One day recently Zaka Chery took a video camera down to this city's small port and began to film as Jacmel's best surviving artwork floated away.
The paintings had just been loaded onto a small boat bound for a gallery in Miami, having been rescued from the crumbled mess of a building that used to be a nerve centre for Jacmel's renowned arts community.
The situation was bittersweet for Mr. Chery, a 22-year-old filmmaker who was second-in-command at the arts centre, the only one of its kind in the city. The U.S. exposure promises to be a boon for Jacmelian artists who have struggled for international recognition. But all of them are deep in mourning right now: Flo McGarrell, the dynamic, transsexual artist who built their U.S. bridge was, like their studio space, felled by the quake.
The death of Mr. McGarrell, a 35-year-old American multimedia artist who moved to Jacmel in 2008 to help the arts centre grow, combined with the centre's destruction, has cast a significant amount of uncertainty on to the future of arts here. It has also, many artists fear, capped the realm of possibilities that Mr. McGarrell seemed to be so steadily widening.
“Flo wanted to show these artists around the world. He worked hard for that,” said Mr. Chery, in a conversation where he shifted between rough English and Creole. “Now, I meet so many artists that say to me, ‘Zaka, I lost my career.' I don't think anybody else can do the same work as Flo.”
Art has always been an essential part of culture in Jacmel, which is the fifth-largest city in Haiti but one of the country's best-known for producing successful artists and craftsmen. Artists, writers and poets from all over the country – and abroad – have historically flocked to the city to adopt it as a muse. But for the most part, painters and sculptors here still struggle to make a decent living from their art.
Mr. McGarrell, who fell in love with Haiti at the age of 11, devoted himself to changing that by setting up a website to display Jacmel artists, linking them with foreign exchanges, encouraging them to go to professional school, to generate income from their art and, perhaps most importantly, to urge them to consider producing serious pieces beyond tourist souvenirs.
“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,” Mr. McGarrell said in an interview last year.
He was successful in helping many artists increase their exposure, including a small group who landed contracts with Timberland, the clothing company, to design T-shirts.
Mr. McGarrell, who professed himself “a total gender mash-up” was often found in his hammock on the top floor of FOSAJ (Fanal Otantik Sant D'A Jakmel), which is located in an old coffee warehouse (now ruined) in the ancient quarter along on Jacmel's waterfront. He was killed on Jan. 12 not at the art centre, but at a hotel on the opposite side of town. He was visiting the new peach-stuccoed building to use the Internet connection when the first floor was pancaked.
Mr. Chery said that he and a second friend of Mr. McGarrell's who narrowly escaped the hotel, called Peace of Mind Hotel, spent days waiting beside the rubble in hopes of digging out their friend.
“Each morning, we sleep, we go back there and sit down,” recalled Mr. Chery, his voice going hoarse. “We can't do nothing, just sit down and hope that somebody can come with some machines, hope that Flo is still alive inside,” he said.
On the seventh day, Mr. McGarrell's decomposing body was finally pulled out. Mr. Chery saw that it was zipped into a white body bag, and, on the instruction of Mr. McGarrell's parents, accompanied it to the airfield in hopes of repatriating it.
To keep wild dogs and other animals away from the body, Mr. Chery and another of Mr. McGarrell's friends spent the night walking circles around the body to guard it.
It was the hardest day of his life, Mr. Chery said through tears.
In the month since his best friend died, Mr. Chery has vacillated between recovering the strength he needs to carry on his friend's legacy and being overcome with the sense of fleeing.
In the home they shared together, he has set up an altar with campy photographs and possessions of Mr. McGarrell's to commemorate his life on earth. He has a cadre of Mr. McGarrell's friends – his own friends now – staying with him in the house to keep him company and support him while he finishes the final project they did together, a screenplay.
With the help of instructors at a well-known film school here called Ciné Institute, Mr. Chery has also started work on a documentary about Mr. McGarrell's life and death and another that aims to illustrate the loss the arts community here has suffered in hopes art aid will begin to flow.
He's hoping to attend university in Canada next September in New Brunswick. He's doing it, he said, because Mr. McGarrell encouraged him and helped him raise money to get an art degree.