Monday, December 5, 2011

Beauty Is Healing

When a tornado tore a swath a mile wide and seven miles long through the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama last April, killing 239 people and leaving thousands homeless, offers of help poured in from around the country and around the world. People gave freely of blankets, food, clothing, the basic necessities of life, and many generous services. However, as Tuscaloosa resident Jean Mills thought about all these much-needed contributions, it seemed to her that one thing was missing: beauty. People needed some beauty to lift their spirits.

Thus was born Beauty Amid Destruction, a remarkable response to a large-scale calamity. Jean set out to invite artists to contribute digital images of their original work, setting only two criteria for submissions: that the work be beautiful and that it not challenge anyone’s idea of what was appropriate (i.e. no nudes). Photos of original paintings, drawings, sculpture, quilts, metalwork, and photographs began to arrive. With donations from individuals and suppliers and the support of the Tuscaloosa city council, Jean and the other Beauty Amid Destruction team members had the images copied onto vinyl banners measuring 4 by 6 feet. They then hung the banners between poles and placed them free of charge in front of homes, public buildings, and lots whose owners requested them.

The result is a gallery tour unlike any other. Brightly colored art works stand like gateways in front of empty lots, skeletal houses, and on chainlink fences in both residential and business neighborhoods. Right after the tornado, when people drove or walked through the damaged areas it was to stare at the devastation; now they go to admire the art works and the spirit of compassion and generosity that put them there. "Garden Play" by Kevin Irwin is pictured above.

“The main message about putting paintings in front of the destruction is that art can help with recovery,” Jean said recently. “There is the recognition that one’s surroundings impact one’s emotional response and how one feels about life. Putting art out there where the tornado had done such damage was a way to acknowledge that and to try to provide a counter to all the negative stuff that people were being bombarded with.”

Reflecting on the long process of trial-and-error that the Beauty Amid Destruction team went through to find the best way of reproducing the art works and placing them, Jean has volunteered to make the group’s expertise available to any other community wishing to mount a similar project. See for more information.