," Porter said of the floor-level photographic sculpture. They shot the photographs from six-feet up, focused directly down on the slabs.

"There is a collection of debris that landed on peoples' personal places," she said.

Porter, 48, photographed six distinctive slabs at various Gulf Coast home sites from 2006 through 2008 and developed them into intricate patterns woven like a quilt. Even so, Porter said she didn't want it make the work only about Hurricane Katrina.

"It is historic in an abstract way and looked like it was a painting," she said.

Hand painting is Porter's expertise. She uses mixed media, printmaking and photography, practicing the serigraph process to define her fine art. But the "Aggregate of Past Events" was an unusual step outside the typical realm of her work. Along with Haien, a commercial photographer, she created the photographic piece as a historical marker but continues to identify herself as a painter rather than a photographer.

Porter said Haien's interpretation of the sculpture is reminiscent. "The slabs become a train yard of boxcar graffiti validating existence of the remains that become a historical record of individual and communal family life in the same way that ancient ruins offer an archeological footprint of past cultural experiences," she said.

Haien credited Porter and her original prints, which provided the potential to depict Hurricane Katrina's colossal devastation and how the residents of the destroyed homes needed recognition.

"We never know what will appear to come forward to have a meaningful purpose later—to use digital records of an interpretive piece for presenting the human condition beyond information," Haien said.

"It is a pictorial abstract with a cemetery quality; a quilt quality," she said. Haien considers herself a pictorial abstract formalist and purist.

The Mississippi Invitational, initiated in 1997, asked a guest curator to survey recent developments by contemporary visual artist living and working across Mississippi. Out of 161 submissions in 2011, 18 applicants warranted in-person studio visits and the final selection of 13 artists announced. Guest Los Angeles-based curator Franklin Sirmans visited Porter's studio in Vicksburg during the selection process.

"Being recognized by an outstanding curator is an honor, and it is rewarding to have a prestige post present your work," Porter said.

Haien, who did not wish to give her age, is associate professor of art, gallery coordinator and senior coordinator at Belhaven University. She teaches photography and the art component of the worldview curriculum. She has a bachelor's degree in art from Belhaven University and a master's degree in fine art with photography emphasis from Louisiana Tech University.

Porter and Haien's friendship spans 25 years. Since 1987, Haien has owned and operated a commercial photography studio and taught as an adjunct instructor for more than 20 years at Millsaps College and Belhaven. She recently received the Mississippi Art and Letters Award in Photography. In 2007, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., named her an "Emerging Artist to Watch in Photography." Porter, who has an art degree from University of Alabama, is resident artist and master printmaker of H.C. Porter Gallery and Creative Spirit Studio on Washington Street in downtown Vicksburg. Her newest work is a documentary project, "Blues at Home," a collection of environmental portraits featuring 40 Mississippi living blues legends. This project followed one with 81 mixed-media paintings documenting the first year after Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Coast, "Backyards & Beyond: Mississippians and Their Stories."

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