Artist explores the tragedy of natural disaster in ‘Muddy Waters’

Named after Bessie Smith’s 1927 performance “Muddy Waters,” Karon Davis’ plaster-covered exhibition at Wilding Cran Gallery exemplifies the struggles that victims of natural disasters face. The show is inspired by the consequences of climate change, including the displacement of underprivileged communities.

“I started thinking about black bodies being affected by brown water, displaced by brown water, our relationship with water…” Davis told the Los Angeles Times.

Davis came up with the idea for the collection after she and her son were forced to evacuate from her home in Ojai, Calif. as a during of the Thomas Fire.

“We had been planning a different exhibit together initially,” said Anthony Cran, the owner of Wilding Cran Gallery. “She couldn’t go back to her home for three months; so, the idea from the show changed because of that.”

Davis’ work is placed front and center in the narrow space. The eight pieces comprising “Muddy Waters” are displayed in an oval shape in the foresection of the gallery. As a unit, the pieces are meant to appear immersed in a flood.

The first structure represents “Moses,” leading his people through this migration with his staff in hand. The wooden staff breaks from Davis’ white plaster aesthetic, but brings a certain heaviness to the work. Behind “Moses,” “Blue Boy” towers elegantly, inspired by Thomas Gainsborough’s painting “The Blue Boy.” Beside him is a mailbox, floating in the water, half drowned.

A few of the sculptures were inspired by images Davis had seen online of natural disasters victims in cities like Houston and New Orleans, according to Cran.

“God Bless Preston,” was inspired by an image she saw of a man trying to catch hold of a stop sign in Houston. The man barely grips on with one arm as the rest of his body is forced away by a natural force, represented by the thick layers of plaster.

Davis placed herself within the collection as well, with “Beth and Solomon.” The sculpture depicts a boy helping a woman out of the water. Cran said this represents Davis’ son guiding the way as she tries to keep up with him. Davis also includes a depiction of her evacuation — “Noah and His Ark” is an intricate piece showing two women in a boat filled with their belongings, as they are led by a portly man. The man pulls the boat along as one of the women holds her belongings to her chest, and the other sits legs wide apart, indifferent. Among the items in the boat is a candle stand and other decorative household items.

Though all of these pieces depict devastating situations, they are followed by a sense of promise. The sculpture “Mami Wata” displays a woman carrying a water jug above her head. The jug is full of clean water, which Cran says symbolizes hope at the end.

As an addition to the “Muddy Waters” exhibit, Davis pays

tribute to Hurricane Katrina in the sculpture “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” (and Neither Does Trump). The work depicts two children on a roof surrounded by yellow wallpaper and a small sculpture of a shark fin at the bottom.

Through her signature plaster and wire sculptures, Davis accurately represents the impact of a natural disaster, especially since she has been through one herself. The intricacies of this collection are impressive; using personal tragedy and creativity, Davis recreates famous photos and paintings through her eyes and lived experiences. Taking from biblical to present day accounts of natural disasters, Davis uses the evocative white plaster to retell the stories of those who have endured such calamities and bring them back to present day. “Muddy Waters” is a moving, timely and relevant exhibit, one that demonstrates increasingly concerning environmental issues that continue to plague the U.S.

The exhibit will be on view at Wilding Cran Gallery until Nov. 4.