As Hurricane Isaac approaches the Gulf Coast, I am reminded that seven years ago this week Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the same coastline. It also reminds me of a story from 2005 that made one work of art in our collection become especially meaningful to me.
Each time I teach new volunteer orientation, I encourage the volunteers to find a work of art in the collection that “speaks” to them and to learn more about it. It can be for any reason: the landscape brings back memories of childhood vacations, the thick brushstrokes and colors amaze them, whatever it is. I suggest this so they will be able to share the permanent collection with visitors with real, heartfelt enthusiasm. When we share our own stories, it draws the visitor in and helps make art more meaningful.
For me that work of art is Christ Appearing to Saint Martin in a Dream by Francesco Solimena, a painting given to the Museum by Florence G. Montgomery in 1959. The painting refers to the legend of the Roman army soldier Martin of Sabaria. One cold day at the gates of the city Amiens in Gaul, Martin came across a shivering, half-naked beggar. Martin removed his cloak and cut it in two and gave the beggar half. In Solimena’s painting Christ appears to Martin while he sleeps, wearing half of Martin’s cloak as if he were the beggar transformed. The image alludes to Matthew 25: 40, “The king will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “
Why does this work speak to me? Like most of the nation, on Monday, August 29, 2005, I sat glued to the television screen. Hurricane Katrina had crashed into Louisiana, then Mississippi, with 125 mph winds pushing walls of water miles inland. When the waters retreated, the devastation was unthinkable. I had never seen anything like it. Over the next week, I was torn emotionally by the scenes of destruction: piles of matchsticks that once were homes; cars and boats in piles miles inland; skyscrapers with their windows blown out; and, worst, people in the streets crying over loss and need. I felt compelled to do something to help.
Two weeks later I was on a small plane to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as a newly trained disaster relief volunteer with the American Red Cross. I had never done anything like this before, and I was nervous. Another volunteer from Raleigh and I hopped a ride from the airport to Biloxi with a nurse heading that way. As we drove south, and the destructive path of Katrina became more and more obvious, my head swam with questions: “Have I made the right decision? How can I make any difference here? Am I really meant to be here?”
After a restless night on a cot among hundreds of volunteers in an aircraft hangar in Gulfport, I met my group leader to head out for our first day of work. A dozen of us piled into a van. As we approached the building that would be our Family Services assistance center for the next two weeks, I saw the sign out front—Saint Martin’s Community Center.
I had always admired Solimena’s painting, but now when I see it, I am reminded that I was exactly where I needed to be.
Robert L. Mlodzik is visitor services manager at the NCMA.