On the 10th anniversary of the 2008 flood, Cedar Rapids artist Mel Andringa looks back to look forward

Art Lost and Found exhibit

The Cherry Building — opening reception Thursday, June 7 at 6 p.m.

Morphing Murals of the Drawing Legion

CSPS Hall — opening reception Thursday, June 7 at 5 p.m.

CSPS Hall, 1103 3rd St SE, underwent major renovations after the flood, before reopening in 2011. — illustration by Jordan Sellergren

“The very first work I did was about a man who worked 25 years on a painting that he couldn’t complete. And it was seen as a disaster, but I tended to see it differently,” Mel Andringa, producing director of Cedar Rapids nonprofit Legion Arts, said in a recent phone call. “I tended to see it as the story of a person remaining engaged in their work despite everybody’s expectations for the finishing of it. And I’ve used that as my guiding aesthetic ever since.”

Ten years ago, Andringa experienced a different sort of disaster, in the catastrophic flooding of the Cedar River that drowned much of the New Bohemia district, Czech Village, Time Check neighborhood and downtown Cedar Rapids. And, as the anniversary of the flood approaches, he’s finding ways to defy expectations and stay engaged while engaging others.

In 2008, he had been considering retirement. Now, he’s curating two major shows, both opening June 7. One is of his own post-flood work (running through July), and will be held at CSPS Hall, the renovated New Bo building that houses his studio and Legion Arts, both of which suffered great losses due to the flood. The other (running through June 16) is a look back at the 2x2xU exhibit that was hanging all around New Bo when the flood came through. For that exhibit, Art Lost and Found, he reached out to the artists who had created the 2-by-2-foot paintings, many of whom had their pieces returned to them after the flood, to ask for them to be included.

Looking forward and looking back are both part of one process for Andringa. They’re inextricably linked in the way that artists face disaster and manage the grief and loss that come with it.

“Some of my [newer] work is a reference to things like gentrification,” he said. “Others of it is a reference to the loss of a broken-tree forest behind our building, or the flora and fauna changing in the neighborhood. I didn’t really think of these as all flood-related until this anniversary came up. And then I went through and I sorted all my photographs from that time, and from the time between, and I recognized that there was just a lot of it that seemed to have as a theme this idea of lost and found art, or of loss and how artists deal with it.”

“I believe that artists are a little bit of a different animal when it comes to dealing with loss,” Andringa continued. “When most people deal with loss they have one of two reactions. The first is kind of like the Beatles song: ‘Get back to where you once belonged.’ They want everything back exactly the way they had it before the catastrophe. If they lost their microwave, they want a new microwave exactly like the old one. They want their wallpaper back that they had, they want their possessions back, their photos back, they want their job back if their livelihood depended on it. The problem with that is that the flood is still ahead of them. When they get everything restored to them, they’re still looking at a disaster, because they spend all that time recovering.

“The second kind of response is like Rodgers and Hammerstein: ‘I wanna wash that man right out of my hair.’ ‘I want a new microwave, I want new wallpaper, I want a house on high ground, I want a new job, I want a new partner — I want to forget about everything I had; I want to put it all behind me.’ And the problem with that is … whatever they do that runs into the slightest obstacle, it seems like a disaster to them. It’s just so much energy to leave all that behind you.

“I think artists have a third response. It’s not like a song, exactly. It’s like, ‘Something was taken from me. And I’m going to wrestle with that experience until it gives me something back — a picture, a song, a dance, a poem, a novel, whatever. I’m gonna wrestle something from that experience, because that experience in many ways is my unique possession, and I’m gonna use it in my art.’”

Andringa found that third response in hearing from the 2x2xU artists that he contacted for Art Lost and Found. That sense of utilizing the past as a means of moving forward was so strong that, in many cases, he’ll be printing out those communications and incorporating them as text into the exhibit. They’ll be displayed alongside works that have been returned or, in some cases, in place of paintings that are still missing.

There’s opportunity in this for the larger community to learn to embrace that artistic method of integrating looking back and looking forward, even as new, high-end construction brings influxes of residents to the neighborhood ready to call themselves (New) Bohemians (a term that, Andringa points out, “loses its meaning when it gains majority status”). As part of the Art Lost and Found opening reception, which begins at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, a conversation with some of the still-local artists will take place at 7 p.m. And, as part of his CSPS exhibit, the Morphing Murals of the Drawing Legion, Andringa will be in his studio during extended gallery hours on Thursdays, giving talks or drawing lessons, or doing performed paintings.

Despite the expectations of those who view an anniversary as a moment to mark and then move on from, Andringa will remain engaged in the work.

Genevieve Trainor owns a 2x2xU painting of a mermaid, but it’s not from the 2008 exhibit. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 244.

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