Flo McGarrell, an internationally recognized multidisciplinary art activist and transgender person, died Jan. 12 in the collapse of the Peace of Mind Hotel in Jacmel, Haiti, an arts community about 20 miles south of Port-Au-Prince.
McGarrell was visiting with his friend, Chicago artist Susan Frame. Frame was in Haiti to build a woodworking studio at Fanal Otantik Sant D'A Jakmel ( FOSAJ ) , an art center where McGarrell served as director.
When the earthquake struck Frame ran out of the building; McGarrell paused to retrieve his computer.
McGarrell earned his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ( SAIC ) in 2004. "There are some students you recall clearly because they open up so many ideas around cultural meaning," said Lisa Wainwright, interim dean of faculty. "I distinctly remember [ his ] resolve, exquisite sense of craft, humanist impulse, and adventurous spirit. [ He made ] compelling work and was a great student who became an even greater member of our global arts community."
Flores McGarrell was born female Aug. 31, 1974 in Rome, Italy, to artists James and Ann McGarrell. The family moved to St. Louis, Mo., when McGarrell was eight, and then to Newbury, Vt., in 1993.
"I am extremely lucky to have an amazingly supportive family who puts up with all my crazy schemes," said McGarrell in a 2009 interview with art21. "This is where all my freedom really comes from. This is why I have the freedom to go work with people who are not so free at all…"
As a student at Maryland Institute College of Art ( MICA ) , McGarrell "was quite involved with social justice [ and ] … pushed the boundaries … in terms of gender issues, poverty issues," recalled fiber-arts professor Annet Couwenberg. "Flo wanted to build a better life for people. Inclusiveness and generosity were a given for him."
McGarrell's interest in the art and culture of Haiti took root at age 11 when his mother took him to see Maya Deren's film Divine Horsemen, a documentary on Haitian Vodou ceremonies, and The Sacred Arts of Haiti exhibition co-curated by anthropologist Marilyn Houlberg, who later became his mentor and friend at SAIC.
McGarrell's artistic legacy ranges from performance, film, digital and video to large-scale sculptural installations. In 2007 he did an arts residency at Roswell, N.M., developing experiments in sustainable living as sculpture. This work culminated in the form he described as "Agrisculpture" which has food production as its primary goal. His commitment to sustainable art met his interest in Haiti and set the course for his life's work.
"Flo's interest in the culture of Haiti had much to do with the interactive nature of the Vodou religion," said Marilyn Houlberg, who had been with him in Porta-Au-Prince Jan. 10, talking about plans for an art exhibition for Mardi Gras. "But his thing was not anthropological research. He used his art to work on economic development. The arts of Haiti are what bring tourists down there. Flo was promoting and supporting the interests of the artists of Haiti, as well as making sure they had food and essentials. He was so generous; he became part of the culture." Houlberg, who was airlifted out of Haiti and arrived in Chicago Jan. 22, also spoke eloquently about the devastation and the sincerity of rescue and relief efforts. "But," she said, "there are too many photographers and not enough food."
"The first thing Flo did when he took over the directorship of FOSAJ [ in 2008 ] was to plant a garden," said his mother, Ann McGarrell. "He'd gone there earlier as a visiting artist and took along a suitcase of Cliff bars and granola bars. All the artists and staff ate them and said, 'Monsieur Flo, these are really good but what we need are art supplies because we can always eat sand.'
"When he went back he took seeds. Stuff just shot up and they were getting lovely vegetables to go with the beans and rice and the bits of seafood." Other FOSAJ art projects, made with found materials, include a sculptural rain-barrel shower, water-purification system, bicycle-powered washing machine and parabolic oven.
"Flo was truly and genuinely inter-categorical, outrageous, fun and irreverent," said friend Kathy Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in world arts and culture at UCLA. "He lived his life between boundaries in a very authentic way."
McGarrell's gender transitioning began about six years ago with hormone therapy. "He was very pleased by his dashing little beard," said his mother.
"As a young art student at MICA, Flostill Flora thentold me that she had just realized that all her work was about metamorphosis … as in the classical myths of a girl who becomes a tree or stream or flower. So, for a mortal to change genders while remaining in the human species did not, after all, seem such an enormous leap. ... [ Now ] he has undergone metamorphosis, shed what was mortal, emerged as a solely spirit, like the ones that Haitians recognize as inhabiting every stone and tree."
McGarrell spent the holidays in Vermont with his family, returning to Haiti shortly after the New Year. "This is the worst thing, just horrible," said his mother, "But how fortunate we were to have had this remarkable creature for 35 years."
Images of McGarrell's work and curriculum vitae are at homepage.mac.com/gowithflo; and visit the ongoing online memorial to McGarrell at wearegoingwithflo.blogspot.com . The full art21 interview with McGarrell is at blog.art21.org/2009/08/28/inside-the-artists-studio-flo-mcgarrell.