Saturday, May 19, 2001

Four tiny spaniels bark fiercely from the open door of the 1880s Victorian home of John and Beverly Sullivan and then yelp in a welcoming way as just-visible hallway paintings radiate light and color.
The Sullivans collection of Haitian art and their Georgetown house exude the same delights. The Sullivans covered the walls of the living room with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and brilliantly hued Haitian paintings. An intricately cut flat metal pig she calls it “a piggie” graces a bathroom door.
A steel angel holding little children decorates the bathrooms interior. An elongated “Thin Woman” hangs outside, casting a dark note. In Haiti, “the thin disease” refers to AIDS. Mrs. Sullivan says that both the artist and subject were ill with the disease and died.
The late Hector Hyppolite, Haitis most renowned artist and a voodoo priest, painted the “3 Marassa,” or fertility cult figures who are blood related. The painting hangs above the fireplace.
Mr. Sullivan, 57, president and publisher of the National Journal Group, describes the Haitian art collection as almost an accident. Kay Sullivan Koonley, his aunt and once an editor at Harpers Bazaar, had bought paintings while vacationing in Haiti. She gave him three.
The Haitian art entranced the Sullivans when they were planning a honeymoon in 1977. “The paintings beckoned, ‘Come to us, and we went,” Mrs. Sullivan, 64, says.
Their cozy kitchen, with a large, round table in the center, has more of the zany metal animals like “piggie.” Georges Liautaud is responsible for most of this art.
DeWitt Peters, the American founder of the Centre dArt in Port-au-Prince, came across the sculptor making stone crosses for a graveyard and metal toys for his children.
Mr. Peters commissioned pieces and established Mr. Liautaud as a major sculptor. It was the 1940s, and the work went for $5 a sculpture. The artworks now carry prices of $8,000.
The Sullivans say they found Haitian art more and more fascinating and began to collect seriously.
After another trip to Haiti, they discovered the exhibitions of the art put on by Eye Care (then Eye Care Inc.) in Washington and across the United States. Founder and director Timothy Carroll was working with native Haitians to build, staff and equip eye treatment centers for the very poor across Haiti. Much of the funding came from the art shows in the United States. Mrs. Sullivan joined Mr. Carroll as a volunteer and continued to work in Haiti during trips taken there the next 20 years. Mrs. Sullivan would comb the cities and countryside for art while Mr. Carroll conducted business.
Mr. Carroll wrote in a catalog for an exhibit at Charles Sumner School Museum in Northwest in 1999: “In the 10 years that I spent in and out of Haiti, we calculated we sold nearly a million dollars worth of art. It is wonderful to know that the art sales benefited the Haitians not only medically but also put Haitian art in thousands of American homes.”
Mrs. Sullivan visited galleries and also heard about Haitian artists through word of mouth.
“I studied geology and grew up on the impressionists and Rodin. Yet the simplicity and naivete of the Haitian art makes me happy,” she says sitting in her living room back in Washington.
Her husband is forceful. “Its the color and vibrancy. Remember, they were the first independent black nation. I like the lens they look through: They make a lot out of little. We might consider them impoverished, but they dont see the world in an impoverished way,” he says.
African animals, birds, pigs and donkeys decorate many of the Haitian artworks in the Sullivans residence.
Pigs were especially important in Haiti until recent times. By eating up the trash, they cleaned the towns and cities. They also provided meat.
Then “swine disease” hit from the Dominican Republic in the 1980s and killed the pigs. The United States sent a kind of pig that didnt do well there.
“When the pigs from the U.S. got sunburned, they didnt mate,” Mrs. Sullivan says with a rueful laugh. This turned the farmers from pig raising and farming to ravaging the trees and making charcoal.
Sculptor Jacques Remy pictured a farm from earlier, happier days. He cut and hammered the piece from discarded steel drums used for importing oil, just as other Haitian sculptors did.
“The Farm” marches like a patterned frieze across a wall. An angel rides a horse while the farmer leads a cow. Theres a giraffe, and birds fly over an orchard of succulent fruit. The metal gleams with a silvery shine.
The piece is the star of what the Sullivans call the “Garden House.” They converted a three-car garage behind their home to extend their Haitian art environment.
Visitors walk through a garden designed by Washington landscape designer James van Sweden to pleasures such as a life-sized angel Gabriel embellished with snakes and papier-mache donkeys set on a low Haitian table.
The Sullivans filled the living room with small-sized paintings that vibrate and keep the eye moving. Many combine Roman Catholic imagery with voodoo spirits.
The term voodoo can be misunderstood, the couple say. Voodoo is an amalgam of West African animistic cults combined with Catholic ritual. Subjects in voodoo paintings often reach out to “loas,” or spirits.
“Jesus and the Good Apostles,” a Christian painting by Jasmin Josef, hangs high over the fireplace. It shows a black Jesus walking through a darkening landscape followed by 12 sheep.
The Sullivans also like Mr. Josefs humorous works. The artist painted about 50 cats crowded into a conference hall and called them “The Lawyers.” Mr. Sullivan, a publisher, renamed its “The Publishers” as a joke.
Mr. Josef also painted himself from the side, standing in a purple suit and red tie.
Byron Bourmond painted a mysterious, fantastic landscape he called “The Crossroads” in 1956. It has analogies with the Christian cross as well as the voodoo one.
A smashing hot-pink fabric “War Loa” pays an appropriate farewell to visitors. The artist covered almost every inch of his body with glittering fuchsia sequins, some round and large, others with green and blue slivers.
The spirit is a 4-foot-tall, three-headed bull set on a stand that glowers fiercely. He symbolizes the power of the loa in voodoo Haitian art, much as the grimacing Japanese guardians embody strength at Japanese Buddhist temples.
Yet the loa is so very beautiful and the scowl kind of humorous. Can we take him seriously? Only the collectors and Haitians can tell us and, then, its not for sure.

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