Everett has one of the largest populations of Haitian residents on the East Coast, and though many of them work day-in and day-out in jobs like everyone else, before coming to Everett many were talented artists and artisans.
Though some have given up their talent within the rich tradition of painting in Haiti when the moved to the United States, their talent is once again being discovered in a statewide movement to find and celebrate these displaced artists.
That was once again on display this month at the Parlin Library as GuerlineAlcy, of Everett, sponsored her 4th annual Haitian Heritage Month art show – a show that displays some amazing and colorful paintings in the Haitian tradition. The show premiered on Friday, May 17, and highlighted several artists, including Mimi Desir – who rediscovered her talent for painting after going back to Haiti several years ago.
“I’ve done this show about four years now,” said Alcy. “It’s a breath of fresh air. I love art and I love to promote art. I also love my culture and want to show others in Everett the great tradition of Haitian painting and the artists we have in Everett and Massachusetts. Many times with our art, we are taking something that is not so good and making it into something amazing.”
Desir was trained professionally as a painter in Haiti before coming to Massachusetts as a teen-ager. Once here, she put down her paintbrush and didn’t pursue her art very much.
“I remember by the age of five I was constantly looking at art,” she said. “My father would take me to the hotels and the resorts in Haiti where there was beautiful art on the walls and wonderful things everywhere. My home did not have pretty walls and I wondered what I could do to make my walls beautiful. At one point, my father brought me to the school and said I was an artist and I trained there. I was 9 and never questioned the paradox of that decision.”
Haiti’s art tradition is heavily influenced by the French artists due to it being a colony of France until the early 1800s. However, the French tradition carried on beyond colonialism and mixed with a colorful new tradition influence by African and Native art.
Many Haitian artists had developed their own unique style by World War II, and that was “discovered” by the rest of the world due to DeWitt Peters – an American who had been stationed on the island during the war. Afterward, he set up a school and began formally training the self-taught artists.
The same occurred with art dealer Georges Nader Sr., who collected and promoted Haitian art to the rest of the world.
However, Haitian art is also known for the heart behind it – as it often depicts tough circumstances like hunger, poverty and discrimination.
“It’s our torment that caused us to have so many artists like we do,” said Desir. “I see it as a gift of martyrdom – being victimized over and over again. It is the environment you are in. It’s the gift of our world – to try to erase a scar that develops very early in life. Because someone like me is given the artist’s gift, I can see that scar and depict it in an artistic way.”
Many of these artists and their descendants, however, have now left their Island home and moved to places like Everett – where they put away their artistic talents to work and raise families in a new place. Numerous artists in Everett have been unearthed by Alcy and others over the years, artists who were trained professionally in Haiti, but haven’t painted in years.
Desir said that is exactly what happened to her.
She went back to Haiti as an adult, and the urge to paint hit her for the first time in decades.
“I started painting again soon after getting back,” she said. “We are so into the world around us, and similarly, I found myself back into that world.”
Sadly, Desir lost almost everything in 2010 during the devastating Haitian earthquake, and returned to Massachusetts.
However, this time she brought her paintbrush with her and has published a book with other Haitian artists called ‘Migrating Colors.’ The book is designed to recognized “lost” Haitian painters in Massachusetts and catalog them.
Now, she said she is continuing her painting as a way of showing how she and others can survive 2010 – the same martyrdom tradition that inspired hundreds before her.
“It’s the madness that came from the earthquake,” she said. “I shall survive it…I do not play around with that. It’s subjective, but there is beauty in it, and after a long time, some of us can see it.”