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#2316: Black offers another look at "the Haitian character" (fwd)

From: Black, Patricia <Patricia.Black@pge-corp.com>

Just now receiving the Jorgen Leth catalog, I am reminded of a list members'
earlier request to have more discussion about Haitian artists and their
stories.  Feeling a little guilty about being an avid list reader who never
contributes, I'm happy to pass along an anecdote about one of my favorite
people:  Louisiane Saint Fleurant.  

She is a founding member of the St. Soleil school and better known for her
canvases, but it is her delightful painted clay figures that have always
captured me.  

Whenever visiting Haiti, I make my pilgrimage to her home, inching my way
patiently along a twelve-inch path thru the little open air food market not
far from the roundabout in Petionville.  Everyone seems to know I'm going to
see the lady who paints.  What other reason would an oafish looking
overweight blan' have for being there!?  Taking up considerably more than my
fair share of the path, I'm afraid I disrupt the foot traffic.  So, people
are only too happy to see me get where I'm going, and (without my asking)
wordlessly point the way.  

She comes to the door, everyone's picture of the perfect Grandmother:
smiling delight at the surprise visit, endlessly gracious and hospitable,
anxious for me to be happy and comfortable.  She sends for nearby family to
meet the visitor, and takes me to a tiny room in the back, bare except for
paintings leaning against the wall.  Paint cans and a chair with four inch
legs, sitting on the floor.  But I'm there to see the little sculptures so
she rushes to arrange them in the front room.

On this particular day there was one figure, about six inches tall like the
others, but with ears.  Immediately, I fell in love with it.  It was
typical, but still the best of her work I'd ever seen.  I offered $25 as a
"first price", close to the $35 I was used to paying as her "final price."
She refused without offering a higher alternative.  Overly anxious, I upped
my offer.  Again she refused, this time explaining that she'd already sold
it - "it belongs to Selden Rodman."  I asked whether he'd paid for it.
"No", she said through the just arrived family interpreter, "he's picking it
up on his next trip."  I offered $50.  Then, $75 -- the amount for which her
things were selling in Petionville galleries -- and ten times what I guessed
Selden was likely paying her.  

Still, no deal.  I could buy the other things but not that one.

I thought about Selden.  He was doubtless a more regular customer (though
not  more enthusiastic or generous) than I had been over the years.  More,
he could help her attract customers and increase the value of her work by
picturing it in his books.  In fact, he had done that.  But, I needed this
piece the way only a true collector can.  Besides, I'd been willing to
out-bid Selden at auction before.  

So, I asked when he was coming.  She didn't know.  I asked when he'd last
been there.  "Two or three months ago" she said, unperturbed.  "He's not
entitled to it,"  I thought to myself.  "He didn't pay her when he 'bought'
it, as he should have, and hasn't been back since.  Fair game.  Confidently
suggesting she could make him another, and mentally preparing to go as high
as $150 or $200, I upped my offer to a hundred dollars.  A small amount of
money (and less than it was worth) but well over the gallery price, triple
my usual rate, and now at least ten times more than she'd get from Selden
even if he came back.  Which he might not, given that he'd sold his place in

She didn't budge.  She looked at me calmly.  And, (as my own grandmother
might have) explained, carefully and patiently.  She would make me one of my
own -- but couldn't let me have that one -- because it belonged to somebody

It was that simple.  And, except for her having treated me so gently, I
would have been a little embarrassed.  As it was, I felt some shame at what
now seemed like my greed.  Thankfully, I learned the lesson in time, and
never said a thing about the $150 or $200 I was fully prepared to pay.
She'd refused five offers so far.  More would only increase the cost of her

So, I left her house empty-handed, but a better person than when I'd walked

And, I was reminded again about the Haitian character.  It's under attack
from all quarters these days, with so many list members persuasively
decrying a tradition of violence, political corruption, personal cruelty,
and craze brize.  I'm not qualified to say it isn't true.  I just want to
say it isn't all.  Mme. St Fleurant is remarkable, but not unique among
Haitians.  And, my experience of uplift and respect is not unique among list
members.  I know that.  But, when we are so rightly focused on the problems
and disappointments, it's probably healthy to remind ourselves, once in a
while, of all that is right.  

That's the only purpose of this post.  That, and to pay homage to Louisiane.
She famous for what she paints.  She deserves to be as well known for who
she is.

John Black
Washington, DC