If you research art in Haiti you will find one place that is considered the artistic capitol – Jacmel. If you research the greatest contemporary artists currently living and working in Jacmel, at first you will have difficulty because so many of the great artists from the city have moved out of the city or most even out of the country to live and work. But when you do find some names of these artists that are making the most impressive work in the artistic capitol now, at this moment, you will probably find names that are represented in our Living Media Gallery. Vady Confident, Pierrot Clerrisont, Pheonix Joseph Badio, and Georges Dimitry, to name some of the most well known. These are all artists who have exhibited work worldwide in New York, Paris, Miami, Holland, Italy, Canada…in some of the most prestigious galleries and museums. They all have phenomenal talent in their craft and have garnered the attention of many foreign art enthusiasts. They each have little black books full of email addresses and phone numbers of people from all over the world who have seen their art and ensured them that they can go far.
Vady Confident Painting
Yet, when any of these artists find themselves in difficult situations, there’s only one phone number that they call – Lee Rainboth. You can search for these guys on the internet and you’ll find articles on them in international magazines and websites, but those articles don’t tell the whole story. They tell about how creative and expressive their work is and how it has the potential to provide hope to a country full of people struggling to survive, but they don’t tell about how the artists themselves struggle to survive day to day. These articles don’t tell about how when these artists run into tough times they have to call up a 27 year old farm boy from Iowa hoping that he can perform some sort of miracle to solve their problems.
If you take your research far enough to actually come to Jacmel and speak with these artists and you ask any of them who is the most talented painter in the city, you will hear one name every time, “Vady Confident.” Vady is such an extraordinary artist that he can bring tears to a grown man’s eyes with the simple beauty with which he can paint a coconut tree. He is the most respected professor at the most respected art school in the city and if he had the chance, he could teach some valuable lessons to the most successful contemporary visual artists of the United States and Europe. He’s that good.
But last week I got a call from Vady. He had a new painting that he wanted me to look at. I, always being excited to see more of Vady’s work, was in a hurry to agree to come see it, but I made it clear even on the phone beforehand that I was not in a position to be able to buy any more artwork at this point. We haven’t had any visitors to our shop for a couple months and even recently had to move out of our Jacmel gallery location and business hasn’t been booming. I don’t even have enough extra space to even exhibit any extra work on commission. But I would be more than happy to come look at it.
As a businessman I should have known better, but the artist in me can’t say no.
To see the painting I went to the home of another artist of ours, Jean Baptiste Gere, who is a friend and student of Vady’s. Jean Baptiste rents a tiny single room tucked back in a crowded little alleyway in the city’s ghetto and when I entered I was overwhelmed to see the huge painting of Vady’s that took up the entire wall of Jean Baptiste’s room. It was a gorgeous Haitian landscape, real enough and large enough that you felt you could walk right into it. My mind had been blown, and thus the internal conflict that so frequently rages inside my soul here began to boil.
Pheonix Jr. Badio Painting
Jean Baptiste began explaining to me the situation which I had come to expect. Vady was desperate. He has two young daughters in school and he hadn’t been able to pay anything on their tuition yet and the school’s were going to kick them out. This fantastic painting before me had been on exhibition for a while in a gallery in Port-au-Prince, but they hadn’t been able to sell it yet, so Vady took it back with hopes of letting me hold on to it for a while as long as I gave him enough money to pay for his daughter’s school.
I didn’t have to discuss a price. I knew I couldn’t buy it. As I looked at this painting I knew that if I was selling it in the states it would have to sell for at least $4000 US. At least. But I knew these guys well enough and I know the mindset of Haitian artists well enough to realize that if I offered him $500 for the painting, he’d take it, even if I only gave him $100 now and gave him the rest after I sold the painting. No one else on earth would be able to take that painting for that price, especially a foreigner. He told me later that even the Haitian gallery owners in PAP were expected to give him $1500 for the painting if they sold it. I was dumbfounded knowing that I could obtain one of the most incredible paintings in the country for such an absurdly low price. However, I knew that I couldn’t even offer it, because as an artist I knew that it would be a slap in the face. But even if you took the painting out of the equation, my heart still tossed back and forth with indecision because I hate to see such a talented artist suffer. The businessman in me wanted knew that the painting had the potential to make money, the artist in me also wanted to own something so beautiful, and the human in me wanted to help out a friend in need.
At the same time the businessman in me had no money, the artist in me couldn’t offend a fellow painter, and the human in me really wanted to save up my extra money to buy a new pair of Converse tennis shoes. This is the internal conflict that I can never seem to resolve.
I encounter a number of injustices in my life here every day, but none as frustrating to me as this. Vady Confident, is not supposed to be so desperate for money that he has to compromise his integrity to try to sell me a painting! You cannot be the most talented artist in a city known as the artistic and cultural center of a country that’s been praised for it’s spectacular artistic traditions for years, and have to come to me for help so your kids can go to school! I should be the one chasing after an artist of that caliber to have in my gallery, or even to teach me what he knows as an artist. I could spend my entire life trying and never paint a coconut tree like this man. I should not be begged to come view his work in a dirty alley and have to try to justify not ripping him off. I shouldn’t even have that opportunity.
Pierrot Clerissont Painting
Many other foreigners would love to have the opportunity to rip off Vady Confident or any one of the other artists I mentioned. Many already have taken that opportunity and that’s why the artists now come to me more often, because they can at least trust me. They’ve all told me storie of sending their best, most prized paintings to foreign galleries with visitors to the country that made promises to them without ever giving any money. Once these visitors left with their paintings, they never heard from them again. They’ve learned that I’m not the same. They know that I will tell them the truth in any case and always encourage them without exploiting them. They know that even when I don’t need any paintings for the gallery I’m still always interested in seeing their work and will even call them from time to time just to see how they’re doing. They know that if they see me riding through the street on my motorcycle they can flag me down just so we can go get something to drink on the beach and talk about art and culture and religion and politics. They also know that when they really need something, I’m always there for them.
But this time, I knew that I couldn’t do anything for Vady. I told Jean Baptiste that instead of paying him an offensive price for the painting that I didn’t have room for and probably couldn’t even sell because of its size, I’d rather just give him a gift to help him pay for his daughter’s school, but at that point, I didn’t even have enough spare cash to even give him a gift. And that’s how I left it, without making any promises but letting Jean Baptiste know that I would talk to him and Vady again in a few days to see if anything had changed.
I hadn’t even asked where Vady was. I assumed that he was simply too ashamed of his situation to even come speak to me. Then, just as I was leaving and walking out of the alleyway, up pulled Vady on his dilapidated little moped and a big smile on his face, happy to see me. And who was on the back of his moped? His two adorable little daughters in their pink checkered school uniforms and big ribbons in their hair. He had just picked them up from school and came straight to Jean Baptiste’s to see if I had come yet. Looking into his daughter’s faces, knowing that I couldn’t do anything for them, I felt like lying down in the street right in front of them and letting the bike run me over.
I just told Vady that I had already spoken with Jean Baptiste and he would update him on what we discussed about the painting. I got on my motorcycle with my chauffeur, Papi, and we drove off. On the way home, I vented to Papi about how upside down the whole system is and how frustrated I was about it. He’d heard it all before. It wasn’t the first time I’d released this discourse on him on the motorcycle. I’ve had similar experiences with all of my other artists. Pheonix fell and injured his foot and didn’t have money for a doctor’s visit or even any Tylenol for pain. But he had paintings. Pierrot’s lease was up and he didn’t have any rent money. But he had paintings. And all I’ve got is a heart that’s sensitive to artists’ needs.
I don’t know what the solution to this situation is or if there even is one, but all that Living Media can do for now is continue to support these artists by selling their work through our gallery and helping them find the resources they need to keep creating. Please visit our gallery on Facebook to experience some of their beautiful artwork. It deserves to be seen.