“Art is Education. It enriches the spirit of a person.” Art is, in fact, the only education that Ernst Payen has ever had. As a child, his mother died when he was just 9 and he never knew his father. He spent a short time attending preschool and was even a sponsored child through Plan International for a couple of years while living with his grandparents. But when he was 11-years-old, his grandparents were too old to really care for him and he left their home to live in the streets. After some time he was taken in by a family that housed him as a restavek, a domestic servant, and he never returned to school. Throughout his teenage years he lived with multiple different families in different parts of the country, working for them in their homes and gave up on the hope of ever finishing his education. When he was an adult he decided to return to live in Jacmel, where all of his extended family still lived. He always loved drawing, ever since he was in preschool. Back in Jacmel he started drawing again and hanging his drawings on the walls of his room. One day a friend of his, Macarthur Lamitie, saw these drawings and immediately noticed the tremendous amount of natural talent that Ernst had. Macarthur encouraged Ernst to get involved at FOSAJ where he enrolled in classes to learn painting and meet other artists who were working in Jacmel.
Flo McGarrell, the director of FOSAJ at the time, immediately became a trusted mentor for Ernst and really guided him to develop his skills in painting. At FOSAJ though he was also exposed to a variety of different disciplines of art that sparked his interest. He saw two different documentaries on recycled art assemblage sculptures and was inspired right away to experiment. This led to a revelation that he had in a dream one night to create art out of some animal bones that he had collected. The result was a series of sculptures entitled “Incarnation” which caught the attention of some local writers and art patrons. Expanding on the recycled sculpture he also began experimenting with wood sculpture because he remembered as a child that his grandfather would sculpt utensils and simple statues out of wood and he wanted to adapt this medium to his own artistic expression. He acquired some large pieces of wood that he transformed into a series of surrealist sculptures where human and animal and spiritual forms merge and interact with one another in fluid and emotional ways.
Now he continues to use his painting to explore political and social themes in his work. A current series that he is working on is called “Pep La” and it depicts groups of people with eyes wide open that represent to Ernst the way that the population looks to the politicians to save them, but the politicians are really just distracting them from their real problems. Politicians will tell them where to look and what to do, meanwhile, if the population would take things into their own hands, they would be able to see the power that they really have. He is creating art that he hopes can help people really look at who they are and who they can be. Sometimes in these masses of people that he paints, a lot of children will appear and those almost always represent street kids, reflecting on the times when he, himself, was homeless and living in the street himself as a child. He integrates them into these population portraits because he knows those kids have no one to look to.
When Ernst looks at the state of the Arts in Haiti today, he laments the way that so many artists have sold out and betrayed true expression to make a little money. It’s not worth it, in his view, to abandon the message that you have within you to create something just because you think it will sell. Maintaining that fidelity to his own unique artistic voice has led Ernst to become one of the most recognizable artists in Jacmel. At the age of 34, his art has been to places that he’s not sure he’ll ever see, through exhibits in Spain, New York, and around the Caribbean. He hopes that he’ll be able to travel with his work someday soon, though, and share his art in more places. His art is his way of telling his story, of expressing himself. Having never attended school, he says, he may never be able to become a journalist or a great writer, but art has become his language and through that he is able to respect himself and understand others.
At the Jacmel Arts Center we are proud that we can serve as a platform for Ernst to make his voice heard. Ernst considers the center “the greatest gift that the city of Jacmel could ever have”. He hopes that the center can continue to grow to become a legitimate Arts Academy and a prestigious and sought after gallery. He knows that the more the business of the center can grow, the more artists will be encouraged to create new work and continue to chart paths to discover who they truly are as artists. The more that they can do that while also creating opportunities to work collectively as a team, the stronger each artist’s work will become and the greater their common voice will be amplified as Haitians.