Haiti: The Art of Recovery

I’m a wanna-be artist, a sort-of, almost artist—certainly not by training and clearly not because of craft. 

I’m also an artist who has struggled with bipolar disorder, someone who appreciates the creativity that is often an unexpected gift accompanying the illness.  I’m someone who has not only made art when I was sick, but continues to create even when I am well, as an outgrowth of recovery.  In the art world I’m what would be called an “outsider” artist.  I don’t always know what I’m doing.  I just do.  Art. 

I’m also a writer and artist who has lived in Haiti for the last year with my partner.  Sara has directed an international NGO’s response to the earthquake.  But we are preparing to go home next week, and I’m thinking not only about what Haiti has given me, the gifts I will take home, but also what I’ll leave behind.

Indeed, one of the gifts I’ve given is a large piece of art, one I created for Sara’s NGO from a throw-away piece of furniture—a huge serving bar I painted last summer.


The bar is nearly 9 and a half feet long and lives on an upstairs patio at Sara’s office in Port-au-Prince.

It was white, ugly, an eye-sore, really.  But Sara wanted to save it.  She thought it, like Haiti itself, should be given a second chance at life, that the bar could be used for receptions, to serve meals on special occasions.  She thought I was the one to midwife this rebirth, that I was the one to take on the task, that as someone who has repurposed art as part of my own recovery, I could gift a born-again bar to the wonderful people who work here.

I loved the idea and took on the project enthusiastically, in the end creating a mixed-media piece—one that incorporates the organization’s logo in strategic places, as well as decoupaged-maps of Port-au-Prince and each location in Haiti the organization works.

I also included stories from the local newspaper, highlighting big events in the news during the months after the earthquake.

I included text from the organization’s 6-month, post-earthquake report, as well as the names of almost all the people who had worked on the NGO’s reconstruction effort—folks from more than a dozen countries around the world.

The front of the bar repeats the organization’s logo above each flower petal:

As well as the names of staff in black and white circles:

The top of the bar includes the maps and newspaper text:

However, soon Sara and I will leave Haiti; soon we’ll leave the places mapped on the bar-top at a bit of a distance, at least geographically.

And though we’ll leave when the organization’s work here is still incomplete, though in many ways it seems too soon, I’ll leave a piece of myself behind, one that I hope will serve the NGO’s mission here well into the future.  I’ll leave not only a piece of my art, but also a piece of my heart, knowing this is not really an end.  We leave but others will come.

Haiti has taught me this lesson: that indeed good things can come from our departure.   It has taught me not only how to birth a new bar, but also  how to hope, how to see potential in seeming destruction,  how to dream a new dream, how to hope a new hope.  It’s reminded me that, if art can come out of sickness, then indeed beauty can come out of the earthquake’s ruin. 

I believe that in every beginning an end is waiting to happen and from every illness or devastation a new beginning will grow.

Peace to people of Haiti—

And thank you!

Stumping for Haitian Art: Gorgeous Gardens in Port-au-Prince

I had a close encounter with garden art last week—

An unexpected one at that.

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a visual artist—of sorts—self-taught, poor, and living in exile on a Caribbean island, where electricity is in short supply, political stability is even harder to come by, and cholera is spreading like good gossip in a gaggle of girls.  I’ve shared my work in previous posts.  I love art, support art, enjoy it in all its incarnations, shapes, and sizes.

But it surprised even me last week, when an artistic enterprise unfolded in my own Port-au-Prince back yard—one uninitiated by me.

Ever since last spring when Sara moved into our house on a hill—Morne Calvaire (where we’re told a new neighbor is Baby Doc Duvalier), the land-lady has promised a garden, and last week she delivered, arriving with a landscape artist who installed a stunning rock garden near our front door.

We were happy.  We were actually thrilled.  However, we were not prepared for act two, which unfolded the following day.

It was morning; the sky was clear, blue bold enough to brighten even the most bored of bloggers.  I was writing, enjoying light that angled through my wall of windows.  While I was working, however, the dogs alerted me to a noise outside, one I might have otherwise ignored. Thank God for canine clamor.

There on the hillside that slants down and away from our house, three men, our landscape artist included, pushed and pulled, grunted and groaned the most massive of stumps toward a wall and fence that border the back of our garden.

I couldn’t imagine why.  What was the purpose behind this effort?  Why had Sisyphus himself shown up on my Haitian hillside?

What concerned me most, however, from my interpretation of signs and signals being gestured below, was an apparent plan to heave the stump over the wall and through the fence cemented into it.  I watched and wondered, watched and wondered some more till I was sure the plan indeed involved such fence bull-dozing, before running out to get our security guard to intervene and interrupt this planned assault.  Within seconds Sonny came running, riffle gesturing the men away from ruining our fence.

It was soon discovered via a phone call to our landlady that, having forgotten the fence was attached to the top it, she had asked the men to remove the stump by pushing it over the top of the wall.  Our stump-movers extraordinaire interpreted her instructions quite literally, intending to force the tree through the fence in an effort to accomplish the task.  So much for common sense.

Stump removal ceased for the day.

The men then returned the following morning, removing a section of fence, forcing their burden over the top of the wall, lowering it with ropes into the back of a truck on the other side, and replacing the offending section of fence, before departing—

I assumed forever.

However, the following morning, while I was again writing, a horn honked outside our gate, the dogs barked like insane caricatures of canine companionship, and I soon heard the shouting of what turned out to be seven men.  Within minutes massive crashing commenced on the deck above, more shouting, still more housing-rattling crashes, shouting and crashing, shouting and crashing, until I simply had to investigate.

The stump had returned.

It was now living on our patio, puzzling me, puzzling indeed.  I like trees as much at the next semi-green ex-pat on the island, but REALLY, did we want this stump on our patio?

Over the next several days, however, Dicton Gaston, our new gardener guy answered that question for me, proving more and more a sculpting savant, as the stump morphed from this:

Into this:

Dicton Gaston is a gardening genius.

Dicton Gaston proves art emerges from even the most unlikely places.

Dicton Gaston proves that in Port-au-Prince, though ex-dictators may show up unannounced at airports, though they’ll be arrested and released and move onto the mountain where you live, art can come from equally surprising places, in delightfully surprising packages.

So, this week, as long as the ex-dictator can maintain his EX-dictator status, as long as protesters don’t take to the streets and shut down the city, as long as posts can go as planned, this week I’ll bring you a series on Haitian art, hoping to remind you—

Port-au-Prince may be leveled, reduced to a dead stump of its former self, discarded on a hillside, in ruin.  Haiti may be broken, lost, and nearly forgotten, but still, like Dicton’s stump, it can occupy a prominent place, a patio blooming, green, and living once again.

A work of genuine genius.