artbeat (2007-08)

Ninety cuddly pillows fashioned after the 'deadliest and most intense' hurricanes

How, Uh, Cute

by Leslie Wylie

Artist Lora Lode was fascinated with hurricanes long before Katrina blew in and swallowed New Orleans whole. Or, perhaps more accurately, she's intrigued by how society deals with hurricanes--the way we rank their muscle on a scale of one to five, assign them benign names like "Bob" and "Carol," and, when all's said and done, toss them into an archival database far removed from the storm's real-world aftermath.

"I'm interested in general in some of the ways we sort of domesticate, or societize, excessive events or things," Lode explains via a telephone interview from her home in Chicago. "I'm interested in that idea of taking something that is sort of spectacular by its nature and mediating it to some extent. A hurricane is obviously this very powerful and unmanageable event, but we manage it by these systems of categorizing and naming."

Science aside, Lode draws inspiration from pop culture--the media spectacle that happens around large-scale events, for instance, or the way such spectacles are immortalized by way of over-the-top man-versus-nature flicks like Tornado , Earthquake and The Perfect Storm . "They try to humanize it," she says. "They try to wrap it up in a neat package, which is never very true for people who have to live through something like that. It doesn't really resolve the personal life situations that might have been affected. Those things live on for a really long time."

Lode's new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Knoxville, Stormy Weather: Hurricanes and Their Names , takes such behavior one logical step further. Her idea was to take hurricanes' inherent violence and express it using a kinder, gentler medium--something comforting, like a pillow, an object one can pick up and hold in his or her own hands.

Each of the approximately 90 beanbag-pillows that are strung, piled and lumped around the gallery space is roughly modeled after the actual pattern of the hurricane that inspired it, as recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (renderings of the hurricanes can be accessed online at NOAA's Historical Significant Events Imagery database).

Each pillow is also embroidered with its hurricane's name: Emily, Larry, Bonnie, Phillippe. Since 1953, the U.S. National Weather Service has identified hurricanes with human names, feminine names only until 1979 when masculine names were added to the list. Lode points out the cultural implications of the names selected; they're reflective of both the era and the culture from which they were chosen--Atlantic hurricane names, for instance, may be French, Spanish or English, reflecting the major languages bordering the ocean where the storms occur.

The regional lists, which include one name for each letter of the alphabet except for Q, U and Z, are reused every six years, and the hurricanes are assigned names in chronological order according to when they take place. If 2005's Katrina had taken place any earlier or later, for instance, we might now refer to the hurricane that devastated New Orleans as Hurricane Jose, or Hurricane Lee. Names are respectfully "retired" if a hurricane is too deadly or costly, kind of like a jersey or number is retired after a legendary athlete leaves a sport.

Lode considers herself a sculptor, primarily, but not necessarily in a traditional sense. "I'm a little more focused on either conceptual or installation-based work," she says. Sewing qualifies as a form of textile sculpture, but Lode says its capabilities for expression in this case may be closer in line with drawing. "I look at sewing as a way of three-dimensional drawing," she says. "It's a way to comprehend something, to draw things and look at them in ways to try and understand them. But there's a certain impossibility to it, in trying to represent something that big."

When not stitching hurricane pillows, Lode teaches part-time at the Chicago Art Institute. She's also worked as an independent curator, and between 1999 and 2002, she was a member of the socially based activist artwork collective Temporary Services. She met Chris Molinsky and Leslie Starritt, directors of the Art Gallery of Knoxville and Chicago Art Institute graduates, while living in Knoxville last year and was impressed by the exhibitions they were curating.

"I really thought their programming was the most progressive programming in Knoxville--more in line with what I would say I'm more accustomed to seeing in a bigger urban environment," she says. "It was surprising in a good way."

When Lode invited Molisky and Starritt to see her work, they were particularly impressed by her hurricane pillow project, which was still in its fledgling stages. They gave her an exhibition date, and she began working toward it, researching the different names and identities of hurricanes past and recreating them in pillow form. "I wanted to take it to another level that could be understood in a different way," Lode says.

What: Stormy Weather: Hurricanes and Their Names