Making Art Out of a Disaster

A modified FEMA trailer is the subject of a new art exhibit at Rice University. The trailer is designed to be a mobile art studio that can travel to disaster locations. Laurie Johnson has more on the emergency response studio.

The trailer sits on the lawn right at the main entrance to Rice University.

The roof is covered in blue solar panels and large chunks of its walls have been replaced with plexi-glass windows.

It barely resembles its actual FEMA counterparts.

Paul Villinski is the visual artist who developed the concept of the emergency response studio. He spent several months in New Orleans in the summer of 2006...specifically in the Lower 9th Ward and other hard-hit areas.

image of inside of the trailier

"I do a lot of my artwork from found materials, things that I source in the environment. I had basically been thinking that I would have loved to have moved my studio from New York City to the Lower 9th Ward and sort of set up shop there for a few months."

But moving an entire artist's studio from New York to New Orleans isn't logistically feasible.

"But it got me thinking about this idea of a mobile artist's studio, that would allow me or other people to kind of swoop into a situation."

And the Emergency Response Studio was born out of that idea. Villinski says the trailer is fully functional with running water and solar-powered electricity. But it's also symbolic.

"I wanted people to visit it and go 'oh my God, this was a FEMA trailer?' And it's kind of an exercise in trying to push the boundaries of what people imagine is possible out."

image of inside of the trailier

It certainly does that. When you step into the trailer, the first impression is of light and air. Villinski modified the ceiling, pushing it up and adding a sky light. He even created a wall on one side that lowers down to become an outdoor deck. The walls are covered in pale bamboo paneling and the floors are a soft organic green.

"In addition to it being an artist's studio, it really is just an exploration of what's possible in terms of converting one of these shabbily constructed and kind of somewhat toxic trailers into something that is healthy and has a kind of positive feeling about it. So it's an exploration not just of building an artist's studio, but it has to do with what temporary housing could be like."

image of inside of the trailier

Villinski's exhibit isn't ironic. The Emergency Response Studio doesn't skewer FEMA or make a political statement. If anything, it's hopeful...a commentary on the possibilities and a desire to find beauty in the midst of disaster.

Laurie Johnson. KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.


Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...