NEW ORLEANS, LA (February 4, 2021) – Ogden Museum of Southern Art presents The Guardian of the Wetlands: Works by John Taylor, an exhibition presented in collaboration with the National Wildlife Federation, featuring works by John Taylor, storyteller, environmentalist, self-taught artist and life-long resident of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. The Guardian of the Wetlands is on view at Ogden Museum February 6 to May 30, 2021.
This exhibition features a variety of works by John Taylor, including eight walking sticks carved from wood found along the banks of the Mississippi River and eight photographs of the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle. The exhibition also features historical information about Louisiana wetland loss, and provides a number of ways people can get involved with restoration efforts. Options range from recording one’s memories of the wetlands through the Restore #OurCoast project to signing up to receive information from the National Wildlife Federation and other organizations doing this important work.
Born in 1947, John Taylor has explored and celebrated the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle his entire life. The only part of the Central Wetlands system that is located in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, the wetland was once a place for the community to fish, catch turtles, go crawfishing and, for the children of the area, a magical place to explore. Cypress wood harvested from the swamp was used to build many of the homes that are still standing in the neighborhood today. As a boy, Taylor collected herbs and roots from the wetland and sold them to make money. Later, his dream to become a game warden was dismissed when he was told that there were no Black game wardens and that he should pursue other work. Consequently, Taylor dropped out of school and spent his time learning about the ecology and wildlife of the wetlands on his own.
Today, Taylor is not only a naturalist, but also a talented artist. His father taught him to whittle and, as a child, Taylor would hang around and carve with him instead of going out to play. As an adult, Taylor uses a simple utility blade and whittles on his porch every day, creating walking sticks made of driftwood collected from the wetlands and the river.
After a trip to Haiti sponsored by LSU, Taylor also acquired an interest in landscape photography. Taylor now has a large portfolio of work, documenting the flora and fauna that he visits every day. He believes creating art is a kind of meditation.
Over his lifetime, Taylor has witnessed the 400-acre Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle transform from a vibrant freshwater cypress-tupelo swamp to a ghost swamp of brackish water. Salt water from the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet shipping channel, built in the 1960s, inundated the area and caused major degradation. What used to be an old-growth swamp filled with cypress trees, water lilies and freshwater wildlife, such as fish, alligators, otters, birds and crawfish, is mostly open water today.
There is an ongoing effort to restore the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle to its natural state, and with the closure of the shipping channel post-Katrina, Taylor has seen a resurgence of the wetlands. A historian, storyteller and now a staunch advocate for wetland restoration, he has spoken to hundreds of visitors and locals about the loss of protective wetlands and how it made his community more vulnerable to the levee failure and surge of Hurricane Katrina. Using his voice and his art, he continues this work, so that generations to come may also have access to the unique environment he holds so dear.
“We’re honored to showcase this talented New Orleans area artist and his passion for our local environment,” says Ellen Balkin, Director of Education, Ogden Museum. “John Taylor’s beautiful carvings and photographs highlight the important story of wetland loss, a narrative critical to both our city’s past and future. The exhibition will also provide ways for adults and students to get involved in wetland restoration and offer lesson plans for teachers.”
“John Taylor is a lifelong advocate for Louisiana’s wetlands who intimately understands coastal land loss and the importance of restoring the coast,” says Amanda R. Moore, Deputy Director, Gulf Program, National Wildlife Federation. “The National Wildlife Federation is grateful to work with John to help lift up his artistry and voice to build awareness and inspire others to use their voices in support of coastal restoration.”
ABOUT COASTAL LAND LOSS IN LOUISIANA
Coastal Louisiana is made up of millions of acres of wetlands built over thousands of years by the Mississippi River. As floodwaters deposited huge amounts of sediment at the river’s delta, the new land ultimately formed a coastal ecosystem that makes up 40 percent of the wetlands in the lower 48 states. Louisiana’s wide array of coastal habitats are home to millions of birds, fish and other wildlife, including endangered or threatened animals like the Louisiana black bear, piping plover and green sea turtle. The wetlands also protect the homes of millions of people in South Louisiana. The coast’s unique culture is made up of people whose way of life is tied to the bayous and nearby wetlands, including Native Americans, Acadians (Cajuns), Creoles and other peoples who have settled here from all over the world.
The wetlands that make up the Mississippi River Delta are an extremely valuable resource that provide critically important regional and national services: providing seafood and wildlife for us to enjoy; improving water quality by filtering out pollutants and absorbing excess nutrients; replenishing aquifers; controlling erosion; and helping to dissipate storm surges.
At one time, there were extensive wetlands around New Orleans and other coastal communities that provided a natural resilience to storms. But the amount – and strength – of Louisiana’s wetlands has diminished drastically in the last century. Today, coastal Louisiana is losing 24 square miles of wetlands each year—roughly equivalent to a football field every 100 minutes. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost an area of coastal land equal to the size of the state of Delaware.
Wetland loss occurs because of both manmade and natural causes. Subsidence (natural sinking) and wave erosion are natural processes that can weaken and decrease wetlands over time. Humans cause wetland loss with the construction of river levees, which restrict the flow of river water, sand and mud into adjacent wetlands and stop the natural land-building process. Other human causes of land loss include channels, canals and dams. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) was a massive shipping channel completed in the 1960s that brought salt water into the freshwater wetlands, killing the trees, eroding the land and destroying tens of thousands of acres of protective wetlands that buffered communities like the Lower 9th Ward.
John Taylor witnessed the near-death of the beautiful and protective cypress swamp surrounding his community after the MRGO was constructed. During Hurricane Katrina, due in part to the wetland loss caused by the MRGO, the levees along the channel were decimated by storm surge, leading to catastrophic flooding of surrounding communities.
Hurricane Katrina underscored the importance of a healthy system of wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf. Wetlands serve as nature’s first line of defense by absorbing much of the storm surge caused by hurricanes.
Today, the good news is that there are solutions at hand and restoration projects moving forward to help ensure the river delta is safe and sustainable for people and wildlife. The National Wildlife Federation is a longtime advocate of coastal Louisiana restoration. They work with partner organizations and community leaders like John Taylor to advance landscape-scale, sustainable coastal projects. One of the keys to our success will be steady support from every person who cares.
ABOUT OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART
Located in the vibrant Warehouse Arts District of downtown New Orleans, Louisiana since 2003, Ogden Museum of Southern Art presents the art and culture of the American South through dynamic exhibitions and engaging educational programming. It is home to a collection of more than 4,000 works, making it the largest and most comprehensive repository dedicated to Southern art in the nation, with particular strength in the genres of Self-Taught art, Regionalism, photography and contemporary art. Museum admission is free on Thursdays for Louisiana residents, courtesy of The Helis Foundation. The Museum is located at 925 Camp Street, New Orleans Louisiana 70130. For more information, visit www.ogdenmuseum.org.
ABOUT NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION
The National Wildlife Federation, America’s largest and most trusted conservation organization, works across the country to unite Americans from all walks of life in giving wildlife a voice. NWF has been on the front lines for wildlife since 1936, fighting for the conservation values that are woven into the fabric of our nation’s collective heritage. To restore the Mississippi River Delta, NWF works to expedite the design and implementation of large-scale initiatives that restore the Mississippi River’s natural capacity to build land, ensure the safety of communities and businesses in the river delta by advocating for hurricane protection that includes coastal restoration and non-structural measures, and create sustained national and state funding and political will to move restoration from plan to action.