When the eye of Hurricane Ivan passed just south of Grand Cayman on Sept. 12, 2004, it not only uprooted trees and damaged or destroyed about 90 per cent of the homes on the island, but it also disrupted lives in ways that couldn’t be imagined.
Like everyone else who lived on Grand Cayman at the time, long-time resident Gretchen Allen had her life disrupted by Hurricane Ivan, even though in advance of the storm she had evacuated to Houston, where she waited anxiously to hear news about how Grand Cayman had fared and if her friends had survived.
Gretchen returned to the Cayman Islands about two weeks after the storm and when she checked on her belongings that had been left behind, she found most had been destroyed by the hurricane.
One of the biggest causalities was her collection of slide photography — images of her travels over the previous 35 years and historical ones of her family. Born and raised in the United States, Gretchen worked for many years in radio and television and as a newspaper reporter for the Dallas Morning News. It was in one of her first jobs, writing for the women’s section of the paper, when she was handed a camera and told to go take photos while covering an event as a reporter. That began a lifelong love of photography.
Her extensive photography collection had been in storage at a friend’s house in Red Bay, an area that had been completely inundated by Hurricane Ivan’s storm surge. Gretchen was devastated. She recalls trying to very gently wash off the muck that covered a favourite image, one of her in a stateroom aboard Queen Elizabeth on her first trans-Atlantic trip. To her horror, the emulsion disintegrated with the water.
“It was literally like watching my life being washed away down the drain.”
Unable to process the loss, Gretchen threw the collection into plastic bins, stored them away and concentrated on getting her life back in order.
“It was a difficult time, one of just trying to survive,” she said. “I had no job, no place to live, not even a vehicle.”
Putting an ad in the paper with an offer to dog-sit, Gretchen ended up cat-sitting for an artist for six weeks just to get a roof over her head and then taking on a variety of jobs to enable her to
get back on her feet. Eventually she did and life went on.
It took Gretchen 13 years to find the courage to look at the photographic slides in those plastic bins again. What she found astounded her.
“When I held one up to the light I saw these brilliant colours,” she said. “They reminded me immediately of art by Van Gogh or the French Impressionists.” Gretchen realised that out of the devastation and wreckage, something new had been created with a most unusual collaborator.
“These were no longer my works; they were Ivan’s,” she said. “Through the oddest set of circumstances, I find myself to be the owner of an art collection.”
It was then that the idea of creating an art exhibit of the images was born. With the encouragement of friends, Gretchen borrowed an old Kodak slide projector and approached Natalie Urquhart, director and chief curator of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands.
“I told her I had something to show her that is unlike anything she has seen before. She was blown away.”
The plans for an exhibit took root. With the expertise and dedication of Candice Bailey at the Kennedy Gallery, each slide was carefully cleaned, printed and mounted on reflective paper and one in a light box. Gretchen also spent time naming each of the images. The result is a brilliant display of colour- and texture-infused abstract images, each telling a different tale with titles like “Lost in Thought,” “Cotton Club on a Saturday Night” and “Fantasy in Fuchsia.”
Some of the images show a hint of the photo that was Gretchen’s original, including one in which people on a train can be seen. She doesn’t recall where it was taken — she thinks possibly in Peru — but the new version is haunting.
The exhibit, appropriately named, “Through Ivan’s Eye,” began Jan. 19 and ran through early March. Gretchen is now actively searching for a new home for the exhibit.
“It’s my wish to find a public space that I could loan the collection to so I could share it with a wider audience as it is especially such a uniquely Cayman phenomenon,” she said, adding that she has found the entire experience one of transmogrification. “One of the things many of us who have gone through the awful experience of Ivan mourned the most was the loss of these irreplaceable and precious family photographs. Thanks to Ivan, I was able to get something different from that devastation which I find intriguing and very beautiful.”
To learn more about Gretchen’s work or to purchase a print, contact her at [email protected] or on +1.345.926.1898.