An “Ark” for the animals

Visitors to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary – many unable to mask their emotions – joined Best Friends staff-member Cyrus Mejia at the sanctuary August 29 as he unveiled "Ark," his art installation honoring the people and animals who survived Hurricane Katrina, and the volunteers who helped them through the crisis.

It was the second anniversary of the day Katrina struck.

Suspended by cables from the ceiling of one of the large yurt tents that were part of the New Orleans rescue center, Ark is a hand-made boat covered in collage, modeled after the flat-bottomed jon boats used in water rescues during Hurricane Katrina. It began with a simple wood frame and stretched canvas. Once the boat took shape, Cyrus plastered the entire surface with hundreds of copies of admission forms that catalogued animals rescued from Katrina.

In fact, it was the forms that sparked the idea.

Cyrus was managing one of the rescue centers, outside Tylertown, Mississippi, which was inundated with admission forms. One day he sat staring at the paper mountain in front of him when the idea struck. "I’m sitting there, looking at literally thousands of pieces of paper," he said. "And I thought, ‘One day, when this is all over, I can make art of this.’"

Cyrus finished the collage with photos of Katrina animals, painted hurricane swirls, pet food bags cut into shapes of dogs and cats, and maps of the affected areas applied on top of the intake forms. Several layers of varnish complete the work.

As displayed in the yurt, Ark floats above a mirror lying on the ground, allowing visitors to view or read the materials used on the hull of the boat.

Nearby, blue and white rice paper sheets sit on a table with a note encouraging people to write their thoughts or prayers on the paper and place them in the boat, where they will become a permanent part of the work.

There’s also a soundtrack – sounds of rippling water made from oars in a boat, and the far away sound of a dog’s plaintive cry.

"There’s still so much emotion attached to Katrina," Cyrus said. "And I think it’s important we continue to express and work through those emotions. Creating Ark was one of the ways I worked through the pain of the experience."

Some of the materials came directly from Ground Zero of Hurricane Katrina.

"I think it’s possible for physical items to retain emotion," Cyrus said. "I wanted to capture that energy and presence in this work."

As he worked through the piece, he worked through his feelings as well. He needed a year, he says, to get to a place where he could move forward, actively taking strides to heal. Cyrus took Katrina’s wrath very personally – she all but destroyed his childhood home of New Orleans.

"Having lived there I’m sure added a dimension to the emotion involved. My mom was born and raised a few miles outside of Tylertown. I still have family in the area; I have cousins who lost their homes."

Best Friends chief executive Paul Berry led the rescue teams that went out on the boats each day, rescuing animals from the flood. "I think what Cyrus has done with his beautiful paper jon boat reminds us of our potential to do good," he said. "I hope lots of people will get to see this art work. We all need to remember who we are when we are at our best – and keep that with us when we go about our work, especially in those times where it seems you’re just treading water. The floods come and go."

Written by Best Friends staff

Photos by Clay Myers