A hands-on Haitian artist

HAITIAN sculptor Serge Jolimeau creates exquisite metal cutouts from flattened-out sections of steel drums. Though he has only been a sculptor for only 11 years, his present work surpasses a number of more renowned Haitian metal sculptors with its rich textures, repeated openwork patterns, and serpentine forms. Metal cutouts having the quality of lace seem implausible. Yet, Jolimeau's vivid imagination, along with his precise handling of his medium, yields a lacelike delicacy. The artist lives and works in the city of his birth, Croix-des-Bouquets, a provincial backwater located about 30 miles east of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's bustling capital city. On a recent visit to his Croix-des-Bouquets studio I kept waiting to see the forging and soldering tools and electrical drills with which these creations, ranging in size from petite to grandiose, are made. Jolimeau led me to a dirt floor studio with nothing on it save a child's chair, where he sat to work directly on the floor. His tools were simply a hammer and several sturdy nails of various sizes used to carve through the metal with lightning speed. An almost six feet tall, solidly built Jolimeau has developed enormous arm, chest, and shoulder muscles through this direct hands-on method.

Jolimeau, an artist of the Haitian popular art movement, is a product of the Center of Art, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last summer. He was discovered in 1973 by Pierre Monosiet (now deceased), curator of Haiti's Mus'ee d'Art Hait"ien in Port-au-Prince from 1972 to 1983. Other members of the Haitian popular art movement like Georges Liautaud, Damien Paul, Murat Brierre, or the Louisjuste brothers, Serisier (Jolimeau's teacher) and Janvier, all fashion metal designs from steel drums. They are, perhaps, better known, but there is much that separates them from the recent sculptures of Jolimeau.

Metal suggests, by its very nature, stasis, immobility, and inertia. These Haitian sculptors display some brief moments of control over these characteristics, but in many instances they succumb to the hardness of their medium. Conversely, in Jolimeau there is freshness, vitality, and movement that is nearly perpetual. It is because ``I work more carefully,'' Jolimeau claims.

Creations having the appearance of vented, airy, woven grills with innumerable images of animal and human forms and composites are manifest in his sculpture. Large sculptures are made from several pieces joined by folding. Extremely large sculptures such as ``La Sir`ene'' have joints, which are long and obviously difficult to maneuver, that are looped together using the same principle as a train coupler. Ideas are drawn on the metal before cutting, and Jolimeau always has in mind definite images before beginning.

It is not coincidental that Rigaud Beno^it is Jolimeau's favorite Haitian artist. Beno^it, one of the talented first-generation painters of the Haitian popular or folk art movement, has gained respect in international art circles because of his refusal to commercialize his art. When many of his compatriots are working for the tourist market by painting, in assembly line fashion, the same subjects ad infinitum, Beno^it has never yielded to such practices. In a year he may paint two or three works or less. Working with a magnifying glass in painstaking fashion Beno^it creates little masterpieces that have retained their popularity. Jolimeau has endeavored to work as carefully.

Yet Jolimeau's success is not isolated and egocentric. He has touched the lives of a number of people in Haiti, supposedly the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. He lives with his family, consisting of several brothers and sisters, a cousin, mother, and grandmother, and supports them all so they can live without eking out an existence in stultifying conditions. Moreover, Jolimeau assists his apprentice artists (as Serisier Louisjuste assisted him). Oddly, he gives his students money while they are a part of his atelier. Such practices explain the importance of the popular or folk artist from Haiti's provincial areas and the deep commitment of those artists, who have accomplished much to help others who want desperately to do the very same thing.

Finally, if Serge Jolimeau continues to resist the temptation to make a ``quick buck,'' his work will continue to mature and he will be sought after by art connoisseurs decades hence.

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