The month of May has a somber significance for many Oklahoma residents. It’s one of the busiest months for tornados, averaging 22 cyclones in 31 days. And after last year’s series of devastating storms that killed 25 people, it now also marks a sad anniversary. The Oklahoma Tornado Project and the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center teamed up to remember the events that took place one year ago.
Leadership Square isn’t where you’d expect to find an art gallery. It’s a glass-enclosed plaza with water fountains in downtown Oklahoma City where business people take their lunch breaks. But that’s just where Steve Boyd from the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center showed up last week to start hanging photographs.
“This one on the right is a mother and daughter, and I guess this was right after Plaza Towers,” Boyd said. “And she was carrying her daughter home. And some people might look at that and think it's sad. I think it's pretty powerful and strong.”
Boyd curated this exhibit called Not Just Another Day in May. He says it was difficult narrowing down all the submissions he received.
“I wanted to show a little bit of everything. I wanted to show some things as just beautiful photographs and that there can be beauty somehow in such a destructive thing. I wanted to show search and rescue, I just kind of wanted to show a little bit of the whole story,” Boyd said.
And he does that. In the photos Boyd chose, there are dogs walking away from leveled homes, cars mangled and destroyed and, of course, iconic pictures of kids being lifted from the rubble the tornado caused at Plaza Towers Elementary School.
“It was a tough choice whether to show that or not,” he said.
“If they had been really gruesome or the kids had looked like they were really in pain or screaming or something, we might have shied away from that. But if you look at the photos, the kids are thankful, it looks like, to be rescued,” Boyd said.
Those pictures of the kids are by a professional photographer. But others were taken by amateurs, like the one of a sunflower growing in a debris-torn field.
“I was walking around, and the sunflower was just in full bloom and it just looked beautiful. And to me, it was just a classic symbol of hope,” Tanya Mattek said.
She has only been taking pictures for about 2-and-a-half years, and she readily admits she’s hesitant about calling herself a “photographer.” That’s one of the reasons she says she chose to avoid Moore right after the tornado came through.
“I made a conscious decision not to go to Moore. I knew I didn't have any business being there. I don't live in Moore. I'm not part of the press. There was no reason for me to be there, and I didn't want to be in the way,” she said.
Mattek says it took her about a week to finally get in her car and drive around the city. It took her a few trips before she really started exploring the devastation. But from the beginning, she knew exactly what kind of pictures she wanted to take.
“I guess what I was trying to do was maybe tell a story that not everybody is going to realize is there. People don't necessarily know what's going on several months down the road,” Mattek said.
Steve Boyd says it’s the balance of pictures, from nature’s rebirth to mothers carrying daughters away from piles of rubble, that make this exhibit what it is.
“It shows destruction, resilience, human nature and, you know, if you look around any time something happens like this in Oklahoma, you see so many people helping,” Boyd said.
“And there are a lot of helpers in these photos. And I don't think that happens every place in the world.”
Boyd says he hopes this exhibit showcases the Oklahoma standard to its fullest extent. He also wants people to recognize that destructive events don’t have to lead to destroying lives.
Ahead of the Storm: The Oklahoma Tornado Project stories are produced by KGOU News, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.