Remembering Flores McGarrell, 'Gender Outlaw' and Artist, Killed in the Haiti Earthquake

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Sue Frame and Flores McGarrell (right)

If you walk beside the long, stone wall in Williamsburg's East River Park down to the water and into the wilds slightly to your right, you will find a patch of scraggly little bushes. One of these bushes looks decidedly different from the others. This is Flo's tree.

This tough little Japanese plum yew was planted on Sunday afternoon as a memorial by friends of artist and transman Flores McGarrell, who was killed in the earthquake that destroyed Haiti on January 12. McGarrell was director of a community arts center in Jacmel, about 25 miles from Port-au-Prince. This irrepressible gender outlaw skirted the space between male and female just as fluidly as his art moved between film, fibers, 3-D pieces, and large-scale inflatable installations.

"Flo was many things at the same time, and so in the spirit of synchronicity, we planted this tree, a voodoo tradition that helps the spirit go up to the heavens," said Huong Ngo, organizer of the New York memorial and McGarrell's former classmate from The Art Institute of Chicago.

McGarrell's death at only 35 years old sent aftershocks throughout art communities in New York, New England, and San Francisco. Friends in Chicago organized an online art raffle to benefit Doctors Without Borders and Friends of the Children of Haiti; similar events are being planned in Miami.

According to accounts from Sue Frame, the Chicago artist with whom McGarrell was traveling, the two were enjoying lunch at the Peace of Mind Hotel when the quake hit. The pair ran, but McGarrell hesitated, and was caught under the rubble. Frame spent the next week with search and rescue teams, trying to dig her friend out. Eventually, they recovered McGarrell's body, and, with some help from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, transported his remains from an inflatable morgue in Haiti to Dover AFB in Delaware on January 24, according to his mother.

McGarrell was known for his large-scale inflatable sculptures that enclosed viewers in light and air. In 2008, he had investigated sustainable agriculture as an artist-in-residence in Roswell, New Mexico. A jar of homemade salsa verde McGarrell gifted me before he left for Haiti still sits on my shelf, an eerie reminder of his harvest.

With his playful eyes and easygoing nature, McGarrell was always able to bring people together. He gathered a largely transgender cast and crew as the art director of the indie film, "Maggots and Men," a retelling of the story of the 1921 Kronstadt uprising in post-revolutionary Russia. It premiered at the Castro Theater as part of Frameline's 2009 San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

McGarrell was in Haiti under a grant from The Astraea Foundation, a New York-based group dedicated to funding queer activism around the world. Astraea relayed their condolences "to the family and all who knew and loved Flo McGarrell, the director of our grantee partner, Fanal Otenik Sant D'A Jakmel (FOSAJ)," adding, "Haiti and the LGBTI community have lost a brilliant and committed activist, humanitarian and artist."

A longtime friend of McGarrell's, I traveled to a January 20 memorial service at Maryland Institute College of Art, where he received a B.F.A. in fibers, M.A. in digital arts, and later served as a faculty member. Showing incredible strength Flo's parents, Ann and James McGarrell, spoke at the event. Ann McGarrell recalled that for his birthday in September, her son asked for a plum tree to be planted outside their Vermont home. She now looks at the tree as a sign of strength and hope. Friends in New York hoped their tree would provide a similar testimony to McGarrell's life.

About 100 friends from the art collective Little Big Bang and our former girl gang, Dirt Girls, gathered at MICA to share memories of McGarrell's art and life. We were barely out of our teens when McGarrell thrilled the queer community with all-night warehouse raves/art installations like our annual Marie Leveau Mardi Gras celebration, complete with voodoo altars.

From illicit late-night graffiti sessions to public art projects with inner-city youth, McGarrell, Frame, and our crew continued to make an impact on Baltimore for four years, before we left to pursue our careers. Although I lost touch with some of gang, McGarrell and I remained close throughout the years, New York serving as his way station between artistic endeavors.

I could never understand why my friend would voluntarily try to effect change in a place with rampant poverty, few resources, and abundant homophobia. At the Baltimore memorial, someone noted that McGarrell was the type of person who was concerned about the people of Haiti--those whose plight others would have rather ignored--even before this tragedy hit. It shone a light on the fact that this kind of selfless dedication to improving the lives of others through art is indeed something rare and precious. Friends vow to keep McGarrell's memory and mission alive via http://wearegoingwithflo.blogspot.com/

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