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WATERLOO | Who hasn’t packed light to leave room for mementos from an exotic vacation? Usually it’s T-shirts, colorful tote bags, jewelry, souvenir plates or teaspoons or foodstuffs that can be carried through customs, along with odds-and-ends to satisfy kids and grandkids clamoring “what did you bring me?”

Like those tourists, Kent Shankle and Chawne Paige stuffed their suitcases full for the return trip from a late January visit to Haiti. Except their souvenirs — glittering and beaded textiles, Voodoo flags, painted canvases, metal wall hangings, wood carvings, mixed media assemblages, papier mache and other objects — are destined for the Haitian collection at the Waterloo Center for the Arts.

"We brought home lots of art in our bags and shipped more pieces home by air freight. One of the pieces is an incredible, large wooden drum with painting and collage by artist Atelier Onel. Spirits are associated with drums, which have an important role in Haitian ceremonies,” said Shankle, WCA executive director.

For almost 40 years, the center has housed the largest internationally recognized public collection of Haitian artwork.

Shankle and Paige, recently promoted to curator, were in Haiti to attend the eight-day annual conference for the Haitian Art Society. Museum and arts center curators, gallery owners, collectors and Haitian arts and culture supporters toured the island, visiting with artists and others in Petionville, Port au Prince, Jacmel and other communities.

Haiti’s minister of tourism told society members it was the first non-humanitarian group to visit the island since the 2010 earthquake. 

"We were given a wonderful reception by the people. It was an incredible experience, and we formed some lasting relationships. The center got involved with the society in 2004 to raise our profile and hosted the conference in 2008. This was the first time it took place in Haiti,” said Shankle, a previous visitor to the island.

Paige was making his first trip. "It was so beyond what I expected. What touched me was recognizing how the people live in the here-and-now and are so closely connected to each other, and that there are so many artist enclaves,” the curator said.

Haitian artists are incorporating earthquake experiences and aftermath into their work, which impressed Paige and Shankle. "Artists are seeing new things, processing new ideas. It was a rare opportunity for us to see the artists at work, to speak with them and experience their vision firsthand,” Shankle noted.

The country’s art has traditionally been imbued with spirituality and superstition, but several new acquisitions have “hard-hitting imagery with strong spiritual content,” Shankle said, which are expected to broaden and deepen the scope of the collection.

"It’s cutting edge and tells the story of Haiti through the artwork,” Paige added.

Dr. and Mrs. F. Harold Reuling began the WCA collection in 1977 with their gift. It continues to grow through donor gifts and acquisitions, including 500 pieces from Janet Feldman.

The Haitian trip was funded by an Iowa Arts Council grant. Artwork was purchased using grant money and private donations.

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Arts/Special Sections Editor

Special Sections Editor for the Courier

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