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Details, details

What speaks to you when you look at art?  Is it the medium?  Is it the design?  Is it shape or color or pattern?  All of those elements play their part, to be sure.  Still, my guess is that when you look at a piece of art, whether it’s a 17th century painting by Jan Vermeer, or a contemporary piece of glasswork by Dale Chihuly, or a piece of Haitian folk art by Jean Eugene Remy, it is the details that draw you in.

Take for example this one-of-a-kind piece. Jean Eugene has whimsically imagined this bus going to market.  Unencumbered by proportion, the round bus goes bumping through the countryside, dodging low-flying birds.  The youth riding on top points the way as he reclines against a box and a 3-D basket containing a chicken and various produce.  The dimensional effect of the basket is achieved by cutting the contents backwards as a side piece and then bending the metal tightly behind the slitted, concave basket. A little bit more time spent in execution, but the result is good visual impact.  A fine detail

Look again.  Notice that all of the passengers vary somewhat.  Different hats, different clothing, different fullness in the face, longer hair, shorter hair.  Individual characteristics that give the riders character.  Clones don’t ride the bus, people do.  Details.

And the bus itself. Notice how small caps have been hand-riveted on the front end as headlights.  Clever.  The wheels, however, are the coup d’grace.  They revisit vintage wire wheel hubcaps on Corvettes and Cadillacs, 1968-1982.  (Yes, I looked it up, and by-the-way, you can find them on ebay for about $1250, if you’re in the market.) Jean Eugene innovatively uses spout caps and rivets and wire hooks, which are bent one at a time to create each spoke. Fifty-seven in the back and sixty-three in the front. Talk about detail!

This kind of craftsmanship is not unique to one artist alone, though Jean Eugene does raise the bar.  Bicycle chain, metal tubes, coins, spikes and more have been utilized with good effect as design elements in Haitian metal sculpture across the board.  Next time you look, really look.  The more you see, the more you will appreciate.  It’s in the details.

Adding to the stack on your night stand

Book report time!  Anyone?  Ok, I’ll go first.  I’m reading a new book by Paul Farmer, UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti and Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.  In 1987, Dr. Farmer, along with several colleagues, founded Partners in Health, an organization dedicated to serving the health care needs of the poorest of the poor.  He has worked tirelessly as an advocate for health services as a basic human right and has actively promoted and provided health care in Haiti for decades. His latest book, “Haiti after the Earthquake” gives a superb account of the situation in pre-quake Haiti, the cataclysmic event itself, and the aftermath.  Most valuably, Dr. Farmer gives a forthright assessment of what went right and what has failed in the international attempt to help Haiti “build back better.”

Admittedly, this is not a light read.  Having said that, however, it is very readable.  As brilliant an academic as he is, and as complicated as the problems are, Farmer’s presentation is accessible.  Moreover, it is important.  When Haiti was struck by the 2010 earthquake, the public response for emergency and restoration funding was tremendous.  $10 billion dollars were pledged!  How that money has been spent, how it has been useful, and how it has been wasted is invaluable information when it comes to understanding disaster relief, if for no other reason than helping us to decide where and how to contribute next time the coffers are rolled out.

One of the biggest points that Farmer makes, or at least the one that resonates most with me, is the importance of working with – and within – the established system, in this case, the government of Haiti.  Say what you will about corruption, feebleness, inefficiency, and/or historical ineffectiveness, in Haiti or anywhere. A national government is the only entity with a mandate to serve all of the people. Within the system of government, systemic problems, such as poor water supply, insufficient energy and transportation, inequitable education opportunities, and inadequate public health services can be addressed and ultimately resolved. NGOs of course, OF COURSE, have their place, but coordination of their efforts through the framework of government must be part of the equation.

In Haiti, relief and reconstruction have been slow in part because the framework of government there was already in a weak state before the quake.  It had shown itself to be ill-equipped to handle matters on a good day, let alone in a time of catastrophe. Nevertheless, Farmer maintains that in order to “build back better,” it will be necessary to build and strengthen the government concurrently with other broken items on the list.  Not by building the government and its systems for the Haitians, but by empowering her citizens and enabling them to participate in the process.  One of the more innovative ideas in the reconstruction effort has been to go out into the villages of the hinterlands and ask the people what their priorities are for their country.  Can you believe it?  That was a novel concept – no one had bothered to ask them before!

I could go on and on.  “Haiti after the Earthquake” is thoughtful, challenging, and ultimately hopeful. It is unpretentious, not claiming to have all of the answers, but making it possible believe that there are answers to be found.  It may not be the last word on disaster and recovery, but it is an excellent first place to start.

Helpful Hints for Sculpture Maintenance and Better Living

People who buy metal sculptures for the first time often ask:  “Is there any care and upkeep involved with this?” Reasonable to wonder, heaven knows.  We advertise that they are perfectly suitable indoors and out, but it’s obvious to anyone that’s left their bicycle out in the rain or forgotten garden tools by the sprinkler head that metal will, of course rust. Surface scratching can also occur, for instance if you are storing or stacking pieces. However, neither rust nor scratches are anything that a little clear coat application can’t correct with good result.

In fact, the artists in Haiti finish each piece in their workshops by painting on a clear enamel coating and allowing it to dry in the warm Caribbean sunshine.  We touch them up again in the warehouse before they are shipped out to our customers.  Though we’ve experimented with many different products, we’ve found that the spray-on clear coat, such as you can buy from Ace Hardware for

for about $4.89 is very satisfactory for that purpose.

Though I can’t say with any great precision, I think I’ve spray coated about 200-300 recycled metal folk art sculptures from Haiti in my time.  Most were in preparation for retail and trade shows, but admittedly, some from my own collection at home have needed a little “touching up” here and there. Thus, I will tell you that it is a quick and easy fix that I’ve accomplished many times.  It’s also one I’ve botched up with a recklessness that has bordered on remarkable.

There was the time that I grabbed the black spray-on enamel instead of clear out of the tool shed and used it to touch up the face of a mermaid.  I didn’t even notice ‘til I hung her up with two others that something wasn’t quite right. (Note for future reference:  the color of the cap is the color of the spray.) Then there was the time that I sprayed a sunface just as the first drops of a torrential rain began to fall, resulting in a splotch effect most unbecoming.  Oh, and  another time I got distracted by a bee and sprayed so much on the metal that it appeared as though I was going about rust-prevention with creamy vanilla frosting.

So, not that this would EVER happen to you, but if it did, do not despair. In each case, I waited until the misapplication had dried completely.  Then, using first medium-coarse sandpaper and then a fine steel-wool, I removed the black/splotched/excessive coat.  Finally, exercising a careful assessment of the cap color, the likelihood of imminent cloudburst, and localized bee activity, I proceed as directed on the label of the can. Quite simple, really.

Sometimes I feel as though I live my life as a warning to others.  I don’t mean to, actually, but if it helps, you’re welcome.

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