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Jacmel artisans anxious to see customers again

Thomas Oriental starts each day the same way: He arrives at his tiny art shop on Rue St. Anne – the one tucked beneath a cluster of mature mango trees – and begins setting out the array of papier-mâché masks that usually draw tourists.

He then carts a wooden chair out to the curb to join the cluster of artists who gather outside his shop every day to paint wooden placemats and serving trays.

Then he sits. And he waits.

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Three months after the earthquake, the tourist traffic his shop once relied on hasn't returned, save for the occasional aid worker who makes a departing souvenir-shopping trip to the historic street that headquarters the core workshops of the city's creative class.

Instead of paintings and artwork though, Rue St. Anne is littered more these days with an endless sea of concrete rubble and twisted steel . A persistent cloud of dust hangs over the scant remains of nearly 50 artisan workshops (known as ateliers) that collapsed during the earthquake, rendering dozens of craftspeople homeless and without a place for production.

"When the situation wasn't as hard, people would come here from Guadalupe, St. Maarten, the Dominican Republic," Mr. Oriental said in a moment of reminiscence.

Jacmel is not an ideal tourism destination right now. And next to tourism, the production of art is the most vital economy. It's also what the city has become famous for, both inside and out of the country. Although establishing a foothold in international markets has been a long-time challenge, artists here have nonetheless become world renowned for their talent and flair. Last year a small delegation of papier-mâché artists who took work to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market shocked organizers by selling more than any other attendees – $19,000 (U.S.) worth of crafts in two days.

Right now, like most other cottage industries in Jacmel, the artists are badly in need of a kick start. Aside from help rebuilding their infrastructure, they need paint brushes, flour and cardboard to shape into their coveted figures.

More than all of that, what they really need are product orders – tangible reasons to start working again.

"For the moment, I'm encouraging people to work," said Pierre Edgard Satyr, head of Jacmel's largest and most prominent artists' co-operative. He's been prompted to do so by the fact that several efforts to boost the artisan sector have been orbiting Jacmel for weeks.

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He's also sure there is good yet to come from the earthquake. Although it was tough on the artists, the disaster provided the community with the impetus, he said, to reorganize themselves and their priorities.

For years, they've been talking about how to better attract tourists who were shying away from the scattering of shops in Jacmel's heritage district that had slipped into disrepair. The subject of creating a special market with space for commercial and craft production has been batted around, but nothing had ever been done about it.

"We didn't have the means," Mr. Satyr explained, shrugging.

Guiding one of his recent tours through the area destruction, he raised the notion of a marketplace to Stephanie St. Louis, a representative from the national Ministry of Culture who was jotting down ideas in a spiral-bound notebook of how to rebuild the arts economy. She took to the idea and said that it would help to entice wary tourists, but worried that there will be detractors.

"Some of the artists, they are not fond of relocating. They're resolved to this area," she said, gesturing to the heritage district that borders the shore in Jacmel.

In the meantime, Ms. St. Louis has begun negotiating with some of the owners of heritage buildings that are still standing in hopes that they will agree to allow artists to use them as temporary workshops.

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While those negotiations grind on, some artists have quietly begun to work again. Some are anticipating the lift-off of Brandaid-Haiti , a Canada-based non-profit initiative aimed at reviving market share for Haiti's arts and crafts industry and connecting craftspeople, via Mr. Satyr in Jacmel, with major North American retail distributors.

Others are madly racing toward May 6, which is the deadline for artists hoping to sell work at the Santa Fe show this year.

Mr. Oriental, on the other hand, is not involved in the art show. His business is mainly in buying and selling locally. Without funding to rebuild his shop or cash flowing in, he has no other plans, he said, but to continue what is shaping up to be a very long wait.

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Before taking on the global food beat, Jessica reported extensively from Haiti to document the nation's recovery from a catastrophic earthquake that struck in January, 2010. The resulting multimedia series, Project Jacmel, won a National Newspaper Award. Jessica has also reported from Afghanistan. More

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