Island to island: Building lives through art

Wilfrid Dantis
Wilfrid Dantis of Haiti, with his art that is for sale this week at Featherstone. Photos by Lynn Christoffers

By Joyce Wagner - August 23, 2007

Wilfrid Dantis balances three of his small paintings of mangoes, one in the crook of his arm and two grasped in his long fingers, attempting to exhibit them to his visitor. On the canvasses, the fruits dangle from their stems, bright, bulging and lush - glowing to put holiday lights to shame.

After his guest expresses delight in the images, he stacks those on a chair and fishes out another painting. He holds up this canvas - larger, rectangular and floppy without a frame. Dark-skinned people in colorful dress among a sketchy framework of gothic architecture - this one painted by another artist, a compatriot.

Mr. Dantis, the man displaying the paintings, is a 27-year-old native of Port Au Prince, Haiti, invited to Martha's Vineyard by Vineyard Haven resident Margaret Penicaud as part of the Haitian Art Sale Benefit that opens with a reception tomorrow evening at Featherstone Center for the Arts.

Wilfrid Dantis
A piece by Mr. Dantis.

Mr. Dantis represents the mutual benefits inherent in the web of ventures that is the Martha's Vineyard Fish Farm for Haiti Project. One of many artists deprived of customers by Haiti's failed tourist trade, his work is now supported by and supports the Project. He also becomes a curator of sorts, introducing other Haitian artists and their work to Ms. Penicaud and other board members of Little Children of Mary (the M.V. nonprofit organization that funds the projects).

Orphaned at 11 years old, Mr. Dantis and his five siblings were financially sustained by a Canadian woman, allowing them to remain in their family home and attend school. Since the age of 10, Mr. Dantis has been an artist, teaching himself through books, learning what he could from other artists, and saving hard-earned money for expensive and hard-to-get art supplies. Although he was already selling his art and even had collectors of his work, he insists he didn't take himself seriously as an artist until Ms. Penicaud and her crew discovered him and began purchasing his work to sell on Martha's Vineyard. "I was just doing art like this, like that," he explains in accented English. "We didn't know what an artist means."

Through his work with missionaries, he learned to speak French and English. The native tongue of Haiti is Creole.

Although this excursion to Martha's Vineyard is his first trip out of Haiti, in 2000 he had been accepted to study art at Collège Lycée Cèvenol Internationale, a school in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon near Lyon in France. All tuition, board, and transportation had been arranged, but, at the last minute, the government of France refused him a visa. "It was a heartbreak," Ms. Penicaud recalls. "Everything had been arranged."

Mr. Dantis has been in the United States for just a little over a week now, but he is already taken with the country. "I would be very glad if I could find art school here," he says.

Ms. Penicaud reminds him that, as opposed to the aborted trip to France, he now has a wife and child in Haiti and, "It's difficult to get just one person out." Then she pauses and reconsiders. "But anything's possible," she adds.

Mr. Dantis is one of the lucky Haitians who are able to live a somewhat normal life in his native country. Only 1-1/2 hours by plane from Miami, Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere. The unemployment rate is 60 to 70 percent and almost 50 percent of the population over 15 is illiterate. Most people live in a catacomb of shacks near piles and piles of garbage.

The Martha's Vineyard Fish Farm Project hopes to help change that. The fishery itself dwells on property shared with the Daughters of Mary Queen Immaculate (Les Filles de Marie Feine Immaculee), a teaching order of nuns founded in 1971. They operate primary, secondary, and training schools in nine different locations in Haiti. They also operate a medical dispensary.

Through fund-raising on Martha's Vineyard and private donations, the Project is currently helping to finance an expansion of one of the schools, the drilling of a well, the

excavation of ponds for the raising and harvesting of tilapia, planting of vegetable gardens, construction of chicken coops, and establishment of a women's cooperative atelier to produce art quilts.

For the first time, the products of the atelier - Peacequilts - will be available at the benefit art show. Another example of reciprocity, the quilters in Haiti have partnered with Martha's Vineyard sewing groups, the latter providing support, materials, and technical assistance.

The preview and reception will also feature Drack Bonhomme, the Fish Farm Project's liaison with Haiti and, according to Ms. Penicaud, a natural-born politician. "If you listen to him, he will one day be president of Haiti," she chuckles. He is currently entering his final year of university studies in international diplomacy and hopes to complete graduate studies in the U.S.

Purchases of the quilts, paintings, woodcarvings, and decorative metal works (from recycled oil drums) available at the show will continue to support these projects and will enable more of the Haitians to become self-sufficient. Ms. Penicaud predicts, "It's Haiti that's going to rebuild Haiti.

"Education is key," she continues, "but also giving confidence to be able to change Haiti from within and make it possible to be able to make a living in Haiti, rather than having to leave."

And Mr. Dantis? What is his fate? Ms. Penicaud says, "We're thinking that perhaps he could be a liaison not just for us but on a larger scale for the artists in Haiti - to represent them and sell their art."

Towards that end, Ms. Penicaud and her colleagues are taking Mr. Dantis on a tour of Island galleries and are hoping for the donation of a laptop computer and a digital camera. "...So that he could actually document paintings," she explains, "and then e-mail these pictures back to the galleries. Then they can decide if they want them sent over to sell."

Although Mr. Dantis is excited at the prospect of meeting the gallery owners, he also has his own plans for his visit. "I want to go fishing," he explains with a wide, happy grin.

The Haitian Art Sale Benefit opening reception, Friday, August 24, from 5 to 8 pm, at Featherstone Center for the Arts, Barnes Rd., Oak Bluffs. Admission is $15. The show runs through Sunday, August 26. Gallery hours are 12 noon to 4 pm.

Joyce Wagner is a contributing writer to The Times.