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Joplin debris 'reborn' in Kansas City art project

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Pieces of twisted metal and scrap wood left behind by a massive tornado that tore through Joplin, Miss., are now sitting in a gallery in Kansas City. The sculptures and paintings from the wreckage are to be sold at auction Saturday.

Ann Leach is a grief counselor who has lived in Joplin for 14 years. She’s one of the survivors of the May tornado, which left 159 people dead. When the tornado struck, Leach was protected by a slab of sheet rock that fell on top of her, forming a protective barrier.

Now, though her home is being rebuilt, she says she can’t go back. Every day, Leach would remember a piece of her home, she says — where her favorite dishes used to sit, or an old piece of furniture she loved. Some of those pieces she remembers have now found a new home, and a new form, including a music box of her grandmother’s.

“Luis Garcia created a new music box, with pages of the bible from [Leach’s] home, and then from her ... decorative aluminum dishware collection, and then the music box that still works, so I can’t wait to show her that,” says Holly Swangstu, the curator of Leedy-Voulkos Art Center in Kansas City, which is housing the Reclamation Project.

The concept of artist Matthew Dehaemers, the project connects artists from Joplin and Kansas City. Debris from the town was used to create sculptures and paintings.

“All these objects and materials have a story behind them, and that story’s only made through the people that own them,” Dehaemers says. “So what I thought was in between us and them is this material that has a choice of being put in this giant landfill or it has an opportunity to be reborn in a new, positive way.”

Back in Joplin, the billions of dollars of damage is still being cleaned up. Leach says the community has been resilient, and projects like these help the healing process.

“I can be emotional, and I can collapse in this pile of rubble and sob — and I have, don’t get me wrong. But really, how is that going to serve me?” she says. “Change is something you don’t have to be afraid of. A lot of people are, but when it hits you right between the eyes, it kind of forces you to respond and just trust that more good will come.”

Project Reclamation is auctioning the pieces Saturday in Kansas City. The proceeds will go to help Joplin artists rebuild their studios and host art therapy classes to help continue the healing in a grieving town.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.

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