Friday, January 7, 2011

Surviving the Earthquake to Paint Again

With the one year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake coming up this week, I've had Haiti on the brain. Below I'm posting an article I wrote about Frantz Zephirin, an incredible Haitian artist.

Here is an example of his work:

If you want to do something to help Haiti, please consider donating to the Art Creation Foundation for Children. Located in Jacmel, Haiti, they teach art to street children, and my friends who have visited them speak very highly of their work. Every dollar helps.

Surviving the Earthquake to Paint Again

Originally published: Tuesday, June 01, 2010 in Ticket, the entertainment tabloid for Montgomery County, PA

By Julie Owsik Ackerman

Frantz Zephirin, one of Haiti’s leading contemporary painters, escaped death in the January earthquake by an unlikely action — leaving a pub early. That afternoon, Zephirin sat in one of his haunts, having a few drinks with a friend when a group of men came in, loudly discussing politics. “I say, ‘I’m not going to stay and listen,’” he recalled, “I just came to drink my beer.” So he asked for the check, told his usual waitress that no, he wouldn’t be staying for dinner that night, and left with his friend.

Fifteen seconds later, the ground began to shake violently.

“I thought it was a bomb,” he said. “I saw the street open, then close.” Black sand filled the air, making it impossible to see. He fought his way to a lamppost and clung to it until the shaking stopped. “I heard the cry of the people dying but you don’t see nothing, only dark sand. I walked back to the bar. I say, ‘Where is the bar?’ But only the sign remained. Every building was like a sandwich. The bar where I was, all the people died inside. Every day I pass to look at the place where I was supposed to die.”

What can anyone do after witnessing such horror? Zephirin said, “The only thing I could imagine was to paint.” And so he did. “Frantz Zephirin, Art and Resilience,” his first U.S. exhibit since the earthquake, is currently running at Indigo Arts Gallery in Philadelphia, through June 19. The show includes 30 paintings, most of which he completed after the earthquake.

This exhibit comes to Philadelphia through an unlikely friendship that developed between the exuberant Haitian painter and reserved art dealer and Merion resident Frank Giannetta, who traveled to Haiti in 1989 after his art gallery burned down. On that trip Giannetta met Zephirin at a gallery in Port-au-Prince and purchased eight or nine of his paintings.

Giannetta said, “I didn’t speak Creole, he didn’t speak English, but between three different languages, somehow we communicated.” Zephirin contacted Giannetta the next year about having an art show in the U.S., and the two have been friends ever since.

Zephirin began painting when he was 5 years old and had his first taste of success at the age of 8 when he gave two paintings to a tour guide who sold them for $40. From that day, he was hooked, using school time to think of ideas and sketch, and weekends to sit at the elbow of his uncle, Philome Obin, considered by many to be one of the greatest Haitian artists of all time. When I asked if his uncle taught him or looked at his work, Zephirin laughed.

“I was a child. He did not think to look at my work.” But young Frantz studied which brushes his uncle used, how he applied paint to canvases, and took leftover materials to use for his own paintings.

When he moved to Port-au-Prince at 15, Zephirin took two paintings around to the galleries there, but no one was interested in buying them. They said his work looked too much like the Cap Haitien style of his uncle, known for realistic depictions of everyday life. Frustrated after a long day of many rejections, Zephirin met a tour guide who offered him $20 for the two paintings. In anger, the artist threw his work into the ocean. “I say, ‘You are a dog, a pig, a monkey,’” he recalled, “and in my mind, the animals come. I think, now I go to paint you like an animal, like you are.”

This was a turning point for Zephirin, who, inspired by his vision of people as animals, began to create works that depicted fantastical human/animal creatures, spirits, gods and goddesses. Giannetta said, “Rather than painting what he saw around him, he began to paint the mystical creatures coming out of his own mind.”

After a year of working with this style, and some success in selling his work, Zephirin ventured off to the Galerie Monnin, in spite of naysayers who told him that Monnin only sold the best Haitian art. He carefully prepared a painting and brought it to Roger Monnin, the owner, who said to his son, “Michel, this guy bring something new; we need to keep this guy.” Customers snapped up paintings as quickly as Zephirin could make them, even though he worked night and day.

Since then, Zephirin’s work has been shown in many cities of the United States and Europe. One of his paintings appeared on the cover of The New Yorker on Jan. 25, 2010, the week after the earthquake.

In the current exhibit at Indigo Arts Gallery, one of the most haunting paintings is rather simple, at least for a Zephirin piece. On a tan background, swirling around a small depiction of a graveyard at the center, single eyes peer out at the viewer. Looking at the painting, Zephirin said, “It’s the eye that’s here,” pointing to the middle of his forehead. He added, “On the day of the earthquake, the people were so confused. One moment they’re here, the next moment they’re not. They were swept up,” he said, making a sound and motion of water quickly going down a drain. “The other eye is looking, saying ‘What happened?’”

Tony Fisher, director of the Indigo Arts Gallery, observed that many of the paintings in this exhibit “show an opening from one world into another, but the dominant one is what we would call ‘the spirit world.’” An example of this is “Rara ti boujwa,” a 48 x 48 inch canvas, covered by three large rainbow-colored spirits. At the center is a small circle depicting a street party with white bourgeois people, because, according to Zephirin, “Before, the carnival was for the blacks, the poor. Now we’re all the same.”

Sitting in a cafĂ© in Wynnewood, Zephirin’s gratitude for his life was palpable. He radiated the kind of joy one finds in spite of darkness, in spite of living through the goudou goudou, the phrase Haitians use to refer to the January earthquake.

“We are supposed to live every moment and enjoy the moment,” he said, “because you don’t know. You can lose everything in a second — your business, your house, your children — everything.” He dreams now of starting a foundation to help rebuild his country, address deforestation and assist street children.

When asked why art matters, in the face of such tragedy and suffering, Zephirin said, “The artist is the witness of everything that’s happened. Cameras can’t give you what you have inside. They see what you have outside, but you need the vision of the artist to paint what’s inside.”

The night of the earthquake, with great difficulty, without any standing landmarks, through the chaos and devastation, Zephirin found his way home. Blessed to have his life, and even a house still standing, he lit a candle, and did the only thing he could — he painted.

Julie Owsik Ackerman writes essays on creativity, travel, surfing and other topics at

If You Go

“Frantz Zephirin, Art and Resilience”

will run at

Indigo Arts Gallery,

Crane Arts Building, #104,

1400 N. American St.,

Philadelphia, PA 19122,

through June 19.

Info: 215-765-1041 or

1 comment:

Mr. Ackerman said...

AWESOME! Thank you for a great post.