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Haiti's Arts City Loses Much But Retains Vision

It wasn't hit as hard as Port-au-Prince, but Jacmel lost many buildings in the earthquake. (NPR)

Jacmel is often described as Haiti's most beautiful city. It's an arts center on the island's southern coast, with French Colonial architecture reminiscent of New Orleans, and one of Haiti's few tourist destinations.

But Jacmel suffered greatly in the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Touring a Ruined City

If you've visited Jacmel recently, you have probably met Jean Michel. He's a well-known tour guide. Look him up, he says, in the Lonely Planet guide, page 381. He takes us down what was one of Jacmel's most beautiful streets, Rue de Commerce. It's a street now filled with bricks, stones and twisted ironwork. Some of the buildings have collapsed. On others, the exterior walls have crumbled. Almost all of the homes in the old section were damaged, Michel says.

"You can see it — you can see it with your eyes," he says.

We clamber over what remains of the house of Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth. He barely escaped when it fell in on him.

Leth is one of the more prominent artists who call Jacmel home, but there are many others.

Hopes of an Art Revival

Cine Institute is a film school started a few years ago by New Yorker David Bell. Bell says the students reacted to the crisis by hitting the streets. They used their skills "to tell the world what's been happening," he says.

The student footage has been uploaded to the school's Web site and used by CNN, ABC and other news organizations.

Another important cultural center in town is Fosaj, an art school founded in 2003 by an artist from a wealthy local family. The city long has been known for its painting, and art was a major export. But, Bell says, with the political instability of the past two decades, the art market collapsed.

"Fosaj's mission was to rejuvenate it and to create a new school for artists," he says, "and create links and connections through the U.S. and Europe to find a marketplace for that art."

Fosaj brought in visiting artists to work with the students to develop techniques and themes for their work. But the school building was another casualty of the earthquake.

One of the Fosaj students, Macarthur Lametier, points to the building's second floor. The outer wall is no longer there. It crumbled away in the earthquake. This is Lametier's studio — complete with paintings still hanging on the wall, now exposed to the elements.

In another building, Lametier shows us a large papier-mache sculpture he was working on for the upcoming Carnival.

But Carnival has been canceled, and his float is on hold.

An Irreplaceable Loss

In the earthquake, Fosaj lost something much more irreplaceable — its director. Flo McGarrell, a 36-year-old American artist from Vermont, became Fosaj's director a few years ago. Regine Boucard, a Fosaj board member and Jacmel native now living in New Orleans, says McGarrell was doing a wonderful job.

"Everybody loved him — the artists, the students, the community. And he sort of understood the Haitians," Boucard says.

McGarrell wasn't at the school but at a nearby hotel, which collapsed in the earthquake. His mother, Ann McGarrell, says her son became fascinated with Haiti when he was a child and saw the documentary Divine Horsemen, about Haiti and voodoo. McGarrell says her son was a strong-willed, decisive person. Several years ago, Flo, born female, decided to start transgender therapy and began living as a man.

"There is no comfort," McGarrell says about her son's death. "But one thing we can bear is that Flo was doing something he absolutely loved doing and was doing it extremely well."

Those involved with Fosaj say it will survive. The foundation that runs it will find another building, or rebuild the damaged studios. And eventually, they'll find another director to replace McGarrell.

As Jacmel rebuilds and recovers from the earthquake, art, they say, will be more important than ever.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Audie Cornish.

In Haiti, the city of Jacmel was once considered the countrys cultural capital. But its historic downtown rich in French colonial architecture is now all but destroyed. The quake struck at the heart of the citys arts community, badly damaging an important arts school and killing its American director.

NPRs Greg Allen visited Jacmel this week and has this report.

GREG ALLEN: Among Haitis cities, Jacmel is unique. For one thing, it had a large expatriate community of Americans and Canadians. It also was one of Haitis few tourist destinations.

Mr. JEAN MICHEL (Guide): All the tourists like this spot.

ALLEN: If youre a visitor here, youll probably meet Jean Michel. He gives tourists Jacmels historic downtown complete with its French colonial architecture, iron work and second-floor balconies.

Mr. MICHEL: This is called (unintelligible) which means commercial free. And when people come, they say, oh, look at that house, it looks like a New Orleans house.

ALLEN: Im just trying to figure out how many of the houses in the old section were damaged and it sounds like almost all of them.

Mr. MICHEL: Almost all. You can see it, you can see it from your eyes because look at those houses.

ALLEN: We clamber over fallen bricks, stones and twisted iron work, pass the house of Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth. He barely escaped when it collapsed in the earthquake. He is one of the more prominent artists who call Jacmel home, but there are many others.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Ms. KEZIAH JEAN(ph) (Student, Cine Institute): Food is getting (unintelligible) but some people are saying that not everyone has been fed.

ALLEN: Keziah Jean is one of the students at Cine Institute. The film school started a few years ago by New Yorker, David Bell. Bell says that footage and much more uploaded by Cine Institute students gave the world some of its first post earthquake views of Jacmel.

Mr. DAVID BELL (Founder, Cine Institute): Theyve been out since day one. And with very difficult Internet connection, theyve managed to upload footage, which is being broadcast, CNN has broadcast stuff, ABC, I believe CBC did as well.

ALLEN: Another important cultural center in town is Fosaj. Its an art school founded in 2003 by an artist from a wealthy Jacmelian family. The city has long has been known for its Haitian painting and art was a major export. But Bell says with political instability of the past two decades, the art market collapsed.

Mr. BELL: Fosajs mission was to rejuvenate it and create a new school for artists, and create links and connections through the U.S. and Europe to find a marketplace for that art.

ALLEN: Fosaj has brought in visiting artists who work with the students to develop techniques and themes for their work. But the school building, located next to the beach in Jacmel, was another casualty of the earthquake.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. MACARTHUR LAMETIER (Student, Fosaj): (Unintelligible) yeah, in Fosaj, yeah.

ALLEN: Macarthur Lametier is one of the Fosaj students. He points to the second floor of the school building. The outer wall is no longer there. It crumbled away in the earthquake. What we see exposed to the elements is Lametiers studio complete with paintings still hanging on the wall. In another building, Lametier shows us something else he was working on, a large papier mache sculpture.

Mr. LAMETIER: I was working for the Carnival.

ALLEN: Youre also preparing Carnival for this year?

Mr. LAMETIER: Yeah, yeah.

ALLEN: The Carnival is canceled and his float is on hold. In the earthquake, Fosaj lost something much more irreplaceable its director. Flo McGarrell was a 36-year-old American artist from Vermont who, a few years ago, became Fosajs director. Regine Boucard is from Jacmel, a Fosaj board member now living in New Orleans.

Ms. REGINE BOUCARD (Board Member, Fosaj): Flo was doing a wonderful job. We were all in admiration, how he took over and everybody loved him the artists, the students, the community. And he sort of understood the Haitians.

ALLEN: McGarrell wasnt at the school, but at a nearby hotel when it collapsed in the earthquake. His mother, Ann McGarrell, says her son became fascinated by Haiti when he was a child and saw the documentary, Divine Horsemen, about Haiti and voodoo.

McGarrell says her son was a strong-willed, decisive person. Several years ago, Flo, born female, decided to start transgender therapy and began living as a man,.

Ms. ANN McGARRELL: There is no comfort, Ill tell you that. But one thing that we possibly can bear is that Flo was doing something he absolutely loved doing, and was doing it extraordinarily well.

ALLEN: Those involved with Fosaj say it will survive. The foundation that runs it will find another building or rebuild the damaged studios. And eventually, theyll find another director to replace Flo McGarrell. As Jacmel rebuilds and recovers from the earthquake, art, they say, will be more important than ever.

Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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