Being the Change

Disaster and rebirth—a story of change

by Jan Gillis ('07)

JMU alumna Gladys Kemp Lisanby ('49) rallies women artists of the Gulf Coast in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath

SUMMARY: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, JMU alumna Gladys Kemp Lisanby ('49) rallied women artists of the Gulf Coast to recover, remember and thrive.

JMU alumna Gladys Kemp Lisanby ('49) rallies women artists of the Gulf Coast in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath

The year 2005 got off to an auspicious start for the Lisanby family. Gladys Kemp Lisanby ('49) received the Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in recognition of her work with the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and specifically for her yeoman's efforts during her eight-year presidency of the Mississippi NMWA committee, and the Lisanby clan was flourishing.

And then, on August 29, 2005, in the span of hours, their world virtually disappeared.

Katrina disaster

Like many hearty coastal dwellers, the Lisanbys weren't fazed when they evacuated their Pascagoula, Miss., home in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina — they had weathered previous storms with minor damage and brief power outages. But Katrina outdid all their expectations and then some. When they returned to the coast the day after the storm, debris-clogged streets were only a preview of the ultimate desolation they were to face at their address. The lower level of their 100-year-old home had been swept away, only a few powerful timbers remained as a precarious framework on which the upper floor of the home balanced.

Forget picking up the pieces — there were none left. Katrina, it seemed, had wiped their life away.

Family, friends, service

For Gladys, that life had always been about family, friends and service to others. A health and physical education major at Madison College, after graduation she started teaching at Virginia's Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, one of the state's largest high schools. She met Jim Lisanby in Norfolk. He was on his first ship, the USS Mississippi. "It seemed like it was just meant to be," says Lisanby, laughing at the coincidence of the ship's name and their future residence.

In addition to her teaching career, Lisanby was active in volunteer work wherever the couple was stationed -- garden and women's clubs, Girl Scouts, Goodwill Industries, and Navy Relief. Most notably, she has been a fierce champion of women in the arts. When she was asked to participate in the development of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., the only museum in the world dedicated to women in the performing and visual arts, she soon became a member of the museum's Women's Committee.

In 1998, she was asked to establish a state committee in Mississippi to further the interests of the fledgling museum. The museum's state committees are charged with working to bring women artists of the state to national attention and to promote art education in the schools.

She was so good at the job that the NMWA recognized her in 2004 with the National Advisory Board Award for Outstanding Service to the Arts — the first state leader honored at the national level.

The committee flourished and so did the artists it supported. When she began the endeavor, four Mississippi artists were represented in the archives at the national museum. Today 55 artists are represented, and 10 have their work in the permanent collection. "Before Katrina our membership had grown to more than 200," says Lisanby.

Making a positive out of the negative

When the membership suffered a direct hit from Katrina, Lisanby was determined to keep the committee going and "make a positive out of the negative." She soon rallied members and directed the committee's communications officer to contact as many members as she could. Communication was key to their recovery.

The book, Katrina: Mississippi Women Remember, is a compilation of personal stories about Hurricane Katrina survival written by MSC/NMWA members.

Within a year of the hurricane, Katrina: Mississippi Women Remember, a compilation of personal stories about Hurricane Katrina survival written by MSC/NMWA members was published. The book provides "a mesmerizing picture of this unforgettable chapter in Mississippi history" according to its editor, Sally Pfister. In addition to guiding the book through its development and writing the foreword, Lisanby contributed her personal story.

While the emotional and physical difficulties imposed by the cataclysmic event took a toll, the indomitable spirit of the women artists managed to put roots down through the rubble. Lisanby credits the artistic gift of vision for inspiring their rebirth. "There is nothing so strong and powerful that it cannot be made better through the eye of the artist," she says.

Today, true to her prediction, these artists have absorbed "the hardest blows of life and respond[ed] in beauty." Lisanby says, "We've built our committee membership back to about 150."

What does the future hold? Whatever is in store, one thing is certain. Gladys Lisanby will find a way to apply her vision and determination to adorn the face of change with beauty.

About the author
Jan Gillis ('07) is managing editor of the JMU Web.

Published: Monday, October 1, 2012

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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