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Flores McGarrell '97 '98 Dies in Haitian Earthquake

Parents start Flo McGarrell Collaborative Projects Fund at MICA

Posted 01.15.10 by mica media relations

I have a few guiding principles, which I think must propel me toward this artistic freedom you speak about: Don’t hide, don’t lie. Do that which scares me. Resist the urge to settle. Be as many things as possible in this lifetime. 

Flo McGarrell cooking, Jacmel, Haiti

Flores McGarrell '97 '98, an artist and director of a community arts center in Haiti, was killed in the earthquake that devastated the nation on Tuesday. McGarrell, 35, received a B.F.A. in fibers and an M.A. in digital arts at MICA and was a faculty member at the College in 2001 and 2002. He died when the Peace of Mind Hotel in Jacmel, his hometown in Haiti, crumbled during the earthquake.

According to reports, McGarrell had stopped briefly at the hotel in Jacmel on his way home from the airport in Port-au-Prince, having dropped off his godfather for a departing flight, when the earthquake struck.

McGarrell was director of FOSAJ (Foundation Sant D'A Jakmel), a nonprofit art center in Jacmel, a beach town about 20 miles south of Port-Au-Prince and the cultural center of Haiti. FOSAJ, where he had worked since 2008, is "dedicated to empowering the Haitian people through art and culture and not only works in conjunction with the European Union to support the 150 artisans of ADASE, but maintains outreach projects addressing issues including street children, literacy and the environment."

In an interview in August 2009 with Art21, McGarrell said that "Jacmel is a place where the senses awake--it is visually rich and energetic." (Here is an article McGarrell wrote talking about living in Jacmel.) He was living out his lifetime dream of working in Haiti (see first-person essay below).

"This is an incredible loss," said Annet Couwenberg, a fiber faculty member and longtime McGarrell friend. "He was a friend, an artist, a community organizer. He was inspiring to so many people. Here on the MICA campus, he was quite a force--he impacted many lives."

Those wishing to honor McGarrell's memory are invited to contribute to the Flo McGarrell Collaborative Projects Fund at MICA. The fund, established by McGarrell's parents, Jim and Ann McGarrell, will help students engaged in special collaborative projects to purchase equipment, materials or services that they otherwise could not afford. Gifts to the fund can be made online at www.mica.edu/give by selecting "restrict my gift to" and typing in "Flo McGarrell Fund" or by mailing a check made out to MICA with "Flo McGarrell Fund" in the notes line to: Development Office, Maryland Institute College of Art, 1300 W. Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore, MD 21217. If you have questions, contact Director of Stewardship Erin Chrest at 410-225-2493 or echrest@mica.edu.

McGarrell was born in Italy to American expatriate artists. In the States, he attended an art-focused magnet school and studied metalsmithing and the Italian language. His artistic interests varied quite a bit throughout his career. While studying fiber and digital arts at MICA, he co-founded Little Big Bang, a nonprofit performance group that started in Couwenberg's costume class at MICA. They performed throughout the region reacting to the history or story of the location they were in, for example, at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the group told a story about the moon being made up of blue cheese, according to Couwenberg. "It was social commentary yet always comical."

After graduating, McGarrell came back to MICA as a faculty member in 2001 and 2002, teaching electronic media and culture, Video 1 and Video 2, and was an instructor at the Baltimore School for the Arts. He began mixing sculpture, fiber and digital craft to create large- scale inflatable sculptures that one could walk into and went on to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he earned an M.F.A. in art and technology studies in 2004. In 2007, he attended an artist-in-residence program in Roswell, N.M. McGarrell then got into film, working as the art director of the film, "Maggots and Men," an experimental retelling of the story of the 1921 uprising of the Kronstadt sailors in post-revolutionary Russia, before taking the opportunity to move to Haiti and make a difference in the art scene there.

McGarrell's latest artworks reflect his life in Haiti. His "agrisculptures" used found objects to create "home-scale food production systems, making statements about sustainability and food consumption.

Longtime McGarrell friend and fellow alumni Sue Frame '98 (B.F.A. in sculpture) was in Haiti helping build a woodshop for FOSAJ. She survived the earthquake.

There was a memorial to celebrate McGarrell's life at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, in Middendorf Gallery, Mount Royal Station (1400 Cathedral St.). More than 200 family, friends, faculty and alumni attended, many from out of town. Donations can be made through Yele Haiti, an organization chosen by his family.

Flo McGarrell at his studio in Vermont.McGarrell's story in his own words, compiled from an interview with Art21 ("Inside the Artist's Studio: Flo McGarrell" by Georgia Kotresos, Aug. 28, 2009):

"I seem to be an artist-person who has only a little separation between art and life-if you will please excuse the cliché. Specifically, I attack whatever I am working on with an obsessive compulsion that we creative types are often afflicted with. ... The objects of my ministrations include sculpture, art direction for film, performative identity adjustments, installation, kleptomaniac collecting schemes, so I must be poised to work wherever I am at all times. ...

"I have a few guiding principles, which I think must propel me toward this artistic freedom you speak about: Don't hide, don't lie. Do that which scares me. Resist the urge to settle. Be as many things as possible in this lifetime. ...

"When I was 11 my mother took me to the Saint Louis Art Museum to see Maya Deren's film Divine Horsemen, which she shot between 1947 and 1951 at various Vodou ceremonies. Not only was I really taken by the beauty of the place and people in the film, the rhythms of the sacred music became imprinted on my brain, and the pantheon of the Lwa, who are the spirit gods in Vodou ... thoroughly seduced me. ... I came away from that film needing to know more about everything Haitian. My whole life I asked questions about the place. ... So naturally, when I was 30 and I had a chance to go down there with Professor [Marilyn] Houlberg, co-curator of the well received and traveled Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou exhibition, who mentored me in graduate school [in Chicago] ... I jumped at the chance.

"Turns out that the land, the sea, the people, the manners, the food, the sense of humor, the dirty trash, and the language suits me just fine. ... The Kreyol (Creole) language is my current big love affair, I want to speak-write-think-dream it all the time because the sound it makes in me is the sound I want to be making. ...

"Life is indeed difficult there, nothing is easy, we only have electricity half of the time, if at all. Water may or may not come out of the tap, and then it could make you sick. ... Luckily, I have always liked living rough, raw and real, and this is what normal is in so many parts of the world. I could have lived quite happily in the [States], but why be somewhere so perfect? Why be so comfortable? Why should all my friends be so similar to me? Why not be someplace that is in flux? Someplace where the advantage is that it is NOT overdeveloped and fixed? There are many cultural differences, of course, but that's what makes it rich, and I believe that all the people who tried to warn me off of going to Haiti are the ones who are sad and poor. ...

"Jacmel is the de facto cultural center of Haiti. Not only do many visual artists find their niche there, but there are many actors, poets, dancers, musicians and a lot of people who are doing all of the above. That is a big reason I settled in Jacmel. Every time I visited the town I would witness some ongoing flurry of creativity and awesomeness taking place in one of the many venues in town, I said to myself, "this is ‘the' budding scene! I want to be a part of it!" It also has a healthy mix of Haitians, foreign expats, and Haitians who have been living abroad and who have returned. We are all trying to work together to keep the energy up, quite selfishly of course. ...

"My [art studio] space [in Haiti] is barraged with people coming in and out bursting forth ideas and conflict. So, the office facilitates group artistic endeavors, collaborative problem solving--it's starting to seem more and more like a social experiment. But we have less material, art supplies are scarce and are used up quickly, tools always disappear, so it's a very needy, hungry place. We make art hand to mouth. I feel a little bit more like a therapist-administrator there, but making the center work is definitely a creative pursuit in the same family as all the other projects I choose to adopt as an artist-person. ...

"I am leading a permaculture workshop [in Haiti], and we are slowly, but surely, working on a rain barrel shower sculpture for the center, a bicycle-powered washing machine, and a parabolic solar oven. ... ‘Agrisculpture' was a term I coined to describe my work, I could have more accurately called what I do ‘permasculpture,' but ... since my work's end goal is mostly about producing food I went with agrisculpture, so that makes me an agrisculptor. I hope it's a fast-growing genre with an agrisculpture department opening up in every art school by 2012 (every art student gets a little community garden plot instead of a studio?) because then I will be asked to come lecture everywhere ... and I love to travel so that would be nice."

For more coverage of McGarrell, please see The Baltimore Sun, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Village Voice and Windy City Times.

Photo captions (top to bottom): Flo McGarrell cooking, Jacmel, Haiti, 2009; McGarrell at his studio in Vermont. Photos courtesy Art21, from "Inside the Artist's Studio: Flo McGarrell" by Georgia Kotresos, Aug. 28, 2009.

Founded in 1826, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is the oldest continuously degree-granting college of art and design in the nation. The College enrolls nearly 3,500 undergraduate, graduate and continuing studies students from 49 states and 52 countries in fine arts, design, electronic media, art education, liberal arts, and professional studies degree and non-credit programs. With art and design programs ranked in the top ten by U.S. News and World Report, MICA is pioneering interdisciplinary approaches to innovation, research, and community and social engagement. Alumni and programming reach around the globe, even as MICA remains a cultural cornerstone in the Baltimore/Washington region, hosting hundreds of exhibitions and events annually by students, faculty and other established artists.