Now that we have talked about what hope looks like I would like to talk about what it looks like to sustain hope. This is a totally different animal and the reason why I say this is that it is easy to see glimpses of hope here and there but when those glimpses take wind of challenge many of them seem to disappear. Hope deeply rooted is a different thing, and it is something that has to be tested, weathered, seasoned, and found to be strong, perhaps stronger, upon being victorious, in even the heaviest of storms.
Speaking of storms and the fight for hope I want to introduce you to my Haitian friend JoJo.
JoJo is an artist, not just any artist but a fine artist, a painter, and not just any fine artist but a severely handicapped fine artist. JoJo has no arms and no legs and unlike most handicapped artists who paint with their mouth JoJo uses his shoulder. His assistant attaches a paintbrush to his upper arm using white canvas tape and JoJo goes about his business from there. If you saw his work you would never be able to tell that it was done by a handicapped artist, all you would be able to see is that it is really REALLY good.
I first met JoJo at St. Vincent’s school for the handicapped in Port Au Prince Haiti during my trip. Our founder Connie Boll had known him when he was a little boy at about the age of 10. She brought with her some pictures of the two of them together, from years ago. JoJo was the first smiling face we saw when we walked into St. Vincent’s. He sat tall in his wheelchair helping manage the line of people waiting for the health clinic. Connie showed JoJo the pictures and he instantly remembered her. It had been many years since they last saw each other, and JoJo was no longer a little boy but a confident man , at about the age of 35.
JoJo took us around the corner to his “studio’ which was a tent space covered in beautiful Haitian paintings, there was a table in the middle with more information about his artistic movement; pictures of him painting, speaking with tourists who would come through and purchase his work, and pamphlets containing more information about who he was and what he was hoping to do with his career. His work was beautifully crafted, each of our group members had to buy at least 1 painting each, and the lowest cost was competitively priced at $100.00 for one, these were no cheap sentiments, however, I instantly knew that this was the type of investment worth making. When you buy one of JoJo’s paintings you not only get a memento of the culture of Haiti, but you also get a beautiful painting signed by the artist himself, and you get to support one of the best social causes I can think of – advancing opportunities for people with disabilities to achieve a career in one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. JoJo told me on our way out of St. Vincent’s that he would be in New York this year and that he would contact me.
Last week I received word from JoJo that he was accepted into the Harlem Fine Arts Show’s 9th annual exhibition and would be here through the weekend. My team and I purchased opening night tickets and went up to visit him this past Thursday.
JoJo did not show up until about 2 hours into the opening night show which we later found out was because he and assistant/agent had paid his entire way and therefore were staying some distance from the venue for financial purposes. He also was the only artist that I met out of the 20-25 sharing the same exhibition floor, that came all the way from another country. Needless to say I could see it all over his face that he was overwhelmed and perhaps tired from all of the traveling. What was most disappointing, to add to his already challenging commute, the weather was terrible, freezing – with warnings of a blizzard, something a Haitian doesn’t often have to deal with.
JoJo finally got his booth and instantly turned himself on to artist mode. We were able to spend a few brief moments with him before we headed out, we took a picture with him and watched him demonstrate some of the ways he painted to people of NY I was proud of him.
However something still didn’t sit right with me as I left the venue, the reality of the situation was that he was in this small cubicle sized display booth, not unlike any of the other artists, but I thought there would be more space for him because of his disability. What bothered me most though was that he was right in front of the stage where the opening ceremony was going on in tandem to the artists trying to share their work. The music and performance although entertaining was distracting and loud, people were walking right past Jojo pushing upfront to get a glimpse of the show, not even noticing the miracle in front of them!
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – it is nothing on the Harlem Arts Festival because I know a lot of these things can not be predicted until things are fully set up but it was just amazing to see how desensitized people seemed to be toward him, did they not know his story? Of course not which is why I am compelled to share it with you.
You could say it was a good thing that JoJo was treated like any other artist that was at that show but that was also the thing that most disturbed me. JoJo came so far just for this, he is just as, if not more, talented than the other artists attending but he was given very little recognition for his obvious disability. Things for him are automatically harder and the fact that no one seemed to appreciate or recognize this broke my heart.
The next day I spoke to his agent/assistant. A wonderful woman named Lynn who had paid out of pocket and volunteered to help JoJo have this opportunity for exposure. Her dream intertwines with his as she seeks to make it possible for all disabled handicapped artists to break into the competitive world of fine art. I was glad to hear he was in good hands. She mentioned that the worst part about the show this past weekend was that the weather had cancelled the second day exhibition and as for the last day of the show, they ended up running over 4 hours late because of the conditions of the roads.
My heart further sank, he and Lynn had both given up so much to make this happen, was it even worth it? Then I remembered something that JoJo had said to me in Haiti. We were talking about why he chose art as his career and his first answer was, “to encourage the next generation and other individuals with disabilities to follow their dreams. You have to keep going no matter how much resistance you face, because every step you make and every small accomplishment means something so much greater for everyone who is watching you.” JoJo teaches art workshops to children with disabilities at St. Vincent’s and the mere fact that he was selected to attend a very large and, what has become, a very well known art show means so much to those children that are watching him. I take peace in knowing that he is strong, that his hope has been tested before and he has come out stronger. This is just the beginning of his exposure to NYC and I truly do believe that he will create quite a following in time, I hope to make sure of this as much as I can.
As JoJo weathers the storm of advancing his career globally, Wellspring is walking right behind him incase he needs some extra support, we seek to give him an opportunity to speak to a large audience of entrepreneurs and business folks next time he comes to NYC this summer and we have already started putting that plan into action working with his assistant/agent, Lynn. She too deserves recognition for pushing forward to achieve her goals to create these opportunities for disabled Haitian artists alike.
JoJo is one of our family members at Wellspring, his well-being will affect ours as his hope and inspiration is something we value more than anything, especially as we advance in our efforts in Haiti. WE need to know more people like JoJo, because they are the ones that not only represent hope but also fight for it and put it into action. Without their stories of triumph we would not be able to keep going in our work as we face our storms and that is what makes it all worth it in the end. JoJo can teach us all a bit about hope.
If you are interested in purchasing some of JoJo’s work Lynn can be reached if you email us here: email@example.com
Part III is on its way! Stay tuned and thanks for reading.