The (Vassar) Haiti Project: learning Haiti through art (Part I)

When people think about Haiti, their first thought is: “the poorest country in the western hemisphere.” Yet, when I think of Haiti, I think about bright colors and graceful curves dancing across a canvass. When I think of Haiti, I think about art.

The Haiti Project was created in 2001 by two of the most generous people I have ever met: Lila and Andrew Meade. They decided to help a small community in the town of Chermaître establish a primary school. Chermaître is in the north of Haiti, and lies at the top of a mountain, without running water or electricity.

The Project’s approach was not simply to raise money for Chermaître, but instead, to support Haitian talent and craftsmanship. Twice a year, Haiti Project members travel to Haiti to purchase art. They support local artists and infuse money into the art market. They acquire hundreds of paintings, as well as wooden, metal, and papier-maché objects, and re-sell them in the US. All sale proceeds are then sent back to Haiti to sustain the school.

Chermaître's children at school.

Chermaître’s children at school.

Before the Haiti Project came along, the 250 students in Chermaître were taught inside a single make-shift room. Ten years later, on 2011, over 350 students attended a school with walls, a room for each grade, and were provided a daily meal. That was when I started collaborating with the Haiti Project.

By the time I graduated from college, the Haiti Project had begun reforestation, water purification, and medical initiatives. These initiatives were created by students who traveled to Haiti, engaged with the people, and understood their needs.

The Haiti Project is based on human connection: the connection among its members, the connection between our volunteers and Haitian students, and the connection that each of us has with Haitian art.

Haiti Project volunteers joining strengths at the annual sale.

Haiti Project volunteers joining strengths at the annual art sale.

I was only on the second semester of my freshman year when a friend encouraged me to join the Project. Andrew Meade was also the director of International Services at Vassar, and as an international student I had met him before. Little did I know, when I stepped into that first meeting, that I would be propelled into a world that would teach me about Haitian people, their language, their food, and that would force me to reevaluate my notion of accountability.

The essential thing about Andrew and Lila is that they believe in people. They see someone eager to help, and they meet that enthusiasm with responsibility. It wasn’t long until I found myself tasked with projects I had no idea I could manage. The amazing thing is that I saw myself meeting the challenge and asking for more.

Initially, it was helping with art sales and similar events. Later, it was stretching canvasses that had come straight from Haiti rolled up in uneven stacks. Later still, I heard myself advocate for the Haitian cause, with conviction, eventually joining the leadership of the Project.

Annual Haiti Project Sale and Auction.

Annual Haiti Project Sale and Auction.

I started off arranging pictures, setting up handcrafts on a table, and putting up information cards on the walls. Then came the time to stretch the paintings. I remember the amazement I felt when I realized that I would actually be touching the artwork (something generally frowned upon in my Art History lectures). It was a magical process: unrolling the canvasses, smelling the paint, being able to stare at the images, and then naming them. It gave the volunteers a sense of agency, but it did something else as well.

Since the Haiti Project uses art as its platform, it is natural for all of its members to learn something about Haitian art, even unintentionally. Yet, what happens with time is that the artwork begins to inform the way you understand Haiti.

Haitian painting: "Strummin' and Drummin'".

Haitian painting: “Strummin’ and Drummin'”.

You see bustling market scenes crowded with women in colorful robes, you see lush nature packed with animals that you are certain cannot exist in the island; you see musicians playing and children dancing on the street. Lila constantly told us: when you visit Haiti, you see these images come to life. I, myself, was a skeptical: I knew of the country’s issues: its rampant deforestation, illiteracy, and the precarious living conditions of many of its people. I certainly did not picture the country as the images described.

This changed when I visited Haiti.

About Claudia Sánchez

Claudia Sánchez is a Cuban-born global citizen. Last year she completed her Master’s in International Security at Sciences Po, Paris; and has a particular inclination towards philosophy and art history.

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