Looking in the Mirror – Suzanne Demarco brings art to a small town in Haiti.

Looking in the Mirror – Suzanne Demarco brings art to a small town in Haiti.

Posted: Friday, August 28, 2015 7:00 am
Updated: 11:36 am, Fri Aug 28, 2015.
By Sarah Shmerling / sarah@malibutimes.com

There are certain necessities one cannot live without, and food and water at the top of that list. But then there are some things one can, but wouldn’t necessarily want, to live without. For example: mirrors.

Former Juan Cabrillo Elementary School art teacher of almost 10 years Suzanne Demarco brought mirrors, along with canvases, supplies and copies of some of her favorite pieces of art to the small town of Jacmel in Haiti to teach 250 kids how to paint a portrait of themselves.


“They had their mirrors, they could see themselves for the first time, which just the look on their faces was just amazing,” Demarco shared. “It was just instant gratification, something they had never done before.”

Demarco traveled with the Community Coalition for Haiti, a nonprofit association of doctors based in Virginia that has established a hospital in Jacmel. She explained that the group went to Haiti “as soon as the earthquake [in 2010] had hit. One of the lead doctors was on a plane the next day.”

When Demarco went with the group, she was the only artist in a group of scientists and doctors. She was invited as part of their educational team, and brought with her the portrait project to share with students at three schools and one orphanage.

“I specialize in teaching every kind of art,” Demarco, who has been teaching for nearly 18 years, shared. She teaches students in kindergarten through high school. With so many different projects to choose from, Demarco explained her inspiration behind portraits.

“My inspiration was a couple of different artists and I brought copies of the artwork,” she said. “First was Jean Michel Basquiat and the other is Kehinde Wiley, who just did an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and I fell in love.

“They got to really see other artists who they’ve never really seen. Most of these kids experienced the earthquake in 2010 firsthand. They were either born during it, or were five or 6 years old during that period of time. So their lives have just totally been turned upside down.”

During the seven-day trip, Demarco was able to visit with the children three times, so by the end of the trip, they knew her name and would greet her with hugs. Part of the portrait painting lessons included how to mix colors to match each child’s skin tone.

“I showed them the primary colors, then we mixed red and yellow together, and then we added blue and then, all of a sudden, we’re creating different shades of brown,” Demarco said. “We’d add white or black to it and we were able to match their own skin color, whether it was a lighter shade or a darker shade, cream or tan colored.” Demarco and her team brought 250 canvases with them made from recycled cardboard.

“I’m guessing they’ve never held a paintbrush, let alone a pencil, to draw their own portrait,” Demarco shared. “And at the end result, they were able to take these beautiful, beautiful pictures of their artwork.”

The art teacher explained that one of the most challenging aspects of the trip was the language barrier. Demarco traveled with a translator who spoke fluent French and English, but many of the people Demarco met spoke Creole, an altered version of French, causing the translator to speak more loudly and enunciate to attempt to bridge the language gap.

“I’m teaching 250 kids, and it was almost like being blindfolded,” Demarco shared. “I mean, I could not communicate. I had pictures of the colors and everything was visual, but there was really no way with the limited words that I had to be able to translate what I was trying to tell them. But the good news is that art is visual.” In addition to teaching the kids how to paint, Demarco also taught the local teachers.”Along with the students, the teachers also painted their own portraits,” Demarco said. “With this experience, the teachers can teach their future students how to draw their portraits.”

Demarco is unsure if she will be participating in another trip of this nature, but she described her time in Haiti as “life-changing.”
Back home, Demarco just finished writing a 10-chapter book that features different artists and is written like a cookbook — you pick an art project, just like you would pick a recipe, and gather the supplies and follow the instructions, resulting in a completed art project based off of the work of an artist.

“The funding is disappearing throughout the world, along with our country,” Demarco said. “My place is to keep art alive in schools.”