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Spontaneous art exhibit underscores defiant spirit in Ninth Ward

NEW ORLEANS—In the devastation wrought first by Hurricane Katrina and then Hurricane Rita, no neighborhood suffered more than this city's Ninth Ward. Levee breaches suddenly transformed it from community to underwater catastrophe.

But as the water drains, revealing thousands of houses reduced to pickup sticks, a few defiant signs of life emerge. Although everyone is officially barred from the Ninth Ward, residents have begun to return and are rebuilding their lives.

On a trash-strewn median, artist Jeffrey Holmes impaled a dozen mannequin heads on pieces of wood.

Holmes and his wife, Andrea Garland, call their spontaneous exhibit "Toxic Art."

The pair were lucky. The combination art gallery and home they bought last year on St. Claude Avenue withstood the storm.

A few miles from them, in the harder-hit and predominantly black lower part of the Ninth Ward, Chester Lastie, 62, sits on a chair planted in the mud that destroyed his 40-year-old auto shop.

Six police officers from Egg Harbor Township, N.J., clad in bulletproof vests, slowly search the area. They find almost no one to give the food and water they are handing out.

There was a brief flurry of activity when former President Clinton visited the ward as part of his tour of hurricane-damaged areas. When he left, the ward once again was nearly deserted.

New Orleans officials have forbidden people to return to the Ninth Ward, saying it is too dangerous. But smooth-talkers always find a way, and on Monday, Garland, Holmes and Lastie were busy recovering what was left of their lives.

Garland, 34, and Holmes, 40, love the Ninth Ward.

"It's a great neighborhood, really mixed both racially and economically," Garland said.

Their makeshift art exhibit landed Holmes in jail early last week. A National Guardsman saw the black mannequin heads on poles, decided it might be racially offensive and tried to dismantle it.

This struck Holmes, a small wiry man covered in tattoos, as a strange reaction. He had intended the "Field of Silent Screams," to capture the failure of government to help black flood victims.

An argument ensued, and police put Holmes in jail for a few hours, telling him, "You have a right to express yourself as long as you do it in your own home." On Tuesday, cleanup crews threw his exhibit in the trash.

Lastie had weathered Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and figured he'd stick it out through Katrina, too. As floodwaters rose, Lastie cut through the roof of his home, waiting for four days with his son for rescue by boat.

After an odyssey that took him through Texas, Arizona and Ohio, Lastie returned to the Ninth Ward on Saturday. He lacks insurance, though, and wonders what will happen to the family business. His mood swings quickly from grief to optimism.

"My nerves get bad, and I got old. I can't be fooling with all this," he said. "But God is good. We gonna hang in there."

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(Hill reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-ART

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