Due to its reputation as being a breeding ground for perpetual human catastrophe, few Americans have visited—or plan to visit—the impoverished island nation of Haiti.
Nonetheless, Missoula resident Aaron Crowder bucked conventional judgment and traveled to the poorest country in the western hemisphere in the spring of 2005. Then a psychology major at Montana State University, he chose the country to be the subject of his final undergraduate research project, fully aware of the stark poverty and political upheaval he’d encounter. At that time, most of what he knew—or thought he knew—about Haiti came from the mouths of missionaries or media reports.
“I had a vague idea about what life was like in Haiti when I left,” says Crowder, who earned degrees in both applied psychology and graphic design from MSU. “Fortunately, before we’d left I contacted a guy who ran an orphanage, and we later found an English-speaking, French-Haitian man as an interpreter. The first few days all we heard was constant gunfire, and we isolated ourselves.”
Once he came out of isolation, culture shock was stark. On both sides of the human spectrum, to visitor and to those being visited, Crowder sensed distinct barriers, not the least of which was as simple as skin color.
“Infants at the orphanage had never seen a white person before, looking at us as if we were ghosts,” he says. “People had a hard time figuring out who we were, and said that we weren’t dressed nicely enough to be Mormon missionaries. Kids laughed at us because we didn’t carry guns. The smell of disease, trash, and death, was all just two hours’ flying time from Florida.”
For his project, Crowder interviewed a wide array of people, from prostitutes to teachers, socialites to the homeless. He discovered Haiti to be both “a tragic and tremendous place,” depressingly poor but also home to a spiritually resilient populace. It’s the latter that endeared the country to Crowder.
“With all the commotion and chaos in a city of a few million people crammed into a few square miles,” explains Crowder, “it’s really peaceful when you can’t understand what anybody says. You just tune it out. Haiti, to me, was extremely peaceful.”
As a method of paying homage to those he met on his trip, Crowder, upon his return to Montana, began sketching portraits. These ink drawings are now part of an exquisitely detailed series on display at Miss Zula’s through the end of the month.
“People are what drive each work of my art,” says Crowder, who is currently testing the possibility of being a full-time artist. “Drawing becomes a time of reflection and thought; a time to pause and become aware of the beauty and power that is present around me.”
One drawing in the series, titled “Orphan,” is the depiction of a reticent child at the Foyer de Sion orphanage, where Crowder volunteered upon arriving at Port au Prince.
“This one girl stood out from all the other children,” says Crowder. “She was withdrawn from everyone, and she was almost entirely unresponsive to interaction by the caretakers. She would stare into our eyes with tears rolling down her face, but had almost no change in facial expression.”
By blending this type of stark social realism and exposed compassion, Crowder hopes to convey not just physical details but emotional ones, as well.
“I want to express truth and emotion,” he says. “I want the drawings to reflect the general personality and mood of the character.”
While Haiti remains a country absorbed in much social and political tumult—just this week, the United States Agency for International Development announced it will provide more than $15 million in emergency food aid for Haiti; just part of more than $128 million the organization will spend there this year—Crowder hopes to communicate some sense of the country’s perseverance, pride, human dignity and optimism with his artwork.
“The authenticity is real, whether it’s fear, anger, or sadness,” says Crowder. “It would’ve been easier to have just seen the tragedy that was everywhere, but I have tried to present something else.”
Aaron Crowder’s drawings of Haiti will be on display at Miss Zula’s, 111 N. Higgins Ave., through the end of the month.