A Portrait of the Artist as a Humanitarian
Visitors to Kerry Rodgers’ MFA thesis exhibit, Back From Port-au-Prince, saw portraits of suffering, dignity, displacement, and hope. But what they didn’t see is Rodgers herself, who is still on her journey as artist and ambassador.
Rodgers credits her time in San Quentin State Prison, located just outside San Francisco, as formative for her growth as an artist. She wasn’t an inmate, but a volunteer art teacher. While she worked as a commercial photographer during the week, every Thursday Rodgers crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to spend her morning at the penitentiary. Some of her students were offenders who ran afoul of the three-strikes law; some were convicted murderers serving life sentences.
“So many people only become friends with those who have similar backgrounds and life paths,” she said. “That experience opened my eyes to a segment of society that’s almost invisible, that doesn’t have a voice. People in San Francisco live right next to that prison but never think about it. With the time I spent there, it became such a big part of my life. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Rodgers continued thinking about San Quentin even after moving to Claremont and cutting off all communication with her formal pupils. (San Quentin’s volunteer teachers are forbidden from corresponding with inmates.) “At a certain point I asked myself what most artists ask themselves: what is most important to you? And I realized, my experiences in San Quentin were some of the most interesting and important of my life,” she said. “And those experiences began manifesting themselves in my artwork.”
This artwork includes Rodgers’ San Quentin series, a collection of oil paintings portraying students from her class outside the context of the prison: Gabriel, enthused over scoring a wedge of onion from the chow hall, in front of a large painter’s palette; Felix, ruminating on political theory and classical guitar, surrounded by a lush forest.
For her next project, Rodgers again looked to draw inspiration through volunteer work. She was pursuing an opportunity in El Salvador when the Haitian earthquake struck in January 2010. Like many, she watched the devastation on TV and texted a $10 donation from her cell phone. But when she heard that schools in Haiti would be closed for several months she realized how she could be of use. From California she tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with any organization that might be able to use artist volunteers. But she wasn’t giving up.
“My best friend is a doctor, and she went to volunteer at a Haitian hospital that March,” Rodgers said. “I had her ask around to see if there was a place I could teach art classes.”
Through her friend, Rodgers was put in touch with an American pastor who worked in Carrefour Feuilles, a poor residential commune in the Port-au-Prince area. Though Rodgers considers her outreach work irreligious, churches often serve as the local school and community center as well as places of worship in Haiti. She contacted the pastor and he quickly confirmed that the local students would be eager for an artist to come visit.
That spring, Rodgers applied for and received a $2,000 Friedman Grant through CGU’s School of Arts and Humanities. The money helped pay for airfare, lodging, food, a translator, and art supplies (money goes a lot farther in Haiti than Southern California). In July she was on her way to a country she had never visited before, to live in a tent in a town with no running water.
When she arrived, the local school had just reopened after being closed for four months following the earthquake. Rodgers didn’t know what to expect, but she had a plan. She developed different activities, and expected to work with a small group composed of about 10 children of similar ages. Then, on the first day of class, 20 students of varying ages showed up.
“I thought, okay, I can go with this. I can deal. Thankfully, the older kids seemed happy to do what I thought of as a younger kid’s activity,” she said.
But word traveled fast throughout the neighborhood. The next day, 40 students showed up; the day after that, 50. “I remember I did my count and turned to my translator and said, ‘I’m not prepared for this. I can’t do this.’ He said, ‘Okay, you tell me which ones I should tell to leave.’ I thought, ‘I can’t do that!’ These children had lost everything. I couldn’t tell them to leave.”
So for the next two weeks, Rodgers taught 50 children, for three to five hours every afternoon. And how did she teach that many students at once? “Through very simple instructions and through chaos,” she explained. “Utter chaos.”
Despite that chaos, Rodgers was surprised at her students’ enthusiasm: “They were just exuberant. They were so excited to just get the chance to make art. They reminded me what a joyful activity art-making can be.”
That reminder would come in handy for the second half of her trip, when Rodgers traveled throughout Haiti, taking photographs, meeting local artists, and surveying the damage. Sadly, one of the most dominant features of the Haitian environment since the earthquake is gray rubble. Lacking a strong bureaucratic system, there has been little cleanup, and Rodgers found the detritus particularly woeful in contrast to the vibrant and colorful Haitian aesthetic: “Before the earthquake, Port-au-Prince had been famous for the bright, splashy paint coating the homes, shacks, and buildings. And there are all these buses called tap taps. They’re painted these insane colors. I love that about Haitian culture. I love that exuberance. But the rubble has made the city gray. I thought that was an interesting metaphor for all the emotional difficulty the earthquake has caused. Hopefully it’s just temporary.”
When meeting local Haitian artists she began discussing how they could collaborate and help bring that vibrancy back to the built environment. Their idea was to turn the rubble into public art projects by painting murals over the destruction. But of course, the rubble was not just pieces of a collapsed building; people had died under the wreckage and it was important to Rodgers to treat the material with an appropriate level of solemnity.
“When I paint on rubble I am very conscious that many of the destroyed buildings in Port-au-Prince are literally graves,” she said. “I always do these projects with Haitian collaborators, and we do it in the spirit of memorializing all that was lost. Our intention is to honor the past while also imagining what the future will look like for Haiti.” >
Rodgers continued thinking about how she could contribute to the community as an artist. On a follow-up trip to Haiti in January 2011 she brought a camera and digital printer – two rarities in Carrefour Feuilles. She offered free portraits to anyone who wanted one. Though this could be considered a small gesture in America, people whose homes had been destroyed might not have any pictures of themselves or their family. Even those whose houses were intact sometimes only had a small box with about 20 photos documenting their lives. Many of the portraits Rodgers took ended up in her spring 2011 MFA show, Back From Port-au-Prince.
“What I appreciate about photography is its ability to make a human connection. Can you look at the photos and see someone’s eyes? That’s one way my photos function,” she said. “On the other hand, the fact that there are so many complicated stories behind those eyes is something I want to express.”
Highlighting the complication is the ever-present poverty. One mother with a newborn was so happy she nearly cried when Rodgers photographed her child. Another woman Rodgers photographed was living next to a baby dying of hydrocephalus. That baby’s parents asked Rodgers to take a photo of their child, which she did, though she did not include that image in her exhibit. “I don’t want my art to be about that. But in my show there is the woman who lives next to this baby. When I look at her photo I see her dignity and strength and power, but I also see what she has to live with. A dying baby. No medical care. And I don’t know how to reconcile how we live so comfortably while our neighbors suffer. There’s no answer to that, but it’s something I think about a lot.”
When Rodgers returned to Claremont from her second, two-week trip to Haiti in January, she shared these concerns with Arts Enterprise (AE), a CGU club made up primarily of Art and Arts Management students. With fellow AE members Shanda Domango, Tiffanie Lam, and Maria Peredes, Rodgers organized a Valentine’s Day bake sale outside the Drucker School’s Burkle Building. In one day they raised nearly $700, which they donated to Zanmi Lakay, a nonprofit that provides educational and economic opportunities to Haitian street children.
“It was so strange to come back to CGU and be in this comfortable, privileged environment,” Rodgers said. “I thought, these children have so little. I wanted to do something, even something small, to continue helping.”
The month after the fundraiser, on March 28, Back From Port-au-Prince opened in CGU’s Peggy Phelps Gallery. The exhibit included portraits, photographs of the public art she had collaborated on with Haitian artists, and videos. >
Shortly before graduating this May, Rodgers was awarded the Karl and Beverly Benjamin Fellowship in Art. The $1,500 fellowship is awarded annually to a second-year art student. CGU Art alum and renowned painter Karl Benjamin personally picked Rodgers to receive the award based on her work. It didn’t take her long to put that money to use: “As soon as I got that fellowship I booked my next trip to Haiti. I leave in July.”
For this trip, Rodgers is leading a photography class for Zanmi Lakay. Though she doesn’t know how often she will be returning to Haiti in the future, or for how long the country will continue inspiring her work, she knows she has developed relationships that will endure: “There’s a young man who lives in the neighborhood where I stayed. He was my translator on my two trips. He’s become my friend and I talk to him on the phone just about every week. My husband and I are helping him get an English education and driver’s license. I feel like he is a friend for life, and he will always be a reason to go back.”
To learn more about Kerry Rodgers, and see more images from Haiti and her San Quentin project, visit www.kerryrodgers.com.