No question: New Orleans is back. Hotels are full; restaurants are jumping; crowds of people are in the French Quarter, the riverfront, the parks. But while those are the obvious signs of recovery, the quiet steady restoration of our neighborhoods has been going on with little public attention, except from the valiant people who have been working away on them for these past five years.
Mid-City springs to mind. Seriously devastated by Hurricane Katrina, it has bounced back … well, maybe not bounced, maybe more like heads down, keep moving. Among the many who have toiled to get Mid-City back is a group of artists pursuing one of the most demanding of artistic ventures, the creation of glass art. Chances are that people whizzing along North Carrollton Avenue notice the Rouse’s grocery store on the river side of the street. But do they know that the building just across on Conti Street, the one with the large NOCGI letters on the side, is the New Orleans Creative Glass Institute?
It’s just one example of the remarkable progress that has been going on in the neighborhood. Leading the NOCGI charge is artist Carlos Zervigon, President of the New Orleans Creative Glass Institute, along with colleagues Eddie Bernard, a world-renowned glass equipment fabricator, and Laurel Porcari, a member of the Tulane University faculty and owner of an architectural art glass business on Magazine Street. Quietly and determinedly, they have worked with the once-scattered, now-returned community of glass artists. Together they have ensured that there would be a public place for all professional artists to work, as well as for interested community glass lovers to learn.
Prior to Katrina, New Orleans was becoming known as a Southern center for glass artists.
“We had at least 30 to 40 glass artists working and living in New Orleans,” Zervigon says. “After Katrina, those of us who were still here realized that if we didn’t do something quickly, all would disappear.”
Because building out a space with furnaces and the other heavy equipment glass artists need is prohibitively expensive, they had to do some swift and creative thinking.
“Eddie Bernard had his business in this Conti Street building,” Zervigon says. “The storm tore off the roof and the place flooded. He got wiped out.”
So Bernard moved his business to Lafayette to start again. But he remained involved with the Mid-City movement to rebuild the glass artist community. He urged them to use his old fabrication space and stayed to help get the project going.
“We got a 501c3 (non-profit) status,” Zervigon says. “And we were able to obtain both local and national foundation grants. But most of what we had going for us was the sweat equity of our community of glass artists.”
Now Zervigon and his colleagues have created a space that serves anyone who wants to work with glass. There’s a furnace for hot glass, a series of educational courses for neophytes as well as for skilled professionals, as well as a free public evening once a month. Rates for use of the equipment are in the range of $50 per hour.
“We want to build an appreciation in the public for what we do,” Zervigon says, adding that by making the space available to all, NOCGI is not only providing a unique service to artists, but is also adding to the city’s cultural economy.
“”We are reaching out to glass artists across the city,” he says. “And now we are getting calls from across the country from artists who want to come here and use this facility. And then, after they have made that decision, they ask us where to rent apartments to live in, and for help in selling their work.”
All of that becomes economic development, says this artist who started his life as a history teacher at Ben Franklin High School, then went for his Master of Fine Arts in glass at Tulane University. His love of glass art, his personal response to his community’s “near-death” experience with Katrina, and his determination to move on, has had an effect on his own artistic efforts.
“We’re done with Katrina,” he says of New Orleans, explaining that he is, too. And it’s reflected in his own post-storm output.
“I’m experimenting with both technique and form,” Zervigon says. “Now it’s time for something fun; something colorful.”
Sharon Litwin writes Culture Watch weekly for NolaVie. For more information about the New Orleans Creative Glass Institute, go to www.nocgi.org