Heather Elizabeth Wright describes it as a sort of unsettling deja vu.
“I keep thinking: where is it going? What’s it doing? Is it coming to us? Is it getting bigger? This spill in the Gulf is almost like watching Katrina all over again,” said Wright, a jewelry artist who sells her New Orleans-themed Heather Elizabeth Designs at local art markets.
“I feel like I have to do something, and donating money is one thing I can do.”
The BP oil spill, with its potential to cause serious damage to south Louisiana’s ecology and economy, has resurrected not only familiar post-Katrina emotions, but also brought back a cottage fundraising industry.
Just like after the 2005 levee failures, local residents, retailers and designers have jumped into action this week, planning sales, designing T-shirts and reworking their store windows and collections to help spread the word and raise cash for environmental groups and charities aiding in the spill recovery.
This month, Wright plans to donate a portion of her jewelry sales from art markets and online at www.hedesigns.com to the National Wildlife Federation. The Reston, Va.-based conservation group sent staff to Venice this week to start formulating plans for cleaning oiled animals and damaged habitats.
Wright has modest fundraising goals. “I’d be thrilled to raise $500,” she said. “It will come right out of my operating money. It means buying fewer doggie treats and coffees at the Bean Gallery, but that’s OK. I’m one of those people who believes every little bit helps.”
Save NOLA, a volunteer group created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was founded under that same “every little bit helps” premise. Nearly five years after the storm, it has become an example of how small transactions can quickly add up. Through the sales of T-shirts and related merchandise, the group has generated $250,000 for local charities since Katrina.
This week, the group debuted a new shirt, with the words Save Our Coast printed on the front. Available at the Save NOLA store in Jax Brewery, at local Jean Therapy boutiques and Earthsavers spas, all net profits from sales of the $25 shirt will go to the Baton Rouge-basedCoalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“We all wanted to go down and volunteer in the cleanup, but that hasn’t happened yet. So we thought, OK, what can we do? Let’s do a T-shirt,” said Clare Durrett, spokeswoman for Save NOLA. “We’ve been worried about hurricanes. Now we have to worry about this.”
The crude spewing from the broken oil well a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico hadn’t hit shore on Tuesday. But Lauren Thom of Fleurty Girl T-shirt shop had already pre-sold 500 of her “Rescue Me” shirts, which benefit the Audubon Nature Institute and the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program, based at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
The program is partially financed by a grant, and “BP has offered pay for some of our hard costs, which is excellent,” said Audubon Nature Institute spokeswoman Sarah Burnette. “But there are a lot of other associated costs, especially with the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue effort, both throughout this crisis and to sustain the program.”
The $20 organic cotton “Rescue Me” shirts feature a green turtle next to oily splotches. They’re printed with soy-based inks to avoid using petroleum-based products.
“At first I was thinking of (a design that would say) ‘Oil and Water Don’t Mix,’ but I didn’t want to make a joke about this,” Thom said.
The spill, she said, brings back a familiar feeling of fragility. “We took a lot for granted pre-Katrina. Now people have a stronger appreciation for what we’ve got, and we don’t want to lose it,” she said. “People know how important it is to get involved.”
The Katrina experience has motivated longtime residents and acted “as a magnet for young people (coming to New Orleans) who want to help and want to solve problems,” said Lina Alfieri Stern, director of Tulane University’s Levy-Rosenblum Institute for Entrepreneurship.
“I don’t want to say it’s a new culture, but there’s a strong awareness among young people that they have the power to solve problems,” she said. “What’s different today is that they’re using their ideas and creativity and skills in new ways, and becoming social entrepreneurs, and they’re bringing everything to the task.”
Jeremy Miller and Aimée Shultz, the 28-year-old designers behind Shultzilla, a new local company making T-shirts and accessories, both grew up in families that benefited from jobs in the oil sector.
“Aimee’s dad works for Exxon Mobil, and my mom worked for Texaco,” Miller said. “So we have this love-hate relationship with the oil companies. They provided for our families, but we also know they can make a mess.”
That conflicted relationship comes out in “Built to Spill,” their new T-shirt design. Miller and Shultz took the now famous “Drill Baby Drill” expression and flipped it over, printing “Spill Baby Spill,” as if in a mirror reflection.
Available at Shultzilla.com, a portion of proceeds will be donated to a nonprofit group dedicated to saving coastal wildlife, Miller said.
“I understand the point of drilling here,” he said. “It gets us off of foreign oil and gets us lower prices, but we also need to be careful. We designed it so that the words ‘Spill Baby Spill’ are harder to see. It’s to raise awareness of the consequences of drilling.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Heather Macfarlane printed out newspaper graphics showing how the oil spill would affect animals. She hung the charts in the window of her shop, UP/Unique Products.
Macfarlane and Mark Kirk call themselves “recycling artists,” and they make lamps, handbags and other accessories from found objects and melted Mardi Gras beads. Several of their pieces are sea-life inspired: jellyfish lights, fish-shaped lamps and the life-sized alligator Kirk created entirely from green Mardi Gras beads.
This month, Macfarlane will donate a portion of proceeds from sales of those pieces to the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based conservation group.
“Charity is a very personal thing,” she said. A native of Scotland, Macfarlane remembers oil spills from drilling operations in the North Sea. “We used to go as a family to help clean the birds,” she said. “I don’t think people here really understand yet how bad this can really be.”
Her new window display is already attracting attention. Macfarlane said Magazine Street strollers are stopping to read the graphics, which she plans to keep updating.
Mignon Faget also has been keeping up with the news. This week, she began playing with ideas for a new collection that will revisit some of the marine themes she’s explored in the past.
Years ago, Faget took a course in the ecology of the Mississippi River delta that inspired several of her designs.
Working with redfish and speckled trout pins she made in 1980 for her Gulf Stream collection, Faget on Wednesday placed the sterling-silver fish on a black ribbon. Ten percent of sales from these pieces and others will be donated to a Gulf coast conservation organization “to raise awareness of the impending disaster,” she said.
Faget also is working on other pieces to add to the collection.
“Maybe I’ll oxidize some black or bring in the idea of a requiem in some other way,” she said. “It would make me feel better if I could contribute through the work that I do.”
Shopping for a cause
Here are a few other products and stores that will contribute money to environmental groups and charities helping with the oil spill cleanup.
NOLA Couture — The locally owned accessories and necktie company will donate $5 from the sale of every oyster and shrimp cocktail tie to the Greater New Orleans Foundation’s Oil Spill Recovery Fund. For more info visitwww.nolacouture.com.
Shop Miss Malaprop — Mallory Whitfield, a member of the New Orleans Craft Mafia and a blogger who writes about handmade goods, recently opened an online shop,shopmissmalaprop.com, focused on crafts and eco-friendly fashion and accessories. Whitfield plans to donate at least 5 percent of profits from this month, splitting the donation between the Gulf Restoration Network and the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., where she grew up.
Jose Balli Designs — The jewelry designer, a native of St. Bernard Parish, mines his surroundings for inspiration, carving egrets and alligators as well as crosses and Carnival masks. This week, he created a new pendant in the shape of the state of Louisiana, featuring a pelican and a freshwater pearl. He will donate 25 percent of proceeds from the sale of the $75 sterling-silver pendant, as well as a poster called Coastal Connection, to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Store locations can be found at joseballi.com.