A few days after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, a classroom of art students watched Tameka Norris sob over her painting.
When the hurricane first struck, she had grabbed one of her then-boyfriend’s paintings and coated it with white base paint. On that clean slate, she completed the class assignment.
Norris threw the collage together in a sleepless fury, a jumbled attempt to understand what was happening in her native Mississippi while she was stuck in California. She named it “Louisiana Perish,” and it referred to news reports of a school bus hijacked by a desperate father as he careened to the Superdome with his family on board.
But in that Santa Monica College classroom, it was time for critiques.
“I was just boo-hooing and I was trying to explain myself and I had a professor say to me, “˜You know, there is nothing that anyone in this room can do to help you,’” she said.
Norris calls it a dose of tough love from a black professor, but it wouldn’t be the last time she would feel alone as a black art student, particularly after she transferred to UCLA’s art program in fall 2007.
A photo portrait titled “The Ratio Is Off” by Melanie Lee says it all. Norris stands in front of a cement wall, the 28-year-old woman in her sixth year of college brandishes a smile almost as big as her towering hair.
The photo represents Norris as one of the very few undergraduate black art students in the program.
When she first came to UCLA, Norris would look around her classes and realize she had the darkest skin.
She would ask around, “Am I the only one?” Shrugged shoulders would be the usual response.
Norris had left Mississippi for California in 1995 after graduating high school to reconcile a relationship with her estranged father.
She worked odd jobs ““ phone sex operator, music video extra ““ and got into trouble with the law before heading back to school.
The series of studio self-portraits she later created plays with black stereotypes and recall that period in her life. In one print, Norris posed in a pink bikini, pouring the juice from a watermelon into her mouth, her eyes sexy and her tongue quivering.
In another, she stands in booty shorts, brandishing a gigantic gun taller than her. The caption reads: “By Any Means Necessary.” Whether by sex or violence or any other means, she said she needed to survive.
“I’ve definitely had to hustle and live that street life to get by. But college is a hustle too, a different kind of hustle,” she said.
Kavin Buck, the director of enrollment management and outreach of the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture, met Norris while she was a Santa Monica College student.
Buck’s staff flies to more than 130 student art events around the country, meeting with high school and community college students, and he says one of their goals is to increase enrollment from underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds.
When he met with Norris, he saw a strong artistic voice that was limited by her skills in traditional mediums.
“I definitely thought that she had potential. She had strong ideas, but I thought her technique was weak,” he said about Norris.
But Norris kept close contact with Buck, asking him to review her portfolio, constantly calling his cell phone and probing him for advice.
Norris would visit Buck’s Inglewood gallery and share her work.
The collage she presented was the first to come out of Hurricane Katrina.
When Hurricane Katrina hit her hometown of Gulfport, Miss., she was hundreds of miles away but felt shoved too close by the constant media coverage. She became addicted to the images she saw on television, the stories she heard in the news.
“When Katrina happened, that was my heart and soul, and Los Angeles was just a place where I lived,” she said.
“I just lost my mind. Everything shifted. Everything I thought about everything just changed.”
Her close contact with Buck and her portfolio that included her post-Katrina work won her a spot at UCLA.
“If it weren’t for Katrina, I don’t think I would be at this school,” she said. “It’s sad to say that it took something really (devastating) to get me charged up.”
Her work is racially charged, standing out against her mostly white and Asian classmates. It often depends on inciting controversy, on stirring emotion in the viewer.
“My goal is to question and mock and ruffle feathers ““ and maybe even upset people, get people thinking,” she said.
She installed her first UCLA piece in a public hall of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center. “Colored Drinking Fountain” consisted of an unusable water fountain marked “COLORED” by a shabby cardboard sign.
She said some of her peers found it too “aggressive,” “invasive” or “didactic.”
But she found a loyal audience in the black janitor staff and maintenance workers, she said, who laughed on their late shifts after running into the piece.
She also eventually found a place in ArtsBridge and Arts IN, two UCLA-based community arts advocacy programs.
Norris teaches classes to inspire inner-city high school students to create art.
For Norris, being one of the few minority voices in the art program can feel isolating, but it’s also a privilege.
“It’s such an empowering position to be in,” she said. “I feel fortunate that it’s me.”