Friday, January 15, 2010

Washington Social Diary

Beverly Sullivan's favorite Haitian paintings show "community."
by Carol Joynt

News of a catastrophe like the earthquake in Haiti prompts a range of reactions. First we are shocked and then we think of the nightmare, the victims, and the recovery effort. Those reactions are routine, but it got to me in another way, too: I thought of Beverly Knight Sullivan. Beverly, her husband, John Fox Sullivan, and I are friends of more than a decade, and Haiti has been a special part of the equation. Beverly is what’s known as a “super-collector” of Haitian art. She’s also a super friend of the poor, fragile, mysterious, and often strife-torn nation.

John and Beverly made their first trip to Haiti in the 1970s, when they were first dating. “It was a getaway,” she said, the destination determined, in part, by four Haitian paintings that had been left to John by his aunt, Kay Sullivan, who was the fashion editor of Town & Country magazine in the 1940s. (John is currently Group Publisher and CEO of Atlantic Media). Beverly said when she first saw the paintings she asked, “My God, what are these? They are really terrific.”
Beverly Sullivan before her library of books on Haitian art, a "nativity" scene and a carved Madonna.
The entry hall of Beverly Sullivan's home/personal Haitian art gallery.
The Sullivan's living room wall.
This painting is called "the lawyers."
When Beverly and John arrived in Haiti they checked into the Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince and stayed for ten blissful days. “We fell in love with everything – the country, the people, the art,” she said. This was not their first “collecting” trip. That would come almost a year later, after they married, when, again, they were at the Oloffson. “.... But we had been studying, and we knew more, and we knew which galleries to go to.”

The voodoo spirits must have been tuned into Beverly, because when they returned to Washington something serendipitous happened. “Bingo,” she said, “We met Timothy Carroll.” In 1977 Carroll founded Eye Care, which ran four rural eye hospitals in Haiti, where eye disease is a serious problem. Selling Haitian art was a means to raise funds for the foundation and Timothy asked Beverly to come with him to Haiti, to visit the hospitals, but also to look at and pick out art that would be sold to collectors in Washington and elsewhere.
Beverly Knight Sullivan: "Everything in Haitian art goes back to voodoo." Beverly with a piece by Georges Liautaud, a Haitian metal art master who made his lifelong base in the mountain village of Croix des Bouquets.
From the collection of Beverly Sullivan. Voodoo priest Hector Hyppolite was the grandfather of Haitian art.
A prized painting by G.E. Ducasse, whose work is in the permanent collection of the Musee Art Haitien and other museums.
Eye Care ended in 90s, “but on the very day we had our last sale, here comes Kay Heller. We bonded immediately over a shared loved of Haiti and decided to open our own business, Everything From Haiti.”

In the time since, Beverly and Kay, or Beverly and John, visited Haiti at least twice a year. They hunted in the many notable Port au Prince galleries, like Galerie Monnin, but also trekked into the rural regions, up into the mountains, to remote villages, where they searched out and befriended metal artists, stone carvers, painters; masters of wood-carving, beading, sculpture and ceramics. Beverly is not fluent in French, the language of Haiti, but that didn’t impede communication. “They won’t sell you anything unless you bargain,” she said. “But if you can smile, you can negotiate. If we wanted to buy bananas or a piece of art it was done by smiling and waving some dollars. And Creole.”
A sculpture Beverly Sullivan calls "two forks." His journey to America was memorable. A hand sewn and beaded bull. The real animals often are slaughtered in voodoo ceremonies.
An example of Haitian iron work.
A group of stone carvings that represent the Haitian voodoo spirits known as "Loas."
Of course, they were also introduced to voodoo. “Voodoo is an overarching influence on the culture.” Is it in everything? “Oh, absolutely.” Especially the art. “There’s voodoo in every painting.”

Beverly and Kay Heller experienced their first voodoo ceremony in Citi Soleil. “The ceremonies last for 7 or 8 hours. Lots of dancing, on into the night, and then they cut a bull’s throat. That was enough, thank you.” Beverly showed me a piece voodoo sculpture – she calls it “two forks” - that made airport security balk. “They said, ‘it has forks on it. You can’t take it into the cabin.” She feared it would not survive the flight, but it did. “When I told a Haitian, he said, ‘It scared all the other luggage away.’”
Wilson Bigaud worked in clay before oils, and was in the group of Haitian artists formed by Hector Hyppolite.
Painted in 1951 by Wilson Bigaud. A self portrait by G. E. Ducasse, otherwise known as Gervais Emmanuel Ducasse, a former government worker who became a painter after he lost his job in 1948.
Animals are a common theme in Haitian art, though many collectors prefer the paintings that show "community."
One of the paintings that started it all for the Sullivans, by Toussaint Auguste, who was a teacher before becoming a painter.
Since the earthquake Beverly has been emailing with Haitian contacts here and in Port au Prince. She learned the Oloffson and Galerie Monnin both survived the disaster but the fate of certain friends was unknown on Thursday afternoon. She and John live with an art collection worthy of a museum, with pieces valued in the tens of thousands, but that’s not what was on her mind.

“One of the worst parts of this is that Haiti was pulling itself together in the last two or three years. They were starting to get tourism going again. Now, they will have to take down the whole town and start over.” What does she make of televangelist Pat Robertson’s comment that the Haitians brought the earthquake on themselves by making a pact with the Devil? Her expression is disgust. “Can we put a gag on that man?”
Beverly Sullivan holds a circa 1590 map of Haiti done by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercatur.
Mercatur's circa 1590 chart of Haiti, on an island also known as Hispaniola.
Snakes are a primal part of voodoo and Haitian art. A quality not unlike Gauguin's in the South Pacific.
A mysterious scene, not uncommon in Haitian art. Is it a voodoo ceremony or simply a nap under the palms?
Nonetheless, Beverly concedes Haiti – even in the best of times – is an exotic and acquired taste. “The countryside is beautiful. The people are refreshing and enjoyable. I’ve never been afraid for my safety. But either you love Haiti or you don’t. There’s no in between.”

Because what Haiti needs now are prayers, love and money, before we parted I asked Beverly to recommend a particular cause for donations. She was emphatic. “The Hopital Albert Schweitzer. It’s a well run place, and because it is outside Port au Prince, and still standing, they are getting a lot of patients there.” The link for donations is here.
Beverly and John Sullivan, a romance founded in part on a shared loved of Haiti and Haitian art.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. Visit her at: