- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

VIRGINIA BEACH — All Will Powers could salvage from his Mississippi studio after Hurricane Katrina were a globe, an empty compact-disc case and 112 of the ceramic Mardi Gras masks that he made by hand and sold to shops in New Orleans for more than 26 years.

Those surviving masks, cleaned of mud and decked out with fresh ribbons, are being auctioned online to help Mr. Powers and his family start over in Virginia.

Mr. Powers, 57, and his wife, Kate, 43, aren’t seeking handouts. They just want to be able to earn a living again doing what they know how to do, with Mr. Powers shaping the one-of-a-kind masks and Mrs. Powers painting them.

They applied for a loan through the Small Business Administration but hadn’t heard whether their application even had been received.

elling what is left of their handiwork at least will help them begin replacing the $40,000 in business equipment they lost, including molds, paints, glazes and computers.

“We’ve always been self-sustaining,” said Mr. Powers, a self-described hippie with a gray ponytail and a resemblance to Henry Fonda. “There’s a great deal of pride in being self-sustaining.”

The “Katrina Unmasked” auction runs through Sunday. Bidding is through a link on the Web site of d’ART Center (www.d-artcenter.org), which is sponsoring the auction.

The private, nonprofit visual arts program in Norfolk rents out artists’ studios and offers workshops and classes.

The masks should appeal to bidders wanting to do a good deed as well as collectors interested in owning a piece of New Orleans that will never exist again, said D’arcy Weiss, spokeswoman for the center. “These are the last of their kind,” she said of the masks.

The masks range from a few inches in length to large enough to cover the entire face. Each is signed and numbered in 24-karat gold.

The Powerses have named the masks after people — Decatur Miriam, Shoeshine John — and things — Beignet and Coffee, Jazz in Jackson Square — they knew back home.

The Powerses’ business, YS Masques (motto: “You’ll find a bit of Your Self in one of our masques”), had suffered some setbacks before the hurricane.

The September 11 attacks reduced tourist trade. Although one of their larger masks might sell for about $25, more of the 100-plus shops the Powerses supplied had switched to cheaper, mass-produced imports.

Still, they made enough to live comfortably with little debt, sending a child to private school and taking family vacations each year.

With an eye to expansion, they were building a Web site and making plans for a cafe where they could sell unfinished masks to tourists, who could paint them on the premises.

Then came Katrina, which swamped their rental home/studio space in Bay St. Louis, Miss., under 30 feet of water for six hours. The place will have to be bulldozed.

The family rode out the storm at NASA’s Stennis Space Center nearby. Food and water supplies dwindled quickly, and suffering was everywhere.

His kiln in a tree, his other business equipment washed away, his personal belongings and mementos ruined, Mr. Powers decided to start fresh by moving with his wife and two of their children, 10-year-old Elly and 1-year-old Vonnie Che.

They knew no one in Virginia but had sold some of their work at art shows and liked the temperate climate.

The Powerses say they have been overwhelmed by generosity.

A stranger is letting the family live in his vacant Virginia Beach home rent-free until he puts it up for sale, probably after Thanksgiving.

Old Dominion University in nearby Norfolk is giving them studio space in an empty bank building the school owns near campus. They can use it for 10 months, until the building is demolished.

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