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Haitian Metal art is stunning, and the story behind the creation of this artistry practice is even more fascinating.
The unique process of creating each metal piece began in the 1950s by a railway mechanic named Georges Liautard. Having worked for years in the Dominican Republic, he’d decided to return home to his home village of Croix des Bouquets.
Many of his friends and family members were no longer living, and to honor them, he decided to craft metal crosses to adorn their gravesites. Because he was used to working with iron and steel as a railroad worker, that’s what he crafted those first crosses out of.
Dewitt Peters, a watercolorist and American Quaker who founded Le Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, eventually noticed those crosses and found the artist who’d created them.
Partnering with Peters, Liautard eventually started crafting larger and more intricate pieces and then fabulous sculptures, which often incorporated Christian or Voodoo imagery, all with his unique method of upcycling discarded metal. Through the cajoling of Peters, Liautard eventually began teaching this skill to neighbors and friends through apprenticeships.
That initial apprenticeship program grew year after year into the now thousands of artists that have learned and teach today. Pairing novices and master metalworkers, the apprenticeship program continues to foster the next generation of artists, as well as link them to artisan groups run through the Fair Trade movement.
This skill that Liautard so diligently developed and then taught others has helped so many people in an economically impoverished area earn money for food, shelter, and schooling for themselves as well as their families.
This learned skill has, at times, even been a lifesaver. After the 2010 earthquake devastated many parts of Haiti, for example, many leaned on this skill as a way to help rebuild their lives and help out their families.
How is each piece created?
All the metal for these art pieces is salvaged from 55-gallon steel oil drums, discarded near the harbor in Port-au-Prince.
The process of changing a steel oil drum into a working canvas is a tedious one. The artist first starts by cutting off the top and bottom of each drum. He or she then burns off any paint or residue. Once the drum has sufficiently cooled, the artist cuts it vertically and then uses his or her weight to pull it apart before flattening it into a sheet around 3” x 6”. Since artists want to use all of the metal from the drum, most art pieces have similar dimensions.
Once the artist has decided on his or her design, they mark it on the sweetened metal with chalk and then get to work cutting, edging, and embossing the design.
Once you enter Croix des Bouquets, the part of town most known for this type of artwork, you’ll be met with a cacophony of tink, tink, tink. That noise is the ball peen hammers the artists are using to strike the sheets of steel.
Hammers and chisels are used to cut away what isn’t necessary to the artist’s design, as well as provide detail, from leaves on a tree to the scales on a fish, by hammering small divots into the back of the piece which makes stunning patterns on the front.
Once the negative space is cut away and the patterns are hammered into the piece, artists then color each piece with oils, paints, and lacquers. The artists are proud of their work, signing the pieces on the back side, leaving a raised, reversed signature on the front. The final step is to coat it with a protective finish.
Every piece is truly handcrafted and unique!
Many of the pieces still sold out of Haiti have religious imagery: crosses, angels, nativity scenes. Other pieces, though, depict the natural environment. Artists may render animals like fish, geckos, birds, turtles, butterflies, seahorses, tulles, crabs, or dolphins.
They may also do trees and their many intertwining branches, flowers, or a seascape. Still other pieces may show the presence of Westernization. You might see pieces that say “Live Laugh Love,” other common sayings, or Christmas decorations.
Regardless, each piece is one-of-a-kind and is often whimsical and ingenious. They can also be placed indoors or outdoors and can surely stand the test of time.
Here at Bonsai & Bear, we sell pieces from Croix des Bouquets and Caribbean Craft, two of the artist groups mastering this technique. Every piece you purchase directly supports these artists and their communities through the Fair Trade global movement.
The benefits of purchasing Fair Trade items such as these are unending. Your purchase helps to create economic opportunities for workers and apprentices, their families, and thus the entire village.
Each one of these beautiful pieces you purchase should make you feel proud, not only for how stunning they are, but also for how much you’re actually helping.
Here are just some of the beautiful pieces we sell in our store:
1. 24 inch Painted Two Fish Jumping - Croix des Bouquets
You can see from this first piece the rich colors the artisans can adorn their pieces. Just because it’s a metal piece certainly doesn’t mean it’s boring! The fish glow with rich oranges, yellows, and greens. Every piece is meticulously detailed to make it almost lifelike.
Two fishes encircle starfish, a turtle, and a conch shell. The patterning of the fishes’ scales have been meticulously hammered and edged, down to the details along the body and the tinier details about the heads. You’ll also see the lining etch work done on the fins and tails as well as on the starfish and turtle.
2. Angel and Moon Metal Art - Croix des Bouquets
This piece, though unpainted, highlights the intricacy of each piece’s design. The fine pattern along the moon, the detail done on the angel’s dress, hair, and wings as well as the the birds that seem to flit about the piece.
3. Haitian Metal Steel Drum Sun Face by Caribbean Craft
The Haitian Metal Steel Drum Sun Face by Caribbean Craft is a bold and sturdy sun design with its deeply etched cheek bones and eyes as well as the pronounced nose and mouth. This design has generous rays shooting from the center and each is intricately tipped for a solid finish.
4. Sea Turtle Metal Wall Art - Croix des Bouquets
This metal wall art piece is so whimsical and fun! The tiny sea turtles swim on the back and beside a larger sea turtle. Notice the fantastic use of white space the artisan incorporated, as well as how each sea turtle is painted different from its brethren. While this could have been a boring seascape, the artist has captured the joy and fervor unique to the ocean and this adorable creatures.
5. Painted Tree with Birds Wall Art by Croix des Bouquets
Crafted from recycled 55-gallon steel drums by village artisans in Haiti, this Painted Tree with Birds is a stunning piece of wall art. This piece features an embossed and painted single tree with gorgeous colorful birds on the branches.
6. Double Tree of Life Metal Wall Art by Croix des Bouquets
The artisans, Croix des Bouquets, use a painstaking process to turn sheets of metal into beautiful one of a kind wall art. This stunning piece of art features an unpainted two connected trees with birds flying on the branches.
7. Pink - 12-inch Hand Painted Metalwork Angel - Croix des Bouquets (H)
This standing metal angel is truly lovely. The angel is handprinted in a collage of reds, blues, yellows, and oranges that accentuate every aspect of it. The color seems to almost vibrate off its dress due to the wavy lining that makes this piece both playful and intricate.
What started out as a beautiful act of service of one individual creating metal crosses for those passed has now become an economically sustainable artistry practice that helps support an entire area. Thanks to the development and thoughtful teaching of Georges Liautard and Dewitt Peters, these artisans today can continue to hone their craft for themselves and the generations that come after them. The apprenticeship program and workshop groups in existence today, nearly 70 years after Liautard first crafted those metal crosses, and their collaboration with the Fair Trade movement, ensure that you have continued access to these beautiful pieces and that they can continue to support their families and villages.