"To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions in the preinvented world..."
- David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives
THE Boo Boo Bear Express could not have existed without the community who made it. It is named after Kahi Augustin, a young student who put his heart into the boat and who tragically lost his life shortly after. It is a product of Kahi and hundreds of other people moving closer to one another over four years to create something that expresses who we are as a group of people living in and around New Orleans, a lillypad city in an era of rising seas. The boat is more than a boat. The physical shape of the boat contains thousands of hours of individual writing processes, emotional reckonings with trauma, arts retreats into far-off wetlands, newly forged relationships with those natural spaces, the creation of a new public school dedicated to a deeper understanding of Louisiana's environmental truths, and the heartbreaking passing of a unique, beautiful soul. The long slow transformation of this boat from idea to community vessel deserves a telling in itself, which is the point of this website.
It started as an idea to commemorate Hurricane Katrina in a way that respected the storm's impact on such a huge group of people. The storm slung millions of very specific ruptures into each individual life that it touched, a shower of arrows that no one avoided, regardless of material loss. My own personal experience of Hurricane Katrina was wrapped up with my family, looking for a way out of the flooded city in the passenger seat of my dad's car. So it's fitting that the project started with him in his garage, trying to figure out how to build a frame for a paper canoe.
We decided on a boat because of various artistic influences, the woodworking challenge, which we were anxious to tackle together, and the way boats after Katrina transformed from pleasure crafts to lifesaving devices in a matter of minutes.
We spent the summer of 2015 figuring it out. His precision as a surgeon ensured a steady, strong, ship, as close as you might get to perfection. There were times when a cut went wrong and he raged with anger, red in the face at what I considered to be a small failure. I came to realize that this enlarged pressure is what he lives with on a daily basis in the operating room, where, as he told me, "If I messed up like that, I could kill somebody."
Things were definitely simplified by a clever design for a lightweight, inexpensive skin-on-frame canoe. It follows in the prehistoric tradition of canoes and kayaks with frames built from the bones of whales or steamed wood, covered with seal skin or the bark of birch trees. Home-built skin on frame boats reached their popularity in the 50's and 60's, but seem to be making a bit of a comeback, thanks to shipwrights like Jeff Horton, whose Kudzu Kraft guide walked us through each step with a design that can be made with easy-to-find and even recycled materials. It also preserves some ancient techniques, like the deer sinew lashing that attach the ribs of the boat to the rest of the wooden frame.
Friends and family contributed to this process. Musician Mike Doussan donated reclaimed cypress that he saved from the recently-demolished Lakeview School. Its old grain now graces the decks and the thwarts and points the boat forward through the water.
And as we built, I put a call out for the stories that would form the first layer of paper for the hull. I sat for long hours listening to family friends, generous with their honesty and their wine, tell me what they went through. Sometimes it was hilarious, and sometimes it was excruciating. These oral histories were transcribed as other writing came in from family or from out of the blue. They came to form the first and second layers of the boat, a strong foundation, and were celebrated at Byrdie's Gallery in New Orleans on August 29, 2015, the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
As the frame and the first two layers came together, I began to ask myself about the give and take of using this kind of deep, personal material in a piece of art. What does someone get by (painfully) excising these parts of themselves for the creation of this boat? The act of writing was supposed to have given a lift, a release, a careful reflection, and the satisfaction that the story would come together with others to create a fully functional boat. It supposed to provide an alternative to the individual pain of an individual experience.
Whether it provided that or not, the boat was ready to move. Propelled by a grant from the Platforms Fund, we organized a free outdoor writing retreat in the marshes - the Workshop on the Water. Local farmer, writer, wetlands guide and friend, Eleanor Warner, came fully on board, along with another friend, Kate Kokontis, who is a critical race historian, writer, and educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. We put out a call for applicants and gathered a group of 8 emerging voices from South Louisiana who were willing to spend two days and a night surrounded by nothing but strangers and sprawling acres of brackish wetlands. These marshes, Kate's carefully-engineered writing program (which you can access here), the openness of all the writers, the fresh food, the migration of the pogies, all came together to create something special. Back in New Orleans, we combined the stories into a new magazine and added them to the boat. We then came back together at the CORE USA gallery space, read the stories, ate, enjoyed each other's company, and shared it with friends and family.
And then we did it all again in the Fall in Chicot State Park.
Those retreats in Layers 3 and 5 were a turning point for the boat thanks especially to one person who saw a new way forward for it. The application for the first retreat had asked participants, "What might you gain from a weekend of writing at Turtle Cove?" One person responded, "Energy and motivation that continue to fuel my fire to fight for Louisiana water and youth!"
What actually ended up happening was that the applicant, Kitty O'Connor, became integral to fueling this project's fight for Louisiana water and youth. After joining two of the boat's writing retreats, she wanted to give the same opportunity to her students at New Harmony High School. She and a small group of educators had been in the process of opening this brand new, radically different kind of school in New Orleans." As our name suggests, students will work to find new harmonies in order to restore balance that has been lost in our coastal communities, finding new ways of sustaining ourselves in an uncertain future." The boat lived on a stage in the school's cafeteria for the entirety of its inaugural schoolyear. That stage served as a boat shop where the founding ninth grade class of New Harmony became integral to the construction of the final four layers of the boat. They collectively designed layers, cut thousands of strips of paper, scraped, taped, sanded, popped air bubbles, and meticulously applied their own writing and others' to the boat.
In March of 2019, we organized a two-night arts retreat for nine students back to Turtle Cove in the Manchac Marshes. The students wrote stories about their experiences in the wetlands, made linoleum carvings, took a photography workshop, stayed up impossibly late, canoed, and even surveyed the invertebrate communities living in the muck beneath the grasses. We then made a zine with the art. We coated the boat with a new layer and applied their art to the boat, and in May we displayed the art and celebrated at The Aquarium Gallery for the St. Claude Second Saturday art walk.
At a second end of the year exhibition at New Harmony, the nine students shared their work with their classmates, who were then invited to participate in the final layer by creating garfish scales for the final layer of the boat.
And finally! On July 28th, 2019, after applying about 700 paper garfish scales to the hull and waterproofing the layers, a beautiful crowd of people gathered on the banks of Bayou St. John. Some had written stories buried deep in the hull. Others were walking along and curious about the crowd. My mom and her our friend Brenda, whose words cover the second layer of the boat, made jambalaya and chicken wings. The Flaming Flagettes appeared with their standards raised, and the boat for the first time ever touched the water. It cut smoothly through the water, paddled by New Harmony Students Kyren Augustin and Elaina Carter. My nephew Thompson jumped in too. 1
Later in the summer, New Harmony moved to a different school building, adjacent to the bayou where the boat took its first float. New Harmony students can now carry the boat directly from school to get out on the water in a boat they put so much of their heart and soul into.
I hope you can see from this relatively short history how many people gave so much to make this boat possible. If not, there's an entire page with an impressive list of contributors to this project, as well as of the artists and visionaries who have helped this boat materialize. So enjoy the readings, share them if you like, check out what the boat is up to on Instagram, and let me know about ideas you might have for the boat or for your own boat.