Remembering Haiti

From Honeymooning to Importing Handcrafts

Was it really almost fifty years ago that Burge and I flew off, on our honeymoon, in our one-engine Cessna, headed for Jamaica to dance and drink rum. It was a fling before coming home to the challenging and exciting task of melding our two families, six children in all, ranging from seven to fifteen.

We heard Blind Blake sing “Jamaica Farewell” in Nassau, (“when we reached Jamaica we made a stop”) but well before Jamaica, needing gas, we made an unscheduled stop in Port-au-Prince. As night fell, we taxied onto the shutdown airport, where soldiers with fixed bayonets met us. Arrested and mistaken briefly for Cuban spies, we were paroled to the Hotel Olaffson and detained more than a week until we received permission to land. In that week we were celebrity prisoners, almost the only tourists in Haiti in the era of Papa Doc and his TonTon Macoute, and hospitable Haitians took us on. We learned to dance the meringue, attended fashion shows at the Villa Creole, voodoo evenings in Petionville, drank rare wines high above the city, and, oh yes, we were offered the opportunity to invest in Haitian handcraft businesses. We said yes to everything, even the investing part, although that came later when we brought Haitian entrepreneur Gerry Thomas and our new venture, Primitive Artisan, a folk art import company, Primitive Artisan, to the U.S. markets.

Novices in importing, in the gifts and decorative accessories and home furnishings markets, we had a lot to learn. Burge knew small business through his several small companies, though tennis courts; lightning rods and fire extinguishers were not exactly applicable. I was busy raising our family although I was also a part-time photographer and reporter. Invoices, cash flow, import duties, distribution, trade shows, all were mysteries, but learn we did. There’s no stronger motivation than investing your own money. Haiti-based production was the basis for many years of Primitive Artisan and, after we sold the company, the lessons we had learned became the basis of Aid to Artisans’ “Market Link” program.

We imported sisal doormats, wooden plates (they still had trees in Haiti then), love beads, paintings, carvings, carnival masks, sequined bottles, rush-seated chairs, baskets and brooms, crude white cotton upholstery material and, most importantly, sculpture chiseled and hammered from old oil drums. There was more life, creativity and talent, history, art and music in Haiti than all of the other Caribbean islands put together, as we learned when we later searched most of them for handcrafts.

As I went back through my files to find photographs of those early years for HAND/EYE’s 04/Haiti edition, I saw that the magnet for me was, and still is, the people, the places, the context, and only incidentally the crafts themselves. More EYE than HAND you might say…

Clare Brett Smith, the animating force behind Aid to Artisans for 22 years, remains an active thinker in the craft world as chairman of the HAND/EYE Fund. She is currently reviewing several decades of her photographic work in Farmington, CT.



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