After Katrina, British artists face starting anew for a third time

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The Independent US

Nothing, though, prepared them for the devastation they found almost two weeks after Hurricane Katrina - a swirling soup of their possessions and artworks, many dissolved in the toxic waters, others tossed from one end of studio to the other.

The walls were stripped almost bare; shelves and cabinets had simply collapsed. One half of the tin roof had flipped off. The wooden floors had buckled dramatically; where they were above the water line, they were like rafts bobbing on a foul-smelling lake.

"Now I know what it feels like to be in The Poseidon Adventure," said Higham, sweat and muck beading his face. "It makes me feel sick."

Higham and Lambert are well known for their very different bodies of work: he creates objects from computer models developed on self-designed machines, while she is a metals specialist who has invited artists from around the world to take advantage of her foundry at the studio they called the International Sculpture Works.

They have lost as much as 20 years of work, including custom-built computers, a library of music and other multimedia creations, as well as rare books and sketchpads and all of their personal possessions.

Extraordinarily, this is not the first time they have lost everything. Something like this has actually happened before. Twice.

In the early 1990s, when they were part of Manchester's thriving cultural scene, their studio inside the Beehive Mill in Ancoats (used also by musicians such as New Order and Mick Hucknall of Simply Red) was flooded when a water tank burst. Then they moved into a space above Manchester's Arndale shopping centre, which was destroyed in the IRA bombing of 1996.

"I think they're cursed," a friend remarked over dinner in Baton Rouge, 80 miles north-west of New Orleans, where the couple are taking refuge as they ponder their uncertain future.

The couple are stoical. "We live like pigs, don't we?" Lambert joked as she waded past the rotting bedsheets, the downed Tibetan Buddhist shrine, a bag of coffee beans that had somehow stayed upright and dry despite crossing a room, a dusty Elton John LP out of its jacket, and mini-lakes filled with bleached-out slides, padded mailers, computer manuals, hard drives and books.

Higham, who is 52, and Lambert, 39, moved into their New Orleans studio in 2000, taking over a former cabinet works that supplied much of the detailed woodwork for the ornate buildings of the French Quarter. As they did in Manchester, they hoped to become pioneers in a struggling neighbourhood.

"It was just beginning to come together nicely, and I was getting ready for our first full winter residency programme," Lambert said. "We put everything we had into this."

Everything will now have to be rebuilt from scratch. The pair admit they did not take every precaution - after five years in New Orleans, they had become a little cavalier about the regular hurricane warnings. They left for Baton Rouge as Katrina prepared to make landfall from the Gulf of Mexico, but they brought only one small bag and told their friends in the neighbourhood they had every expectation of returning in a couple of days.

"With so many warnings," Lambert said, "you don't always take all the precautions you perhaps should."

Since the building was made primarily of wood and tin, it may now have to be bulldozed. That in itself would be a minor calamity because of its rich history - when they moved in they found hundreds of architectural plans for the buildings of central New Orleans on which the Maggio cabinet works had carried out commissions, all of which are now lost.

After an hour and half of retrieval, the haul was meagre - a few smaller sculptures, the pair's green cards, a few undamaged CDs of computer and musical creations and the complete DVD set of the 1960s television serial The Prisoner. "Bye-bye," Lambert whispered to the property as she locked up the warped wooden door again. "See you in a couple of months."

Anyone interested in donating to Coral and Paul and the International Sculpture Works can contact them through www.mnartists.org and at news@mnartists.org.

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