I would usually be the last person to ever claim that anything that I do in Haiti actually saves lives. I would also be the first person to roll my eyes when some other non-Haitian would claim something so dramatic. Whether it may be technically true or not, the white savior narrative is so problematic in this country that it doesn’t need any extra fuel to bolster it. So I usually try to avoid such hyperbolic and cliché proclamations. An experience that I’ve gone through this past week, however, has revealed to me the life-or-death gravity of certain situations that really do need discussed. And so I want to talk about it here, not because I am saving lives, but because you who are reading this, can save lives, and you can do so by buying art and by supporting the work of Haitian artists. You may read that and think that now I really am being dramatic. I mean we’re not curing cancer or feeding starving children, we’re creating art. How is that saving lives? Well, I’ll explain. But before I do, please know that it has been very difficult for me this week as I process my feelings on this to know how best to share these stories while also protecting the privacy and dignity of the artists and my community here that trust me. So I’m going to try to do so in a way that illuminates the seriousness of the issue while not betraying that trust that they’ve given me.
I’ve been serving as the executive director of the Jacmel Arts Center now for a little over a year, and many of the artists here I’ve known for years before that. But being the executive director here entails much more than just the administration of a calendar full of arts programming for over 100 member artists. I also often end up serving as a therapist, a mentor, and a chief cheerleader for those artists. For many of them, this family of artists that they have here is the greatest system of support that they have in their lives, so when life gets challenging they look to us as a family for the strength to make it through.
At least once a month I have had an artist in my office telling me about how they are seriously considering suicide as an escape from the difficulties that they’re facing. In those moments, I have to try my best to make sure that they know that they are loved and they are valued as part of our family. I try to help them realize the tools that they have available to them to help them process their feelings and express the stress and depression that they feel trapped in. But sometimes that’s not enough. On one occasion I ended up having to call the girlfriend of one of the artists to tell her how worried I was about him and warn her about the dark place that he was in, knowing that she was his only other source of support.
This week, though, we came far too dangerously close to actually losing one of our artists to the darkness as he attempted to take his own life. Fortunately he didn’t succeed, thanks to, in large part, two other artists from our center that were with him at the time and were able to save him and get him to the hospital. He was able to recover and seems to be on a more positive path now, but if it wasn’t for the support of our family of artists that we have built for each other here at the center, things could have turned out much different. This artist was in my office earlier that day, having that conversation with me that has become all too familiar, telling me that he didn’t see a way out. I talked to him but also made sure that he wasn’t going home alone.
Here’s the thing, being an artist is hard. It’s hard in any place and any cultural circumstance. Those of us who were born into the unavoidable current that pulls us into a life of the arts never choose this life because of its ease, we simply allow the current to pull us to where we need to be. Many people who’ve never felt the gravity of that vocational call to be an artist might look at us and simply say, “If things are so tough, then why not get a real job?” And sure, in some places it is possible for an artist who is not professionally or financially successful to get a part-time job to help make ends meet while they pursue their art. In other places, like Haiti, however, that is not an option. If you’ve discovered your natural allocation to be an artist, then you feel like it would be a spit in the face of the God inside of you to deny it. The Art that is within you needs to be created no matter what. And when, despite all odds, you find a way to create that art, you create it not for yourself but because society itself depends on the existence of that art.
Being an artist is hard, but it is necessary. No place knows this better than Jacmel. Known as the arts capitol of the country, its very identity depends on the arts and the artists who create the art. Without them, Jacmel would cease to be Jacmel. This country, itself, needs these artists now in this moment in history more than ever as it is them who can transform the narrative about their culture and share a more positive and true story than the one that is being shared through the media and from the houses of power abroad. It is these artists who are responsible for the identity of the city and the public perception of their country. This culture needs them, and yet they still struggle to survive on a daily basis and still find it impossible on many days to find any hope. They still find themselves in my office trying to brainstorm alternatives to suicide. It is one of the great paradoxes of art that while living the life of an artist can lead into really dark places where the darkness threatens to consume you entirely, it is also only the art itself that has the power to draw you out of that place and save you.
Creating the art is a process of creating life. But also selling the art is an essential part of providing for life and can either be the most encouraging or the most discouraging part of being an artist. That’s why it’s also important to buy art well. When you buy a painting, paying the artist a fair price for their work also saves lives because as artists we paint our very being into each work of art that we create. Those works of art are reflections of ourselves and they define our own value as human beings. If you buy a painting but pay much less than what it’s worth you are not only diminishing the value of the painting but the value of the human being that made it. This is why I sometimes get a bit feisty with people who try to negotiate lower prices on paintings at our center. I know that the artist would accept less because they are desperate, but I often refuse to accept less on their behalf because I know who truly pays the price in the end when they receive the message that their work, and by extension, their life, is not worth what they thought. Once your painting is on your wall you never see the long-term effects of paying less for it. You might feel like you got a great deal, but you have no idea how much that bargain cost the artist who had to give up so much for your deal. Haitians already receive plenty of messages trying to cheapen their worth as humans. Paying them fairly for their art that they have invested their time, money, and soul into, really does save lives.
This is why what we do at the Jacmel Arts Center is so important and why by supporting what we do here is actually saving lives. These artists need the network of support that they have here in order to survive and honestly, they need that network to be stronger. I don’t ever want to get a call again from the hospital, or God forbid, the morgue, saying that one of my artists is there because they thought dying would be better for them than living. That’s why I’m writing this, because before I ever receive that call, I want everyone to truly understand how severe the situation is. I want people to realize this every time that I try to sell a painting or ask for donations. I am not writing it to exploit their pain for the sake of donations or sales, but to simply provide you a context for the greater impact that those donations and sales make. You may think that there are more important things to use your money for. After all, cancer needs cured and starving kids need fed. But investing in the arts also saves lives.
I may not be the best therapist in the world because feelings aren’t really my thing and dealing with people’s personal problems isn’t really my idea of a good time. What I can do, however, is sell their art and continue to build an inclusive and positive environment for them to feel valued and supported as artists and as human beings. That is what we’re trying to do at the Jacmel Arts Center, and that is why every time you buy a work of art from us or make a donation to support what we do, you are saving lives. Art saves lives. Be a part of it.