Seeing the sun: Artists feel pulse of Haiti


NORTH ADAMS -- A year ago, Melanie Mowinski, professor of art at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, took students to Haiti.

They traveled with Philippe Dodard, an artist and director of National School of Arts.

He took them to artists' studios and into artists' homes. They drank tea made from mint from an artist's garden.

"He kept telling us he would take us to the mountain," she said.

The mountain was the birthplace of the Saint-Soleil movement. Dodard had been part of its beginnings, when he was young. Now he took her students to meet the third generation of artists in the school.

"The essence of Saint-Soleil is light, pattern and repetition, vibrancy and color," she said. "What stays with me -- they would greet each other with the same phrase. You look meaningfuly into someone's eyes, focus and say ‘bon soleil.' He translated it as ‘I see the sun in you.' "

Guy Michel Telemaque, visual arts faculty and Gordon Gallery director at Boston Arts Academy, traveled to Haiti to find artists' work to bring back to his city. He has curated a show of three internationally respected Haitian artists: Dodard, Gontran Durocher and Ronald Mevs. And his show will come to Gallery 51 today.

"These three -- the experience of meeting them was profound," Telemaque said. "They have history between them. I wanted to reunite them."

They knew each other as young men, he said. They belong to a generation of artists, in the 1960s, who took part in a new movement in art, a Haitian reinvention and renaissance.

Haiti has struggled through hard times in the last century and more.

"The art world kept the country going," Telemaque said.

Dodard paints with soul and bright color.

"He is one of those people comfortable in the fanciest places and in the back streets of the world," Mowinski said. "He is world-renowned, and to see that grace is amazing. At the National Museum, he can touch the paintings. An hour later, he's in the streets with members of the Artistes de la Resistance," among tin houses in a shantytown, talking among the debris.

He draws on the island's history in his work, and the artistic styles and stories or symbols of the Taino, the Arawak people who lived on the island in and before the 15th century, and of the African people brought to the island to work as slaves.

Mevs, born into a family of artists, leans often to bright and warm colors, terra cotta and turquoise, sun on the water and plants in the earth.

He has worked with paint, metal, paper, leather and ceramics. He has been influenced by papier maché and the masks and creatures made for Carnival processions, by Cuban surrealist masters and artists in Harlem. He lived in New York in the 1960s, Telemaque said, and bartended at a club in the days when jive was floating.

"When I met him, I thought he was a modern-day Da Vinci," Telemaque said. "He's an artist, an architect and an engineer, building things for the community."

Mevs goes from one project to the next, he said, building a studio for young artists, traveling every day to different places.

He has become involved in community projects, like an effort to bring clean water to a town center where he was commissioned to make a ceramic mosaic mural.

DuRocher may be the least abstract of the three, Telemaque said. He described a triptych Durocher has painted in the last few years: One panel shows life before the earthquake. The second shows a tent city in a motif of waves, an ocean of tents. And the third holds hope for what may come after.

"It's hard to be in Haiti and not be mindful of struggle," Telemaque said. "Inequality is magnified there. It's not easy to shut it away and not pay attention to it. It's part of the pulse" of the place.

Telemaque first came to Haiti as part of a service project after the earthquake.

"Haiti brings everything out of you," he said. "A lot of joy, an apprciation of the beauty of the people and all they do, and a profound sadness" at the pain he could not change.

He is Haitian American himself, and it moved him powerfully to make even a "microscopic effort" as part of the rebuilding.

He led a digital photography workshop at a new community center in San Raphael.

He brought five cameras, and he had 40 students. They had never seen a digital camera before, he said, and they picked up the idea quickly and adeptly. He had groups of eight students sharing each camera, and they were eager to take turns.

Mowinski too found the people she met, some living in conditions she could not imagine, often full of grace.

Among the artistes de la resistance, an internationally known artist leads classes for children, making art out of what they can find in the streets. Sometimes they make beautiful work out of cut-out tires, she said.

She paused.

Very quietly, in sadness and respect, she said, "Sometimes they find human skulls. I will never forget that."

If you go ...

What: 'Persistence of Spirit,'
27 paintings by three Haitian artists, Philippe Dodard, Gontran Durocher and Ronald Mevs

When: Opening 5 to 7 tonight, show through Feb. 23

Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Where: 51 Main St., North Adams

Admission: Free



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