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Local: Artistic Benefits

Valley artists gather at First Friday to help Hurrican Katrina victims

 by Benjamin Horowitz
 published on Thursday, October 6, 2005

This group of Valley artists, led by Andrew Benson and Henri Bernard, is uniting to help Katrina victims and working to build a sense of community in the Valley art scene./issues/arts/694225
This group of Valley artists, led by Andrew Benson and Henri Bernard, is uniting to help Katrina victims and working to build a sense of community in the Valley art scene.


In one of the Phoenix's most historic buildings, a group of artists listens as local artistic promoter Andrew Benson talks about an event taking shape for October's First Friday.

First Friday is Phoenix's monthly downtown art walk that sees thousands of visitors, and this month Benson and his company Urban Promotions are treating patrons to something new. The event is still a little less than a week away, and the halls of First Studio, once housing Phoenix's first television station, are now scattered with artwork.

"It's hard to find didactic art in Phoenix," says Benson. "This is definitely an attempt to change that."

Benson, 22, an interdisciplinary studies major, and fellow promoter Henri Benard, recognized the need for a community response to Hurricane Katrina. Benard is a 23-year-old religious studies major who started Theonix Production Company, a non-profit organization with the goal to raise enough capital to start a youth community arts center in downtown Phoenix. Working with the Community Fine Arts Program at Osborne Middle School, Benard has seen the impact art can have in a community environment. He says doing an art show at First Friday based on integrating community and art wasn't a new idea.

"It's an idea that we've had for the past three or four years," he says. "The maturity level just wasn't there until now."

The show is a prototype for the future, says Benson. The two plan to continue showing on a monthly basis, exploring various social issues. The focus of the October event will be the pictures taken by three photographers who traveled to Houston to witness and document the effects of Katrina.

It was more than a year ago, while covering the Republican National Convention, when Sean Gulley, now a 23-year-old ASU photography graduate, realized his lens offered more than just a chance to capture life's interesting moments. He says being around some of the country's most powerful leaders and talking to protestors and participants made him look at his work as a crucial type of storytelling.

After the hurricane hit, Gulley and photography major David Lukens, 28, drove to Houston, where they met another photography major, Sarah Reigner. The three arrived as the Astrodome was reaching capacity and evacuees were being turned away. While they didn't go all the way to New Orleans, they were still struck by the immensity of Katrina's impact.

"The moment we walked in the Astrodome was when it hit me," says Reigner, 22. "You see 16,000 people, and you realize that many people lost everything."

Lukens, Gulley and Reigner went through the city talking to and photographing as many people as possible. The three say they encountered pessimists, optimists and a lot of stories that needed to be told. The group views photography as an essential means to document moments in history and help connect people across the globe, portraying those affected by the hurricane as more than just marginalized victims.

"We can represent thousands of people with our lenses and try to effect positive social change through our photographs," says Gulley.

Mike Chesworth, a freelance filmmaker is also documenting the aftereffects of Katrina, setting up what he calls a "video confessional." After viewing the photographs at First Studio, gallery visitors will have the opportunity to vent their feelings and reactions to a camera. Chesworth will then edit the footage and display it at November's First Friday.

Also taking part in the benefit will be various area bands, songwriters, an improv troupe, a middle school hip-hop dance group and spoken word poets. Area artists will also be performing live art, and tables will be set up for various charities, including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, United Way and Amnesty International. Spoken word artist King Savior, who has lived in the Phoenix area since 1989, says he has never seen anything like it.

"There's a lot of division in the Valley among artists," he says. "This project, bringing everyone together, is a beautiful thing."

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