One Man’s Island

It ain’t exactly Easter Island, that remote speck out in the Pacific known for the 900 or so extant clunky heads sticking out of the rocky turf, but Tom Gamache figures he’s on to something equally as provocative with his burgeoning sculpture garden in Lakeview.

Gamache, a 60-year-old marketer and events planner for mega-companies and the owner of an art gallery on uptown Magazine Street, is steeped in art – paintings and sculpture – but admits “I can’t draw a straight line.”

What he can do, he says, is plant the seeds of art appreciation and creativity in others, and that’s where his expansive Hurricane Katrina-casualty-turned-open-air-and-as-yet-unnamed sculpture-garden comes in Gamache, a tall, angular man with a transplanted liver working inside him, stands in front of his meticulously manicured and landscaped home and throws a disdainful glance three blocks up Stafford Place to the wall of the infamous 17th Street Canal.

You sense that Gamache is standing there for a few prolonged minutes, across the street from his sculpture garden, proud of his victories over the busted canal wall, the ravenous flood waters of 2005, the failings of his own innards and the body politic that conspires against his beloved world of art.

“I’ve talked to a lot of teachers and, in particular, a friend of mine who is a principal of the International School,” Gamache says. “Some of my teacher friends teach in the poorest schools and they tell me that the art programs and the physical ed programs – anything that would be standard programs in most states – have been cut from the public school system. It’s hard to understand that, but it’s a fact.” He continues, “So, I got together with a number of other people and we decided if the government or the school system itself wouldn’t address these issues, then individuals in the community had the responsibility of addressing these issues. There is a crisis in education, especially where the poor and disenfranchised are concerned. Many public schools don’t even have toilet paper budgeted for their schools.

After a great deal of debate we decided to build a multi-purpose community garden that would be developed in a more complex direction. What people see now and talk about are the sculptures. But we’re going to install what’s called a ‘wishing tree’ where people who come to the garden will actually pin wishes that will be read ,usually by an artist. The wishing tree is an old Asian concept where people simply pin a wish to a tree. No name on it. Just a wish. I find that exciting. “

Gamache talks about introducing literature and poetry and readings to the sculpture garden. There will be wooden walkways. Possibly an amphitheater, and fruit, vegetable and herb gardens tended and cared for by children. A farmers market where people from all over New Orleans will gather to shop.

“There are local farmers who can’t get into other farmer’s markets, so why not have one here right on these grounds, right there in the heart of New Orleans? “

Gamache announces that he has a “local architect” working on several of the facilities for the garden “… and an architect from Finland and from different parts of the United States … and the world! We’re looking at raised gardens and possibly a central area for performance work so we can do music, theater. A very multi-purposed building so that anybody who has a valid artistic statement can come to use the space. There will be no cost to the artist and there will be no charge to enter. Art is for everyone.”

Breathtaking to be sure. But charge or no charge. sooner or later it comes down to money. So who will pay for all this?

“I’ve been talking to a friend of mine who is an expert in philanthropy,” Gamache says. “He worked at one time for the Ford Foundation and has turned us onto a number of foundations that are very promising, especially if we work in the literature and poetry areas. There are many grants out there that are available to us. Those grants are being looked into. And, of course, we’re looking at a whole team of people based on volunteerism and of getting support from both individuals and companies to donate the particular materials that will be needed and the people with specialized talents and skills that will be needed: carpenters, gardeners, plumbers.”

The entire litany, from plans extraordinaire on a mental drawing board to the kid planting that first tomato plant, have a certain “take that” feel to it, all aimed at that wall up the street and the ravages and misery it unleashed.    

But the garden growing – and all that the garden entails in Tom Gamache’s mind – is much more than an act of revenge against a disastrous hurricane, the return from which has gone on seemingly since the dawn of civilization.

“We’ve really gone beyond talking about ‘recovery’ in New Orleans,” Gamache says. “Or at least we should be. And that’s what we’re doing. Rather than taking the view that New Orleans is still recovering, this is a concerted effort to show just … that we’re beyond that. A lot of people from a variety of neighborhoods want to get involved in this project. I see it every day. They like the idea because they see this as New Orleans transforming.” He continues, “This is a more positive attitude, one of moving from the past and recovering to one of creating. New Orleans is the very essence of being a welcoming city … and a city based on music, jazz and art from people who are very, very famous to people who are not so famous. This gives them the ability to show their work and inspire people who may not be so inspired simply because these programs have been taken from them in the public schools.”

Still, Gamache returns to that wall. Not so much in anger, it finally seems, but as a silent catalyst for something good that has always been, a song only muted for a time – never silenced by a hurricane.

“It is ironic that that tragedy, that repaired wall, stands as one of the reasons for the development of this new community, one that’s based on art and creativity,” he says. “This is meant to be an inspiring project that literally comes from the seeds of destruction – a phoenix rising from the ashes. It is really a homage to the people of New Orleans. We didn’t continue to say ‘let’s just rebuild.’ We said, ‘Let’s transform.’”

A kid on a bike zips down Stafford Place and doesn’t even give the oddly shaped growths in the huge plots to his right a glance.

Gamache moves the conversation from New Orleans’ rise from ruin to New Orleans’ place on the world stage.

“New Orleans is actually part of the global community now,” he says. “There was so much attention focused on New Orleans after Katrina. That attention has remained and has focused. Before that we reveled in our city that, in so many ways, was merely a secretive provincial haven for so many, many types of people. This garden, this effort, is just the opposite.” He continues, “It is taking the real essences of the multiculturalism of New Orleans and actually showing that to the world, that so many cultures – the Creoles, the Caribbean elements, the French, the Spanish … so many others that we have are no longer just there separately but have blended, and New Orleans has become the real melting pot that so many people have always talked about. This celebrates just that: People from all walks of live celebrating New Orleans together.”

Gamache ticks off the titles and histories of each of the 24 sculptures presently occupying the garden and avers that “it will grow to 45 within two weeks.” He speaks eloquently about local artist Luis Colmenares, this sculpture from Zimbabwe and this one from Cameroon …
The kid on the bicycle is traversing Stafford Place now in the opposite direction. This time, he stops and surveys the sculpture garden.

Gamache doesn’t say a word. He just smiles.

Who needs Easter Island?

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