Sue Frame and Flores McGarrell stopped at the Peace of Mind Hotel in Jacmel, Haiti, on January 12, 2010, for some juice and an Internet connection. “The ceiling started rolling like a wave in the ocean,” Frame says. She made it outside. McGarrell didn’t. “I watched the building slide downhill. The dust came out and touched me. I waited—like in a movie when a building falls and the hero runs out—I’m waiting for Flo to come out of the dust, but he’s not coming.”
A week after the earthquake, a Columbian rescue team retrieved McGarrell’s body from the rubble. He was 35.
McGarrell had been director of the Fanal Otantik Sant D’A Jakmel (FOSAJ), an art center in Jacmel, a town of 40,000 on Haiti’s south coast. He lived there part-time. Frame, a longtime friend, had gone to Haiti to set up a wood shop at FOSAJ. Desperate to get McGarrell back to his parents in Vermont, Frame smuggled the body onto Jacmel’s airstrip, which was closed to civilians, and a U.S. Navy helicopter flew them to Port-au-Prince. A U.S. air force transport plane brought them to
Miami Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. His cremated ashes were buried at the orchard at his parents’ Vermont home.
Frame, 36, became friends with McGarrell in the late 90s, when she was part of Little Big Bang, a sculptural performance group McGarrell had helped found at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. The friendship was tumultuous, the two of them even coming to blows once. But they always reconciled, and for a time Frame lived with McGarrell and McGarrell’s boyfriend in a Baltimore warehouse. Frame, from Naperville, moved back to Chicago in 2000 and managed a tobacco shop, and McGarrell spent 2002 to ’04 here as a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute. (Frame started working at the SAIC in ’06 and now supervises some of its wood, plaster, and sewing shops.)
Fascinated with Haiti since the age of 11, McGarrell began living part-time in Jacmel in 2005, and volunteering for FOSAJ. He split his time between Jacmel, Roswell, New Mexico, and San Francisco, where he was art director on the film Maggots and Men, a retelling of the 1921 anti-Bolshevik uprising in Kronstadt, Russia, with a transgender cast. It was during this period McGarrell transitioned from female to male, taking hormones but not undergoing surgery.
In 2007 McGarrell invited Frame and three other friends to work with him on the Jacmel Music Festival, a three-day beachfront concert FOSAJ was organizing. Frame was “enchanted”—to use her word—by the culture, colonial architecture, and vibrant art scene of Jacmel, and she began working with McGarrell and Jacmel artists on a traveling multimedia show that would contrast outsiders’ ideas of Haiti with Haitians’ own views.
But FOSAJ took a big loss on the festival, Frame says. There was a management shakeup, and by 2008 McGarrell had become the center’s director, raising much of the $100,000 annual budget, promoting members’ work internationally, and forming alliances with gay-friendly arts groups like the local dance troupe LAKOU.
“He was trying to make it more egalitarian, and some of the artists didn’t like that,” says Frame, who is gay. Many in the town didn’t: Frame says that in 2008 a gay video artist friend was “beaten within an inch of his life” in Jacmel. FOSAJ got a local reputation as a “place for queers.”
McGarrell was spared some of the brutal homophobia directed against Haitians. “When you’re international, people hold you to international standards,” Frame says. “There was a group of forward-thinking people—straight, queer, disabled, Rasta—those people supported Flo. And he was the one finding the money, so they couldn’t really say no to him.”
Even so, “there was a lot of resistance to the queer population when Flo was director,” Frame says, and after he died other FOSAJ artists asked LAKOU to leave the center—and also Eder Romeus, an artist disabled by childhood polio. Hermane “Bonga” Desorme, founder of LAKOU, says in a Facebook message that the marginalized artists McGarrell had supported “lost their minds and lost faith; they didn’t know where to take refuge as there wasn’t any other center or anyone they could trust with their works of art—nor anyone else with such a great mind as Flo McGarrell, despite all the homophobic attacks that were repeatedly made against him.”
The new director of FOSAJ, Luckner “Prince Luc” Candio, favored a more traditional, less collective institution. Jenna Crowder, a Maine artist who volunteered there, says Prince Luc “explained that he wanted FOSAJ to really take off as a school, that students would sign contracts and attend classes every day,” but some of the artists preferred “something more open.” They wanted a center “more inclusive of community members, perhaps to the point of being a little more radical and free-form rather than institutionalized.”
These artists formed a splinter organization, the Kolektif Atis Jakmel (KOLAJ). But Frame says it was unwelcoming to gay and disabled artists. Last May Frame went back to Jacmel. She and a group of “eight or nine” local artists, among them Romeus and Desorme, and film students from the nearby Ciné Institute and some international volunteers, founded . She describes it as a space run by Haitians that is “all about equal rights for everyone.”
Ebby Angel Louis, a Haitian video artist, is another founder of JE. He says, “When Flo first got to Jacmel and we started to hang out and be friends, the people in the small town started to look at me weird. Some of my friends have long hair and dreads, and people say they are drug addicts. People are afraid of you because you are different. They sometimes threaten. I’m straight but I believe you should respect everybody. I have some friends who are gay and transgender, and people saw us together and it could be dangerous for us. So we had the idea with Flo, before the earthquake, to bring together all the people who are strange, especially the artists. Some people are homophobic but they hid it in front of strangers. But when there aren’t strangers, they threaten the queer artists. They’re jealous and they say Flo protected the gay people too much. And the people were cruel to Eder, who is disabled. So LAKOU couldn’t stay at FOSAJ, and Eder couldn’t stay at FOSAJ. So Sue and the artists got together and we talked about having another space to continue Flo’s idea, to have a place with no discrimination, where artists from any kind of background and style of life can share their activities together.”
“JE is a place that is open for everybody,” says Claudel “Zaka” Chery, a former FOSAJ assistant director who helped found JE. “This is the only place [in Jacmel] where gay and lesbian can hang out free and safe.”
The present leadership of FOSAJ challenges the notion that it’s been untrue to McGarrell’s legacy. “Prince Luc” Candio wrote to identify himself as McGarrell’s friend and insist that “instead of chasing artists I invited to come to Jacmel, FOSAJ operates again to help the community to develop culturally and socially.” Candio went on, “Our motto is to supervise the artists, not to reject.” And Joel Pierre, Candio’s second in command, added, “We are promoting individual liberty. We receive everybody: gays, girls, moms. We believe in partnership.”
Nevertheless, one group of artists has become three.Frame and her colleagues had raised $6,000 for LAKOU to tour the U.S. but couldn’t get visas for the dancers. So they used the money to rent a two-flat for Jakmel Ekspresyon and begin rebuilding the second floor, which had been damaged in the earthquake.
Frame was back again in January for the anniversary of the quake. Jakmel Ekspresyon hosted a workshop on how treat water to prevent the spread of cholera.
“You have to think about the total health of the artist, how they’re getting food and staying healthy,” Frame says. “You need that before you can figure out how to create social change in your environment.”
JE has 250 members now, and offers workshops in exercise, AIDS awareness, dance for disabled people, acting, and children’s photography. They’re trying to raise money for a computer lab, screening room, library, language and writing classes, printing press, and a clinic. They need another $30,000 in cash and in-kind support to cover their budget through July.
On Saturday, February 26, the Sifu Design Studio, 5044 N. Clark, will present “Haiti: One Year Later,” paintings and jewelry by two of Jakmel Ekspresyon’s founding artists, Desorme and Romeus. Proceeds from the art go to the artists. Donations and the sale of raffle tickets and baked goods will benefit Jakmel Ekspresyon and Joy in Hope, a nonprofit that operates an orphanage, housing service, and anticholera program in Jacmel.
“All the U.S. media gives us is skinny kids eating dirt cookies,” Frame says. “It’s ingrained in the system there to show this sad face so everybody will feel sorry for them and say ‘we’ve got to help this poor country.’ What we’re doing, with Joy in Hope and Jakmel Ekspresyon—it’s solidarity, not charity. It’s ‘let’s help our neighbors, let’s show a strong Haiti.'”
This article has been amended from its original form.