Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009


When New York artist Paul Villinski was preparing for a 2006 exhibition in post-Katrina New Orleans, he wanted to immerse himself in the city and its culture while he created work in response to the devastation. But making art requires space and a host of accoutrements, all of which were in short supply in New Orleans at the time, so Villinski decided to bring his studio and living quarters with him.

Inside the Emergency Response Studio

Villinski’s solution — “Emergency Response Studio” — utilized one of the most notorious symbols of the disaster: the FEMA trailer. He obtained one of the 30-foot Gulf Streams and set about reworking — and greening — the dreaded trailer’s interior. Over a seven-month period, he reconfigured the space to allow for a studio and added a drop-down porch. He ripped out the trailer’s much publicized hazardous and formaldehyde-laden materials and replaced them with green materials like reclaimed wood, bamboo cabinetry, linseed oil linoleum tiles and insulation made of recycled denim. The traditionally dark trailer became light-filled, even when closed, because of a clear polycarbonate side panel and a geodesic dome the artist built into the roof. Fresh air circulated through the open porch, and power was generated through solar panels and a micro-wind turbine and stored in eight mammoth batteries.

Emergency Response StudioThe result, which was parked in front of Sewall Hall as part of Villinski’s recent Rice Gallery installation, was a functional, portable and aesthetically pleasing space that seemed adequate, if tight, for one or two people. One wonders how in the world FEMA determined that a family of six could actually live for an extended period of time within the confines of the standard-issue trailer design.

To drive home that point, Villinski created a skeletal mock-up of an unaltered FEMA trailer inside the gallery that more than achieved his goal of emphasizing the “cagelike” quality of the original trailer space. Visitors could enter it and imagine what it would be like to live with their kith and kin — possibly for years — in a space that most families wouldn’t be able to stand for more than a weekend camping trip at a national park. The artist’s working studio was infinitely spacious in comparison.

Believing that artists should be deployed “as part of the mix of disaster workers, medical personnel, architects and urban planners charged with responding to, repairing and re-envisioning disaster sites like New Orleans,” Villinski sees his Emergency Response Studio as a vehicle — both literal and figurative — that will allow artists to embed themselves in and respond to disaster situations.