The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MOJune 18, 2011
New England photographer offers postcards, peace to Joplin
By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. — Some of them feature the silhouette of a lighthouse at sunset. Others show a blue morning glory flower. All of them contain the same message: “Peace and hope.”
Thousands of these postcards are on their way to Joplin residents from Donald Verger, a New England photographer and artist who said he wanted to help the community after narrowly escaping the May 22 tornado himself.
“I hope this tiny thing I’m doing provides some tiny bit of peace to them,” he said.
On May 22, Verger, who lives in Maine, was part of a three-vehicle caravan made up of storm chasers, weather experts and photographers. It was not an unusual situation for Verger to be in; he had joined such groups before to track the types of storms that create beautiful and haunting pictures.
“I’ve always been drawn to the sky in my photographs. The storms in New England are not like the Midwest storms,” he said. “So I went out and joined a storm-chasing group because I wanted to see those amazing skies and structures and clouds.”
That evening, Verger and his group were following a supercell and had just entered Joplin, unaware of what was developing behind them. They stopped to refill the vans’ gas tanks at a station in town.
Then the tornado sirens sounded. The storm chasers were unable to take shelter in the gas station — the experience is a blur, and Verger can’t remember exactly where he was — so they attempted to flee the tornado in their vans.
Verger, who videotaped the escape, said he remembers looking out the window of the van and seeing the EF-5 tornado on their heels.
“It was so traumatic and so terrifying to have the tornado bearing down on us and to think that we were all going to perish,” he said. “It was out of a very horrible dream, which I’m sure is what people in Joplin experienced.”
Even after Verger returned home, he remained concerned about Joplin. The images he saw — the destruction, the rubble, the city on fire in the immediate aftermath — weren’t easy to erase from his mind.
Thus was born his Joplin Art Project, a collection of 15 of his own images that he has turned into postcards. The images are meant to soothe and calm, he said, and each image is accompanied by a short message plus the name of Joplin.
Several thousand postcards have already been mailed to Joplin, and a total of 25,000 are expected to wind up in residents’ hands in the near future, Verger said. He said he hopes to have them distributed among Joplin schoolchildren in August; at St. John’s Regional Medical Center; and through the Greater Ozarks Regional Chapter of the American Red Cross.
He has also sent several thousand postcards to the gas station that was his last stop in town and the beginning of his flight from the tornado.
Verger said he doesn’t know exactly what the effect of his project will be, but he hopes it will be a step in the healing process for Joplin.
“I do know that there is kind of a gentle power in art and there is a healing power in people caring,” he said. “I suspect that by offering something to a young person in Joplin or a grandmother in Joplin, people know that there are people in the world thinking about them.”