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Shopping Haiti - by Patty Kantrowitz, store manager of Haiti's Back Porch

Fri, May 27th, 2011

When people find out that I go to Haiti to buy crafts for our non-profit store in Middletown, CT, they always want to come with me shopping. So I thought I would write about what it is like to shop in Haiti.

To begin with (and this is something I forget nearly every time I go to Haiti) no matter what my plans are for my buying trip, while I am in Haiti, nothing goes as planned.

I always say that Haiti has her own agenda, and it's not yours. You have to let the day take you where it's going, not where you think you are going. That being said, when the planets align, my driver arrives at the right time, all my gourdes (Haiti currency) I will need are in hand, any checks I will need are signed and ready, and it's time to head out.

Croix-des-Bouquets is what's called "the metal market," where most of the beautiful handmade metal art is fabricated. The word "market" has an organizational connotation, but Croix-des-Bouquets is really a small neighborhood of one-story white concrete buildings where artists work and live.

Winding dirt paths go off a central dirt road, filled with goats, chickens, ducks, and beautiful children. I have many friends there who are very happy to see me -- the obvious reason being, they know me now, and Haiti's Back Porch. My buying their art will feed their families right away.

The artists buy empty oil drums, covered with paint and dirt. After painstakingly scraping and cleaning them, they draw their designs using white chalk. They cut them out by hand using just a hammer and chisel. The finished work/details are accomplished using a hammer, awl, or nail, and anything they think will make a pleasing design.

Hours, days, and, for the bigger pieces, weeks are needed to complete one piece. After the design is finished, each piece gets cleaned again with sandpaper, and then it is shellacked at least two times.

I go from building to building and hand-pick everything that will go to Haiti's Back Porch in Connecticut.  The artists are understandably very proud of what they make, and I can't help but gush. I tell them how honored I am to carry their work. They might offer me a plastic lawn chair, a bottle of water, and, if they have electricity in their "studios," they might turn on a fan for me. One artist, Rony Jacques, even has classical music playing while we discuss my purchases.

The word spreads that I am here buying. The other artists congregate outside of the building where I am doing business, patiently waiting to talk to me. Once out in the bright sunlight, I am the object of their attention; each tries to convince me that it's his turn to show me his work.

While I am visiting another artist, my purchases are dusted (using an old paint brush), labeled "made in Haiti" (a U.S. Customs regulation), and then wrapped in whatever suitable material is handy. Each artist loads his metal into my truck.

Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside of Port-au-Prince, did not sustain much damage during the earthquake of January 2010. It's a flat region of Haiti, and always very hot and still. It takes me about 3 to 4 hours to buy what I need.

Every trip is different. You can't go with any preconceived idea of what you are looking for; it's always a surprise to see what kind of designs the artists are making. There are a lot of artists who use Vodou symbols in their metal art. Vodou is part and parcel of who they are, what they have been brought up believing.

The suns, moons, angels, and mermaids are what my audience appreciates the most, but I do try and buy a few of the mystical/magical pieces. I worry that as this art form reaches a wider world, these "darker" pieces as I call them, will be lost forever to the homogenizing of Haitian art.

So, in Croix-des-Bouquets, as I lift my 61-year-old body into the truck once more and head for home, I wave to everyone, yelling out the window, "Don't worry, I'll be back in 6 months!"

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