April Artist of the Month – Jean Marie Eduoard Vital

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On January 2nd, 1958, Jean Marie Eduoard Vital was born into Jacmel’s most famous family of artists. His father was Pauleus Vital and his uncle was Prefet Duffaut, both of whom were involved in the early movements to define the iconic styles of art coming from the region. As the proud bearer of the family’s artistic legacy to this day, Vital believes passionately in keeping the identity of Jacmel arts alive. His father taught him how to paint when he was young, but he didn’t pursue painting professionally until after his father’s death in 1984. He was the only one of his siblings that had the talent and interest to carry on the tradition. He is the father of four adult children himself and is dedicated to charting a path for the arts to keep holding on to their importance in the region far into the future.

IMG_1549In his own art he continues to work in a similar style to his father which imagines animals and nature in whimsical surrealist scenes that come alive before the viewer. He paints environments where hierarchies between the human, animal, natural, and spiritual worlds are all broken down and the realm of what is possible is expanded. At first glance, many of his paintings may resemble idealistic Haitian style landscapes, but on closer inspection the viewer always finds unexpected characters and ways that the land transforms to make you question what you see. Vital also likes to draw upon his culture’s traditions of voudun that influence daily lives in Haiti. By introducing the presence of spirits and supernatural creatures he further challenges the viewer to reinterpret the world around them that they live in.

IMG_0351Vital acknowledges all of the challenges that face artists in Haiti but never gives up hope. He says that if the politicians, local leaders, and institutions in his country would realize the value of the arts and provide better support, the artists would be equipped to really build a better society. They lack the tools and the access to resources necessary, but they don’t lack the passion or ideas. Despite this, Vitale says, “Even when things are hard, we can’t get discouraged. When life gets tough, that when we have to take the only tool we have, our paintbrushes, pick them up, and paint our way out of our problems. Art is the only thing powerful enough and pure enough to save us.”

He holds on to this hopeful vision of arts in Haiti as he serves as a mentor and leader for all of our students and younger artists in Jacmel who are just starting out in their careers. It might seem like a waste of time for young creatives to decide to pursue the arts during difficult times such as what Haiti is enduring currently, but with experienced artists like Vital providing guidance, there are a lot of reasons to remain optimistic. Vitale also serves as a consistent ambassador for Jacmel arts through his travels and international exhibition of his works. He has been honored to show works in the United States, Guadeloupe, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. He continues to encourage people to visit Haiti and invest in tourism here. Whether he’s traveling and promoting Haitian arts in other countries, or advising young Jacmeliens locally, Vital’s message remains the same. “Don’t be afraid of Haiti. There is hope in the Art.”

 

 

March Artist of the Month – Frantz Aladin

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Once, at a public event for the artists of the Jacmel Arts Center to showcase their work, Frantz Aladin got up on stage with a papier-mâché bust that he had created, set the bust on the ground, then stepped up onto it with one foot on each shoulder and stood on top of it while presenting. He then jumped up and down with his full weight on the bust to prove the strength of the papier-mâché sculpture. The audience was stunned and walked away with an undeniable impression etched in their minds of just how uniquely sturdy and high quality Aladin’s work was. It was representative of what makes Jacmel papier-mâché some of the most powerful and most provocative in the world. Where elsewhere papier-mâché is often considered little more than a crafty hobby, in Jacmel the artists have taken their unique approaches to the medium and elevated it to a formidable artform that is respected around the world.

Frantz Aladin has been at the forefront of this movement to redefine the possibilities that this artform holds for his whole career. He says that the possibilities with papier-mâché are really infinite as long as you learn how to do it right. He says that you have to really spend time not just learning the steps necessary to make a papier-mache product, but you really have to get to know the artform on an intimate level to understand its magic. “Papier-mâché is more than just a way to make something, it is a rich and transformative way to reveal who we are as people.”

IMG_1451.CR2Aladin started learning papier-mâché early on as a child. He would always make masks for his neighbor kids and they would wear them while they put on shows for their families and friends. As a teenager he got his first opportunity to use his skills in papier-mâché to contribute to the carnival celebrations in Jacmel by working with a mardi gras troupe that paraded in what is called the “zel Materen” which is a traditional Jacmel carnival costume that includes wings on the back of the paraders that they are able to clack together in choreographed movements to create identifiable rhythms in the street celebrations. Throughout the next few years he got involved in more and more mardi gras troupes including the “laset kod” and the “chaloska” groups, all of which tell different stories from Haitian history and folklore.

Since then he has been able to develop his papier-mâché art into a full profession with which he supports his family including his one daughter. He has had the unique opportunity to participate in exchanges with artists from Europe, Mexico, the United States, and all over the world. Every time he shares Jacmel’s regional techniques with artists from other cultures, he takes pride in seeing how these ideas expand their own awareness of what papier-mâché can accomplish. As an artist he says that he’s always searching for ways to evolve his own art and part of that comes from sharing ideas across cultures. One of the highlights from his career was when he was able to participate in a program after the earthquake where Jacmel papier-mâché artists were able to create a number of home interior products that were then sold through Macy’s stores internationally. Although that program is no longer active, he hopes that the international market continues to find ways to invest in the value of Jacmel’s papier-mâché riches.

IMG_3911He is one of the artists in Jacmel, that no matter what hardships may come our way, he remains optimistic in the tough times. Even now when the tourist industry has completely fizzled out and international interest in Haiti’s art has waned significantly, he holds on to his faith in the value of the work that he does and believes that the world will come back around to see that value once again too. He remains a fighter for the future of the Jacmel Arts Center as well and says that his number one priority is for the artists themselves to gain full ownership of their space and to build stronger international partnerships to reinforce their capacity as artists to make a change in their society. It is through the imagination and optimism of artists like Aladin that we at the Arts Center are able to hold on to hope ourselves for what is to come. Just as papier-mâché holds infinite possibilities, so too does the future of the Jacmel Arts Center in the hands of capable creatives like Aladin.

A Creative Oasis in the Midst of Chaos

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As Crisis Grips Haiti, SAJ Remains a Center of Calm and Creativity

The country of Haiti is in the midst of a political and social crisis at the moment with the capitol city consumed with protests, demonstrations, and riots, some of which have turned violent. These events cause effects that ricochet throughout the provinces in a multitude of ways big and small. While we in Jacmel have also experienced a number of protests lately that have shut down public life with road blocks and people marching in the streets, the real affects are felt in the blockage of goods and services that we haven’t been able to access for more than 10 days now. Because transportation is unable to come from Port-au-Prince, food, water, gas, propane, and all other necessities have been unavailable during this time. Local businesses including banks have been closed down as well as most schools and clinics and hospital services. We have been in a state of lockdown as we follow the situation in the capitol and wait for things to shift back to normal.

The reasons for these protests are deep and diverse, all springing from a number of factors that have made life more and more difficult for the Haitian people to sustain. The result of which is that each day remains uncertain for Haitians. From day to day they’re not sure if tomorrow they will have a president or functioning government, or food to feed their families, or a doctor to treat them if they fall ill. All they know is that life is getting more expensive and for many they’ve reached their breaking point.

How does this all affect us at the Jacmel Arts Center? In our community, although we are not immune to the violence or unrest, we remain relatively safe and calm. The people of Jacmel, after a few days of complete shut down, have tried to start returning to life as normal despite the chaos that continues to grip much of the country. Even when the unrest has been at its peak, the Arts Center has remained open to serve our artists members and to provide them with a space to gather collectively and express themselves in safe and productive ways. While images of roads blocked by piles of burning tires and crowds of angry protestors fill the news out of Port-au-Prince, within the walls of the Jacmel Arts Center, every day there has continued to be paintings being produced, papier-mache carnival masks being sculpted, drums being beat and dancers moving to the rhythms. The artists assemble and in the midst of creation they are able to discuss the state of their country and process their feelings on what they see developing in the streets.
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What’s been missing from the Arts Center are visitors, tourists, and customers. We are usually able to depend on February being one of our busiest times of the year at the center due to the boost that our city’s carnival activities bring to the arts and culture sector here. In fact, ever since similar protests broke out last summer, we have been counting on the carnival business boost to help us make up the ground that we lost in the 7 months that followed those protests which completely depleted travel and tourism for the time. Now these demonstrations have broken out even worse than those of the summer and have set us even farther back than before. The vast majority of those who had planned to visit Jacmel for carnival have now canceled their plans, deeming the country too dangerous to visit at this time. Even the majority of foreign expatriates that live in the country long-term have decided to evacuate and wait for safer times to return. The United States State Department has increased the travel warning for Haiti to a Level 4, telling people to absolutely not travel here at this time.

51718695_305095560360575_5855994900855652352_nWe can’t tell you just how devastating this is to a business like ours that depends so greatly on a healthy tourism industry to sustain our own operations. We were already barely hanging on financially to keep our doors open, but now with this setback, we are truly unsure about our own future as an arts center as well. Every day that we are able to stay open and operating to bring our community’s culture to the public, is a blessing that we do not take for granted. Our center is a vital resource to our more than 100 member artists, our more than 50 students, our resident dance troupes and theater groups, the children that take part in our youth programs and the public that rely on us to bring them the best in local art and culture. 52576402_355891831676758_7230404471598088192_nFor all of them we need to remain a place of stability and inspiration.

That is why we are asking your help in this time of crisis to aid us in raising an emergency fund of $10,000 to help ensure that stability now and into the near future. This money will be used to secure our rent during the months that our business has fallen victim to the circumstances of the country. We will also use these funds to begin offering a daily meal to our artists within the arts center compound. Many of our artists spend their entire days at the center producing and rehearsing and nourishing them in a time of scarcity has become a priority to us so that they may keep creating the art that their culture demands. During times of instability such as this, most schools in the area also remain closed, so we would like to use these funds to offer new opportunities for children to come express themselves creatively in a safe and affirming environment as well. By donating today, you will help us accomplish all of this. Use this link to make your contribution to our emergency fund.
Thank You!
The Artists and Administration of the Jacmel Arts Center

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November Artist of the Month – Blaise Emilson

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Blaise Emilson started out his career in the arts as a frog. At the age of 9 he was recruited to dance in a Mardi Gras street performer troupe known as “krapo” which, at the time, was a brand new addition to the Jacmel carnival scene. The troupe dressed all in green like frogs while the smallest and most flexible dancer in the group balances on top of two bamboo poles held in the air by the others and does all sorts of tricks and contortions to the guaranteed cheers of any crowd that gathers to watch. When Blaise was recruited to be a part of the group, he was the one assigned to dance on top of the poles and quickly became widely loved throughout the city for his performances. It was when the krapo troupe performed at a local orphanage called Trinity House that Blaise’s life took a dramatic change. The staff at the children’s home recognized his talent and invited him to come live there with the other children. Although Blaise wasn’t an orphan, his mother was convinced that he’d have a better chance at life if he was raised in the institution rather than in her care, so she registered him to move in to the orphanage. Shortly after moving in, however, the staff decided to move him to their partner location in Port-au-Prince, St. Joseph’s.

At his new home he was enrolled in classes in art, dance, drumming, and piano. He immediately fell in love with all forms of creative expression, especially painting and drumming, and his natural talent was evident from the start. At school he started getting in trouble because instead of taking notes on math or history during class he was always drawing in his notebooks instead. He remembers one teacher in particular who punished him with a severe beating for his drawings in his notebook. He remembers as he was getting the beating he told the teacher that someday she’d see he was going to be a great artist and she’d regret beating him. Sure enough, years later he ran into that teacher in the street and got to prove to her what he’d become by showing her photos of the paintings that he’d created and sold and the success that he’d built for himself. He credits that success to his mentor, a painter from Petionville named Ralph Elan. Blaise was introduced to Elan while living at St. Joseph’s and started taking painting lessons from him. Elan is the one who began teaching Blaise watercolor painting and then later on, acrylics. Blaise really took to the watercolors and remembers the firs42108003_10209580453827961_8717547025370972160_ot one that he sold at the age of 15 to a foreign visitor to the boy’s home. It was a market scene. After that he started painting more and more and everytime visitors came to the orphanage, he would display his watercolors and sell to them to make some money for himself. Eventually others at the home, including the staff, were seeing how much money he was making from his art and it caused some to get jealous of him and that started to make life more difficult for him as they would intentionally leave him out of activities. He didn’t understand why, just like in grade school before, he was being punished for being talented. He was just pursuing his passion and people hated him for it. But he didn’t give up because he knew it’s what it was what he was meant to do. He wasn’t going to let anyone dim the light of his gifts. It only encouraged him to shine brighter. It was the rift in his relationships at the boys’ home that eventually sent him back to Jacmel where he returned to live with his family now as an adult.

He found his strength to press on not only through his art but also through his faith. He said that he would often go to the Bible to find encouragement and guidance. Still to this day he says that much of his inspiration comes from the scriptures because just as those words have a powerful message of how to live, he hopes that his art can also draw viewers closer to God and speak to them in inspirational ways. He does this through a variety of styles, in fact, he says that he doesn’t have any one style. He believes that just as God speaks to people in different ways, so must his art. Art is supposed to be a tool for people to solve their problems in life so different kinds of art can speak to viewers in different ways depending on what they are facing in their life at that moment. That is why you will see Blaise create art that could be described as abstract, or realist, or surrealist, or other styles. He tries to stay versatile. He also wants to make art for a greater purpose than just to sell it. So he wants viewers to find meaning within the work whether they’re rich or poor.

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IMG_5502One of his favorite subjects is children because of his own upbringing in children’s homes he has had a very personal look at the different problems that the children of Haiti face. He says that Haiti is a country of more problems than solutions, but he wants his art to be a weapon with which he can fight for greater solutions and justice for those who don’t have a voice of their own. That includes the children that need better access to education and health and so much more. It also includes the merchant women that often are portrayed in his work because they are the most humiliated and disregarded even though they are one of the most vital parts of Haitian society.

Blaise’s concern for the children extends beyond the canvas, however. He now goes back to Trinity House regularly and teaches the children there painting and drumming. He knows that every kid deserves a chance to pursue their dreams and believe in themselves no matter who they are or where they come from. For that reason he’s earned the nickname, “Pastor” from the children for his compassionate approach to working with them. He knows that the work that he will leave behind as an artist may inspire one of them to become the change that their society needs. He knows that everything that he creates will have a life of its own even beyond his own life and that motivates him to keep working. Throughout his life he’s had to fight to prove that his talent was something to embrace and not to resist. Now he’s not taking any opportunity for granted knowing that the future will be brighter if we help others to shine their lights brighter too.

September Artist of the Month – Jadrix Louis

 

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Jadrix was raised with his brother by their single mother who made an income by doing embroidery and lace work, so from a young age he was influenced by her example of creative craft. She passed away when he was only twelve years old, but before she did, she introduced him to some artist friends of hers who began to teach and train him in the arts. He was born and raised in Jacmel, so when FOSAJ opened up in his home community in 2003, he was excited to have access to an arts education locally. He enrolled in FOSAJ’s programs early on and began learning the nuances of being a fine artist and painter from the organization’s founders, Patrick Boucard and Kate Tarcott Cross.

35078153_1977912269188053_122717871460581376_oHe’s always been drawn to abstract styles of painting because he believes it’s the best way to translate the spiritual nature of art into visual form. Painting has always been a sort of spiritual practice for him, a form of mediation and therapy. Whenever he is stressed or overwhelmed by the challenges of life, he goes to the canvas. When he is before the canvas and applying the paint, he says he often feels like it is not him anymore creating the art, but simply allowing his body to follow the movements of the spirits. His ultimate goal through his work is to transmit light into the world. He says that he understands that God shines light on everything that is on earth and hopes that his art can be a vehicle for the light and divine energy to be transmitted to every viewer that sees it. In that way, no matter where a work of his might end up, he hopes that it may be a benediction into the world wherever it is displayed.

IMG_3016He draws inspiration for the subjects of his art from many places, mainly from the African roots of his culture and from the elders within his own community. At the age of 38, he looks upon his elders with great respect and is constantly paying attention to the wisdom that they share. That wisdom often echoes in his mind as he paints. He also looks to his environment for inspiration. Often he will find unconventional objects to paint on and integrate into his work such as broken chairs, pieces of driftwood, or even a discarded toilet seat. When he paints on these objects his intention is always to give new life to objects that others discard and never let anything go to waste.

Now a single father raising two children of his own, Jadrix hopes the best for their futures in particular, whether they become artists or not, he knows that art will have an influence in their lives. He sees the work of Sant d’A Jakmel as vital to the community for Haitians of all ages. He worries about the children who are sick in the hospital who will never get the chance to discover their artistic gifts because their circumstances in life that are exacerbated by the poverty they live in, prevent them from learning art and discovering their skills. He regrets all of the older generation of Haitians that were never free to pursue their artistic paths because the demands of life in such a difficult environment never allowed them the freedom to become artists. There are so many of his fellow Haitians that have the natural talents to become great artists but don’t have access to the opportunities to nurture those talents. So the more and more that the services of SAJ can reach more and more people in his region and his country, the more hope that he feels his society will have for the future.

Thank you to all of our friends and supporters who make those programs possible for artists like Jadrix. May his art and all of the art from our center continue to be a blessing to you all.

July Artist of the Month – Gre Ronald

Art has always come naturally to 33-year-old, Gre Ronald, who was always doodling in his school notebooks and any scrap of paper that he could find at home. When he was a child and his father noticed his interest in drawing he encouraged him to go spend some time learning from a cousin of his who knew how to paint. It was with his cousin that Gre began to learn how to turn his doodles into art and translate sketches into paintings. When he was older he enrolled in ENARTS in Port-au-Prince in 2005 to begin his formal training in the arts. He stayed working in Port-au-Prince until 2010 when after the earthquake he moved back to Jacmel where his mother lived. Once in Jacmel, he learned about FOSAJ and enrolled as a student in 2012.

Although he’s been trained in a variety of styles, he has always gravitated towards reinterpreting the traditional Haitian market scenes that have become such a definitive part of Haitian folk art. To him, creating these paintings is a process of transferring the energy and life that he feels in the public markets onto canvas. Whenever he walks into a market he is fascinated by the complex web of communications and relationships that happens within the space between the vendors with other vendors and the customers and every element within the market plays a specific role. He likes to paint the market as a living organism itself, made up of many smaller parts that all contribute to the vitality of the whole. With his detailed compositions he hopes the viewers of his art are able to feel this immense sense of life and energy that consumes Haitian markets.

Even more so than the market paintings, though, he feels that the most powerful kind of art that he can create is abstract. Abstract is his preferred style because he finds joy in playing with colors and exploring what they mean when you compose them in certain ways allowing them to speak for themselves. Color to him is his soul, his blood. He put it this way, “All of my bones together make me a human, but my bones are made of color and paint.” When he imagines how the spirit of people can transform in ways beyond what our eyes can see he likes to portray that through his abstract compositions. The colors can show us that. Marrying colors together represents the way we want to live together and when colors aren’t in harmony, it means we are not creating the world that we want to live in. It’s through abstraction that he’s able to send a stronger message to anyone who looks at his work whether it is a politician, a teacher, another artist, or anyone in his country. He is able to express his hopes for life through his colors and abstraction. Art to him is a reflection of what his heart believes. Art is his life and love. Anytime he walks by a painting he feels like it gives him life.

Gre is newly married to a woman that he met in university while he was studying journalism. His wife is currently finishing up her degree in medicine. They married in June. Gre, like most of our artists at the Jacmel Arts Center, is a father and is able to support his children and provide for their educations thanks to his work as an artist and the opportunity that he has to sell his work to make an income. For this reason, the Jacmel Arts Center means a lot to Gre because it helps him support his family. He hopes that the center finds the support that it needs to continue to grow and thrive. He believes that this will happen based on the quality of the work that the artists here continue to create.

We are thankful for Gre as one of our members and his contributions to making sure we always have quality work on display to represent all of our artists and our community!

June Artist of the Month – Fritzner Henry

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When Fritner Henry was growing up he always knew that he had a style to life that was different from everyone else but he never knew how to define himself or where he fit in. As he grew into his teenage years and began understanding more about the world, he began to realize that he was gay, even though he didn’t have a word for it yet. All that he knew was that it was a lifestyle that wasn’t respected or accepted in his society and so he began to search for a place where he would be accepted and understood. It was in Haitian folk dance that he found his tribe. Through dance he was able to express the more feminine side to his spirit more freely around other individuals that each had a unique style to carrying themselves as well. However, living as an openly gay man was still looked down upon and criticized even in the dance community. Even though that is where many queer Haitians gravitated, they were still consistently discriminated against for not conforming to gender norms.

It was after participating in a seminar held by a group called Konesans Fanmi on sexual education and sexual health that he began to brainstorm about how to form his own group that would utilize the folk arts of dance and music that he loved so much to defend and lift up the LGBTQ community of Haitians that he had come to consider his family. It was shortly after that seminar that Fritzner met Flo McGarrell at an event at the Alliance Francaise. Flo was the director of FOSAJ at the time, and introduced Fritner to the concept of transgender identity for the first time and the two of them became quick friends. Fritzner shared with Flo his dream of building a folk dance troupe that would use the folk arts expressly to combat discrimination and stigmatization within Haitian society and with Flo’s support they founded Gran Lakou. Gran Lakou was started as a place where everyone would feel welcomed and affirmed, especially those who felt marginalized by the other popular dance troupes of the area. From the start, Fritzner recruited the talent of singer, Yonel Charles, and together they set out to use their passion for dance and music in a way that would challenge gender stereotypes and decolonize ingrained perspectives on sexuality.

IMG_0488Before the earthquake of 2010, Gran Lakou had grown into an organization that not only created a safe space for many young Haitians to express themselves through dance, but also worked within the community to organize their own workshops and conferences centered around advocating for the rights of LGBTQ Haitians and also promoting healthy sexual practices for all Haitians regardless of orientation. Through this work they began to garner respect within society because others came to see them first and foremost as artists and activists before judging their personal lifestyles. In the earthquake, however, Gran Lakou suffered a great loss when their primary cheerleader, fundraiser, and network builder, Flo, died in the disaster. Through their grief, Gran Lakou continued on, but struggled to grow without Flo’s strength and support to bolster them. They lost all of the international contacts that once partnered with their work and Fritzner’s wish is that all of the people that had been friends of Gran Lakou’s by virtue of Flo would know that Gran Lakou is still alive and still dancing and still fighting the good fight for justice and equality in Haiti. He hopes that they find a way to get reconnected.

Today, Gran Lakou enjoys a revitalized relationship with Sant d’A Jakmel as one of our resident dance troupes and is able to collaborate with our full membership of artists on a number of events. Locally, Fritzner says that he can see a change in mentality evolve towards LGBTQ persons and more and more Haitians are opening up. Where several years back he can recount instances of direct violence towards himself and friends of his for simply living their lives, now he says he can walk down the streets in Jacmel at anytime and always feel safe and proud to be himself. Through their seminars, they’ve even been able to build relationships with the local police forces and cultivate a partnership where LGBTQ Jacmeliennes are now knowingly protected where they once were targeted. He hopes that someday all gay and lesbian Haitians may know that same freedom as other parts of the country continue to live in hate towards their queer brothers and sisters. He, for his part, is definitely doing all he can to bring that change about and we at SAJ are proud to stand beside him and all of Gran Lakou as they do. “Every time that we speak out publicly or put on a public dance performance, it’s giving people a chance to change their minds and it’s moving the light of progress forward.”

You can watch videos of Gran Lakou performing on our YouTube page. If you would like to support the work of Gran Lakou to help facilitate more training opportunities and advocacy projects or to support their needs for their dance performances, please make a donation through The Jacmel Arts Center today! And if you are in Jacmel on Friday June 22nd, make sure to catch Gran Lakou performing at our Boukan Sen Jen Grand Event at 8pm on our newly remodeled backyard stage!

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How Artist Exchange Trips Make a Difference

Last week, after almost a month in Indianapolis, Indiana, four artists from the Jacmel Arts Center sat on a plane to return home to Haiti when Gerald Joanis struck up a conversation with the bilingual Haitian-American flight attendant. When she learned that we were artists and were traveling to share Haiti’s culture, she asked to know more and Gerald showed her some photos from our trip including the murals we painted and the groups of youth that we provided workshops for, as well as videos of him dancing at various events in Indianapolis. You could see the pride in the attendant’s eyes as she said to us all in Creole, “That’s right! You show them who Haiti really is! Too many people out there are putting our country down, insulting us without ever knowing who we truly are. Keep showing them all of the beauty we have!” After that we exchanged information and she promised to visit sometime and take some classes from our artists.

This, to me, summarized the importance of why we choose to travel with our artists so that they may share their art beyond Jacmel in cities around the world. There are many reasons why this sort of exchange is beneficial to our artists and the community that they belong to, but when we travel we become cultural ambassadors for the entire country, carrying a powerful message of Haiti’s true culture and identity through the arts that we share. In this way, our art becomes a tool to break down misconceptions and challenge stereotypes about who Haiti is. 33502371_10155534070567844_1848165530305822720_n

On our recent trip to Indianapolis, we had many chances to do just that through the work of our arts ambassadors who traveled. In addition to folk dancer, Gerald Joanis, there were also painters, Meger Samedi, and Bruno Rene, with myself, Lee Rainboth, the executive director of SAJ. We traveled to Indianapolis through a partnership with local arts organization, Indy Convergence, which strives to empower and connect artists and communities from all backgrounds to each other in an inclusive, collaborative environment. Indy Convergence has maintained a strong relationship with the Jacmel arts community for years as they have partnered with local community center, Sa-k-La-k-Wel, to build an amphitheater in the neighborhood of Oban using earthship technologies. This exchange trip opportunity that was realized last month was the result of years of dreaming and planning and hard work to get some of Jacmel’s artists to visit Indianapolis.

33344837_10155534200442844_6516180693360312320_nWhile there, our month’s agenda was packed full with opportunities to introduce the Indianapolis community to our Haitian culture while collaborating with local artists on a variety of artistic service projects. Some of the activities that made the biggest impact on our own artists were the ones where they got to interact with the youth of Indianapolis through programs designed to build character and develop skills and awareness of the world. We met with a group of young men in a juvenile detention alternative program who loved learning about Haitian folk music and dance traditions from Gerald as we were able to connect the revolutionary spirit of these traditions with modern day hip-hop music. We also held multiple workshops in sequin art with teenage girls in a program called E-STEAM in partnership with Kheprw Insititute where the girls were drawn in by the sparkle of the art but through that they were able to learn about a country and culture that they knew very little about.

33491414_10155534070622844_5518592646722879488_nWith the greater Indianapolis community we had multiple opportunities to share our visual art through exhibits at Clowes Memorial Hall, Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company, The Green Room Gallery, and Indy Convergence Gallery, in addition to pop up exhibits at Salesforce and the Church Within. Between all of these locations we exhibited over 120 works of art from over 40 Jacmel artists and are happy that even once these exhibits close, much of the art will remain on display through Indy Convergence and other partners. We were also able to leave our lasting mark on the community by creating two large murals, one at the West Michigan Street Portico and one at the Hawthorne Community Center, 33326926_10155534070502844_342730680754503680_nwhich Gerald noticed the children that walked by “felt like they were in a dream” when they saw it. Bruno and Meger also got to do a live painting demonstration during an Impromptu party at the portico where dozens of guests got to watch them at work. We also had numerous opportunities for Gerald to share Haitian folk dance, most notably through a masterclass workshop with dance students at Indiana University. The public also enjoyed his performances at events such as the Impromptu party and our visit to The Church Within.

33426478_10155534070597844_8698764583629750272_nOverall we had an incredible time and thank everyone who helped make the trip possible. Although there were only 4 artists traveling, we were traveling to represent all of our more than 100 other member artists at the Jacmel Arts Center and the community in Haiti that we come from. So on behalf of us all, we thank everyone who made us feel welcome and helped us show the value that Haitian arts can have across cultures. For Meger, he felt that the relationships he was able to make with all of our new friends and collaborators in Indianapolis was the most valuable part of the trip.

We are already planning our next exchange trip which will happen later this summer to Iowa, and in the fall we will be visiting our Sister City of Gainesville, Florida with a delegation of artists. These trips are an essential part of building the global network of support that we need to remain connected to in order to make all of our programs at SAJ possible. “Art was never meant to stay in one place, it’s meant to travel, it’s meant to be mobile,” as Bruno remarked after our trip, but it also needs a strong and stable base to call home. That’s why no matter how far we travel with our art from Jacmel we always are committed to making sure that the trips serve to strengthen our foundational programs at our center in Jacmel. You can be a part of these unique exchange experiences for our artists by sponsoring some of the travel expenses associated with sending out arts ambassadors out into the world. For the Iowa trip we have 3 artists traveling: Vady Confident, Obelto Desire, and Lee Rainboth, and we need to raise $1,000 for each artist to travel. For this fall’s trip to Gainesville, we hope to take 6 artists to Florida and need to raise $600 per artist to cover those expenses. You can sponsor an artist for these trips or make a donation of any amount through our donation page. Thank you very much. We hope that with your support we can keep “showing them who Haiti really is”!

You can also watch a video tour of the exhibit at Clowes Memorial Hall on our Facebook page.

And you can watch a video of Gerald dancing the Zarenyen dance with local Indy dancer, Jean Paul Weaver, on our YouTube page.

May Artist of the Month – Alix Olivier

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“Gade kadav!” Rigol screams out into the crowd, “Look at the corpses!” implicating everyone in the audience in the scene that he and his fellow actors on stage are painting with their words. What starts out as a dramatic stage performance soon becomes an interactive experience for those who are watching as they are forced to consider their own role in the state of their society that is being illuminated through the carefully crafted act in front of them. When the actors begin to address the audience directly and invite them to respond, the lines between actor and observer are blurred and the witnesses become immersed in a unique artistic experience. Rigol, as the actor Alix Olivier is known on stage, allows the weight of his words to manifest in his entire body and can draw the audience in simply through the precise but intense look in his eyes. When Rigol is finished with the scene, everyone watching is left both emotionally and intellectually challenged by what they just saw and were a part of.

At only 22-years-old, Alix Olivier’s powerful voice has quickly found its place within the culture of Jacmel. He was 15-years-old when he first saw a theater troupe perform in his church and was inspired by their art to pursue acting himself. He started learning from that group and was soon performing at church and around the community. He then pursued more formal training through programs at Jakmel Ekspresyons and Centre Culturel Charles Moravia where he was able to develop his voice, not just through acting, but also writing and poetry. Discovering the potential of these artforms to help tell the stories of his culture, he wanted to help other younger kids begin to learn the dramatic and written arts early on and he became the coordinator of a group called Pegase which trains children in art, theater, poetry, slam, and more.

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Now, as he shares his art through performance throughout the Jacmel community, he says that he really enjoys the opportunity to be involved at the Jacmel Arts Center because he just “always feels more comfortable, more at home, around other artists.” He says, “the rest of the world and those that are high up in society may look at artists like we’re crazy, but other artists like us always understand each other because we come from the same world.” He describes theater as his weapon with which he can battle misunderstanding and injustice in the world. He believes that exposure to art is what helps people grow and transform as individuals and as communities. That is why he uses the stage name, Rigol, which is the Creole word for a sort of canal. He believes that words are a type of irrigation that can water the imaginations of those that hear them or read them.

He has had to work hard to get where he is over the last few years because there is no full programs of higher education for theater in the Jacmel region, so he has had to do his own research, read a lot of books, and search out other opportunities for practice and training. He hopes that someday that can change and there can be better opportunities for education in the performing arts. In Jacmel, the country’s creative capitol, especially, he says that the community needs to have a school offering a performing arts program. They have the country’s largest and most prestigious film school, Cine Institute, so it would only make sense that they also have a formidable education program for acting in the area. For now he is committed to working with other artists at SAJ and around Jacmel to expand opportunities for all. He knows how important collaboration is across disciplines because all arts inform and intersect with others. “We have to lift one another up,” he says, “it’s the only way to create the ambiance we want in the world through our creations.”

Click the image below to watch Rigol perform a fusion of two poems, “Toutouni” by Andre Fouad, and “Lari” an original poem of his own.

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April Artist of the Month – Ernst Payen

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“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.

IMG_1454Flo 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.

IMG_2096Now 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.

IMG_6600At 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.

Make a donation today to support artists like Ernst!