Painting Haiti

“We don’t hear too much about Haiti anymore, because most Americans were evacuated.” Thus East Coast artist Charles Jean-Pierre, a Chicago native and the son of Haitian immigrants, introduces a fundraiser in support of Haiti on Mardi Gras, February 16, at the University of Chicago.

Jean-Pierre sets up a canvas in front of the crowd of twenty viewers and begins a painting which he will title “Mardi Gras in Cité Soleil.” Chicago-based singers Yaw Agyeman and Phenom, friends and inspirational figures for Jean-Pierre, join him on stage. A table against a side wall displays about fifteen paintings and photographs to be put up for auction. All are done by Jean-Pierre and other Chicago artists.

Jean-Pierre’s painting begins to take form–it is the upper body of a woman standing diagonally to the viewer. Jean-Pierre takes a break in the middle of his work to step back and inspect it, explaining that he can’t see how it’s turning out while close to the canvas. He does not decide his color or brush choices in advance; rather, he says, he always paints with music, and chooses his colors and brush strokes “to go with the energy of the band and the crowd.”
Only one of the pieces is sold, but $100 in donations are collected. Towards the end of the evening, the band slows the beat of its music, and Jean-Pierre pauses again to explain to the audience that Cité Soleil, a slum of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, did not celebrate Mardi Gras this year. His painting shows a woman wearing Mardi Gras beads, standing alone. He adds tears to her eyes, saying that he wants the painting to “mix tears with joy…to represent Haiti, a place that is as beautiful as it is troubled.”