Metalwork Artisan Bernard

The following is the second in a 2-part series written by Global Exchange Fair Trade intern Suzanne Moloney about the metal mining industry and the ways in which artisans are reusing metals and other materials to create completely guilt-free jewelry, accessories and housewares.

In the early 1950s, blacksmith George Liautand of the Haitian village, Croix-des-Bouquets earned his living carving metal crosses for the local graveyard using primitive methods and tools. The simple beauty of his craftsmanship caught the imagination of American teacher, DeWitt Peters, owner of the Le Centre d’Art, an art centre in Port-au-Prince. Through their partnership, Liautand was able to use the center in order to build upon his skills and begin to create intricate, decorative sculptures from metal.

Taking on a series of apprentices, Liautand has passed his knowledge on to other artists in Haiti, who have in turn trained their own apprentices, transforming the village of Croix-des-Bouquets into a hub of metal artwork where unique sculptures of great beauty are crafted from old oil drums that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

To create one of these works of art, the artist begins the process by removing both ends of a 55 gallon oil drum. These are later used to create the smaller, round sculptures. To clean the inside of the oil drum, the artist fills the barrel with dried banana or sugar cane leaves and sets them on fire, removing any remaining impurities. The drum is then cut lengthwise and the artist’s helper climbs inside.

Example of recycled oil drum artwork

The helper uses his whole body to flatten out the drum – pushing it open with his shoulders, back, arms and legs. The metal is then pounded out with a hammer until it is transformed into a 3”x6” canvas from which to craft the sculpture. The pattern is drawn onto the oil drum using chalk and is then cut and molded using primitive tools, including a hammer and chisel. When it is complete, the artist etches his signature into each piece. Bernard Excellent is one such artist.

Born in his parents’ home in Croix-des-Bouquets in 1984, this earnest young man left his formal education and dreams of becoming a lawyer at the schoolhouse steps and took up the hammer and chisel at a young age. Having 9 mouths to feed and a dying husband, it became obvious that Bernard’s mother needed more income besides her own wages as a saleswoman to provide for her family. With that realization, Bernard the artist was born.

“My father was an artist. I started watching him when I was young. He showed me how to do it,” he explains in halting English. “My first job was cutting with Yonel Brutus, Winston Cajuste, and Nicolson Mathieu. Now I work with Evenson Thenor. They help me get contacts and manage my tools.”

The apprentice system is well in place in Croix-des-Bouquets. New artists usually start their process of learning at the beginning, burning out whole 55-gallon oil drums, cutting them down, and pounding the surfaces flat. Gradually, they are introduced to chalking out designs, doing beadwork, and then cutting. Designing and executing one’s own creations is a privilege earned over time and through hard work.

“I like the work of (second generation master) Serge Jolimeau. I work on his style. But my designs are special. I love them. They come from my mind and my soul,” Bernard says. His inspirations come from, “nature and sometimes angels.”

Clearly, his sense of humor finds form as well, as seen in his recent works for Beyond Borders. They include 5 different designs with angels, mermaids, or boys at play, all with sun faces. Each is meticulously crafted, with intricate beading and texture executed throughout each piece.

Bernard takes great pride in his work and sees it’s potential. “I love this art. I want to be a well-known artist, have my big own shop and help other people in my zone.”

Apparently, Bernard’s “Plan B” suits him just fine.

Approximately 70% of Haiti’s 7 million people are unemployed. Artisans who are able to export their artwork to the US under fair labor conditions have the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty and improve their quality of life.

Global Exchange San Francisco store staff past & present in front of Haitian artwork

Some of our Global Exchange Fair Trade stores carry oil drum artwork. Our San Francisco store has a wide variety of pieces, as you can see in the pic! Visit our stores page for all store locations and contact info.