Charlotte students get glimpse of struggles of New Orleans

CHARLOTTE -- The broken, dirty bottles taken from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans stand out against the clean white walls of the Wachovia Gallery in Spirit Square.

Rachel Pepper's bottle is filled with pages from the Bible, singed dark brown on the edges, seemingly floating in floodwater. Her message: Don't lose faith.

Her work, and those of 35 other Charlotte-area high school students, help make up a sculpture-and-photo exhibit called "Message in a Bottle: Reconstructing Lives," now on display at The Light Factory Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film.

Starting almost a year ago, the students from Myers Park, Providence and Harding University high schools began studying what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In February, they visited the city. For five days, they took photographs and shot video, helped with the cleanup and spent time with peers whose lives have never been the same since the August 2005 storm.

Rachel, a rising senior at Myers Park, felt a responsibility to tell the story of the people -- and the city -- she met.

The Charlotte students collected bottles as they cleaned a street in the Ninth Ward, perhaps the hardest hit of any New Orleans neighborhood.

Some bottles were pieced together from shards; most were stained with floodwaters. The students had thousands to choose from. As part of The Light Factory project they could turn in only one.

They had two months to get them ready. None of them had ever tried something like this before. Rachel says the pressure to honor their experiences was, at times, overwhelming.

Rachel learned new respect for what New Orleans has endured. She hopes her art will express the city's pain and remind those who see it how much damage remains.