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Mapping the Future Perfect
A love of architecture and geography has spurred Laurel Porcari to reinvent her career and in turn help revive New Orleans's wounded creative glass community.
Laurel Porcari sculpts architectural glass in her New Orleans studio. Glass requires technique and some heavy lifting. It is a hot, physically demanding process. Porcari embeds drawings and textures in the medium. Asked to describe the kiln-formed works, she speaks conceptually about mapping and flow, about scale and place. Given these terms and her Big Easy address, it's easy to presume that the artist's designs reference the broken levees and flooded neighborhoods wrought by Hurricane Katrina. They don't. Porcari doesn't go in for the literal.
For a commission in Bend, Oregon, she is creating a 150-foot pathway for a residence out of three-quarter-inch-thick glass slabs layered with shapes and colored textures. Each piece is laminated to a mirror, to bounce the light back up through the glass. There is a cyclical, seasonal theme running through the piece, but nothing overt. Her glass work recalls landscapes, weather patterns, traffic, the jet stream, but also human-scale textures. "The flow idea was happening before the storm: rivers and spawning, flows and switchbacks. After the storm it became-it is almost unfortunate-it became cliché to talk about flow," she explains. "The work is very much about where I am at a given time-mapped things, shifted scales and the blurred perception of what is 'big' and what is 'small.' Sometimes it looks like what you see from 32,000 feet, sometimes it's like the wrinkles on my hand."
Although blithe interpretations fail to sum up her work, as an artist and educator, Porcari is rooted in New Orleans. She is CEO of the nonprofit New Orleans Creative Glass Institute (NOCGI), an open-access glass studio and education center. Before Katrina the New Orleans glass art community was thriving-a quirky col-lection of private studios ready to rival Seattle's. Afterward many studios were damaged or destroyed, and surviving glass furnaces went cold in the powerless city. Founded post-storm by Porcari and a team of artists, architects and cultural supporters, the institute is the physical and emotional epicenter of the city's glass arts revival. Like her sculptures, NOCGI is all about place.
Porcari isn't a New Orleans native; she grew up in New Jersey. The devastated landscape offered many reasons to leave, but she stayed, returning and retrenching after the evacuation. The city fostered her development as a glass artist. It shifted her path from architecture to art. Her epiphany came when she saw a large, cast glass sculpture in the New Orleans warehouse district by the artist Gene Koss. "I realized that the material held the potential to build something big, environmental and site-specific-at a scale where you can put a body inside it," she recalls.
Porcari trained as an architect at Pratt Institute and Columbia University before discovering glass art-a background that starts to explain her fascination with both drawing and scale. Architects are often tasked with representing large buildings or sprawling landscapes, essentially drafting a kind of miniature world. Graduate school gave Porcari the theoretical vocabulary-"architectural ammunition," she says-that carries through her current work. But for an architect with a growing interest in maps and geography, academia was too refined. In 1993 she moved to Australia to teach. The continent was liberating. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, where Porcari was an associate professor, was open and supportive of interdisciplinary exchange. She taught a design studio and organized gallery and lecture series events bringing a broad range of architects and artists to Melbourne. "Maybe it is because the culture is new, maybe because it is postcolonial, I am not sure, but they were more edgy in allowing art and design to blend. Australia is an island culture and is made up of people from other places; this creates an internal tension. In order to work the boundaries between things, you have to understand that tension," says Porcari.
It's no surprise then that one of the first pieces she crafted for a gallery exhibition fell somewhere between art and architecture. Porcari mapped the coordinates of an area at the edge of downtown Melbourne onto plastic. The result was layers of analytical drawings hand-printed onto 400 acrylic sheets.
Returning to the States in 2000, Porcari found herself teaching at Tulane University in New Orleans. Looking for an academic environment receptive to cross-disciplinary ideas developed abroad, she found the fine arts department's glass facility. The foundry offered exploration, and soon after stumbling across Koss's sculpture on the streets of the city, she left the architecture department for the M.F.A. program. Glass, unlike acrylic sheets, offered structural integrity and still could be textured and layered.
At the time Hurricane Katrina hit, Porcari had established herself in the New Orleans glass community and was back to teaching architecture at Tulane. The storm changed everything as the whole economy essentially shut down. Her studio wasn't flooded, but there was no power, no mail and no work. "I felt cut loose like a cork," she says. "Before the storm you could make art and display and sell it locally. But when something happens locally, you are left with nothing." Porcari and her husband, Joe Doherty, a woodworker, evacuated immediately to Houston and then spent seven weeks at Bullseye Glass in Portland, Oregon.
Returning to the disaster-struck city, two things came together: typical for Porcari, they drew on architecture and art. First, unem-ployed, she took a job at Priestley Charter School, which needed help developing an architecture and construction curriculum. Then in January 2006, the Craft Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) held a meeting of New Orleans artists to assess damage-the whole glass community showed up, desperate for functioning studio space. This was the impetus for NOCGI. As the facility took root, Porcari was able to bring high schoolers from Priestley and architecture students from Tulane (enrolled in a class on architectural glass fabrication) into the studio to train in glass art technique. She encourages her students to play with reflection and refraction, with glass's inherent duality of mass and lightness, but really, Porcari admits, they just love to make stuff.
It's taken a full two years for Porcari to get back to the place she was before the storm. She is working on architectural glass comis-sions as well as public art proposals and is in discussions with fabricators about larger commercial ventures. Yet, rebuilding is slow and, at times, disheartening. A collective project, NOCGI keeps the creative community in the city-a clear coordinate within New Orleans's redevelopment chaos. "After the storm it seemed like lights out, but we didn't want that to happen," says Porcari. "If I didn't have anyone to talk to, if all my friends had left, I wouldn't be here right now. We had to create reasons to stay."