Flores McGarrell

Former MICA student and teacher was leading a Haitian arts center when he was killed in last week's earthquake

January 20, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

Friends recall Flores McGarrell as an unforgettable artistic force. A performer at numerous Artscape events, he helped create a live memorial drama after the 1995 burning of the Clipper Mill in Woodberry. His teachers said he was one of the most recognized students at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he studied and taught for nearly a decade.

The former Baltimorean, who was leading a Haitian arts center, died Tuesday when he dashed into a collapsing hotel during the earthquake to retrieve a computer that stored his records and artistic concepts. Friends sifted through the rubble for nearly a week to find his body in the coastal town of Jacmel, southwest of Port-au-Prince. He was 35.

"Flo was fearless, a rare mix of art and life," said Patrick Wright, chair of MICA's video and film arts department. "He was also curious, very industrious and a very good teacher as well. Flo invigorated the campus. Flo embodied what we strive for as a school."

Mr. McGarrell was a co-founder of Little Big Bang, a nonprofit performance group that appeared at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Visionary Art Museum and the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington. His group created a skit about the moon being made up of blue cheese, work recalled as being social commentary yet always comical.

A transgender, he was born Flora McGarrell in Rome to a painter, James McGarrell, and a writer and translator, Anna McGarrell. He lived in Italy until he was 8 and then moved to St. Louis. As a teen, he studied metalworking and the Italian language. He came to Baltimore in 1993 as a MICA freshman.

"I remember Flo for his generosity, always sharing with other artists," said Annet Couwenberg, a MICA faculty member and friend. "His first performance was in my class. He did the 'Snow Queen,' and it was one of the events where I realized I was dealing with a student who was bold and always trying to move the edges of what it means to be an artist. He climbed over the staircase balustrade and performed on a tiny platform. It was dangerous and incredibly inventive."

Friends said he adopted the city and lived on St. Paul Street near Penn Station and in a West Baltimore Street loft, where a fire destroyed many of his works several years ago.

He created inflatable pieces of tough nylon, including an oversize television with interior projectors, which he transported to arts events and neighborhood festivals. He also was fascinated by Airstream trailers.

"MICA gave him a tremendous work ethic," said his mother. "The period he lived in Baltimore was the happiest in his life."

He earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts and remained in Baltimore another few years to get a master's degree. He also taught at the college in 2001 and 2002, and taught video at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

"Flo loved sharing creative impulses," said the School for the Art's Donald Hicken. "Flo was infectious with ideas. We were all captivated by that energy."

Friends said that he began mixing sculpture, fiber and digital craft to create large-scale inflatable sculptures. After leaving Baltimore in 2002, he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned a master of fine arts degree in art and technology studies. He attended an artist-in-residence program in Roswell, N.M., and was art director of the film "Maggots and Men," described as an experimental retelling of the story of the 1921 uprising of the Kronstadt sailors in post-revolutionary Russia.

He then moved to Haiti. A sketch of his life from MICA said he made "agrisculptures" and used "found objects" to create "home-scale food production systems, making statements about sustainability and food consumption."

At his death, he was director of FOSAJ, Foundation Sant D'A Jakmel, a nonprofit arts center in Jacmel. His foundation was "dedicated to empowering the Haitian people through art and culture," according to the foundation's Web site.

"I have a few guiding principles, which I think must propel me toward this artistic freedom you speak about: Don't hide, don't lie. Do that which scares me. Resist the urge to settle. Be as many things as possible in this lifetime," Mr. McGarrell said in an interview last year in Art: 21.

He said that where he was living, Jacmel, "is the de facto cultural center of Haiti. Not only do many visual artists find their niche there, but there are many actors, poets, dancers, musicians and a lot of people who are doing all of the above. That is a big reason I settled in Jacmel."

A life celebration will be held at 7 p.m. today at MICA's Mount Royal Station, 1400 Cathedral St.

In addition to his parents, who live in Newbury, Vt., survivors include his brother, Andrew McGarrell of St. Joseph, Mo.

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