Vibrant artworks from Haiti get showcase in Columbia

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2014 11:15 am | Updated: 11:16 am, Thu Mar 27, 2014.

BY LAURA KNOWLES | Correspondent

The artists of Haiti rely on tourism for their livelihood. And yet they are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“Not only have the earthquakes and hurricanes devastated Haiti, but they have devastated the lives of the artists and craftspeople who count on tourists to sell their work,” says Columbia artist Diana Thomas.

Thomas discovered the plight of her fellow artists in Haiti when she went on a humanitarian aid trip to Haiti shortly after the 2010 earthquake. With people living in ramshackle tents, struggling for food and water and suffering from disease, the last thing anyone was interested in was artwork.

“But that was how the artists provided for their families. That was their work,” says Thomas.

That was when she decided that not only would she help with the earthquake and hurricane cleanup, but she would also help the artists find a new market for their work while their country was being rebuilt. She is, after all, an artist herself.

The new market for Haitian art is right here in Lancaster County, at the Jonal Gallery in Columbia. That is where the gallery and Thomas are presenting an exhibition of work from the Haitian art and cultural exchange, known as Hands+HeARTs Haiti. The organization serves to connect artists in Haiti with those who want to purchase the art.

As Thomas explains, it is a mission that involves partnering with sister churches and artisans in Haiti to help create self-sustaining income through exposure and sales of their works, helping create business and educational opportunities.

Not only does Hands+HeARTs help Haitian artists rebuild their lives, the artwork they create looks pretty amazing over the sofa or in the dining room.

“The first thing that strikes you with the Haitian art is the richness of color,” says Jonal Gallery co-owner John Novak.

That’s almost an understatement.

The influences of island life with its deep blue and turquoise sea, vibrant blooms of orange and red, vivid sunsets in orange and purple and lush green tropical forests are everywhere in the work. Most of the pieces depict a simple life in a place that should be paradise, if not for earthquakes and hurricanes.

Thomas has created a bond with several of the artists, and she actually purchases the art from them. If she us able to get a better price here in the U.S., she sends them the difference. That way, they get their immediate needs met for money from their artwork, and maybe even a little extra later.

“I am sort of an agent for the artists,” says Thomas. “And we are all part of a family of artists.”

One of the artists she works with is Rodrigue Constant, who will have 12 pieces in the Jonal Gallery show. Constant has an almost primitive style, with an exceptional attention to detail and vivid color. His paintings show real life in villages that cluster small houses with thatched roofs. There are woman carrying baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables. Lush tropical flowers and trees surround them.

In some of Constant’s work, the sea is visible, with gentle waves and a gorgeous turquoise blue. Mats are spread out in front of each colorful house. Some houses are pink or green or blue. Some are houses of many colors, patched together in whatever materials can be found.

Even in their art, the artists of Haiti must make do with the materials at hand. Most use acrylics, and they paint on cloth, canvas, wood and masonite. That makes it even more striking to see what they can do with such basic materials. Some are small paintings, while others are larger. There are also notecards with artwork, as well as wood carvings.

In Larimer Saincilus’s work, the fruits, vegetables, flora and fauna of Haiti come to life on his canvas. He is a master of color, painting his subjects so that they almost shimmer. An egret stands at the edge of a tropical rain forest, with the bird’s crisp white set against the leaves, trees and grasses in every shade if green imaginable.

“Bounty” is the title of a painting by Paul Lewis, which shows a basket of fruit and vegetables — golden bananas, oranges, watermelon, starfruit, pineapple, papaya, melons, onions, eggplant, cabbages and yams — in an abundance of juicy colors you can almost taste.

Then there is the work of artists who paint in the style known as L’artibonte. The school of art was originated by Ismael Saincilus, and depicts Bible scenes rather than scenes from Haiti. Subjects might reflect on the Catholic aspect of Haitian religion with scenes such as the Madonna and Child and the Flight to Egypt. Saincilus trained art students in the L’artibonte style, which can be seen in works that show Bible stories with a tropical touch.

“I am hoping that this exhibit will introduce art lovers to the work of these talented Haitian artists and create new opportunities,” says Thomas. “I think they will be amazed.”

“A Day in the Life’’

An exhibit of works by Haitian artists

Opening reception, Fri. 5-9

Cont. through May 17

Thurs.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Fourth Friday, 5-9 p.m. Free

Jonal Gallery/Alverta Arts Shop

653 Locust St., Columbia, 681-9400


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