Inside the Artist's Studio

Remembering artist and friend Flo McGarrell

Flores McGarrell I lost my voice. Incredibly frustrating because I have a lot I need to say right now. I just make ridiculous squeaking sounds. […] I think I should just shut up for a while, I have a lot to think about right now anyway.

January 12 at 9:43pm · Comment · Like

This is what everybody who cared about Flo McGarrell was confronted with on his Facebook wall, from January 12 onwards. An outpouring of solicitous messages from friends, relatives, and peers filled his wall again and again and again for days. The first hopeful piece of information that was posted informed us that Flo’s good friend Sue Frame, who was visiting him in Haiti, had survived the earthquake and she knew where Flo was trapped.

I will skip everything else in between and take you to a few days ago, when Sue Frame finally made it back to the States with her friend. Flo McGarrell (1974-2010) passed away on Tuesday, January 12, when the Peace of Mind Hotel collapsed while Flo and Sue were inside. They were making a quick stop on their way back to Jacmel from Port-Au-Prince.

It was not so long ago that I worked with Flo on a post for this site, and I absolutely hate that I am now writing a Remembering artist and friend Flo McGarrell piece. You see, when I think of Flo, I instantly think of an enormous inflatable TV, a bright pink installation, beavers, cats, and her passion to turn trash into treasures. I met Flo when he was a young woman – we were both graduate students at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. He had intense sky-blue eyes, a memorable hairdo, a huggable frame, and a hospitable home. There was a drive, a force, and a spirit so well entrenched that they made Flo indestructible. He often raised his left eyebrow. I could never tell what that meant.

He worked and hung out a lot in the Sculpture Department. At heart, he was a sculptor  in the most traditional sense yet also a multidisciplinary artist in practice. The studios behind the Art Institute of Chicago saw a lot of him. He was always busy, with enormously ambitious projects. Outspoken, his critiques were candid without being aggressive — rather, they were sweet and caring.

Flo made a LOT of friends at school. He and (her) partner at the time, Brian Stansbury, shared with all of us – meaning us SAIC students — the greatest parties and BBQs at their home. They would go all out! At one of those gatherings in Spring 2003, I took 6 disposable cameras with me, which I passed around. Everybody took photographs and out of over 200 shots today, I can hardly find one fitting for this post to share with you besides these two.

After graduation, we all parted ways and unfortunately, somewhere along the lines a diminishing sense of closeness took root. Luckily, that brief period came to an end after 6 months or so. Soon after, I bumped into Flo again at a party in Chicago and we picked up our conversation from where we had left it off. By that time, Flo had facial hair, some muscle definition, and a hint of what it seemed to be a dude’s beer belly. It was so right and made so much sense. Flo was 100% himself. We spoke about the changes in our lives and Flo sounded like he had reached a high state of being, where his inner voice was heard and in-sync with his needs, desires, and hopes.

Haiti was always on his mind. This past August, we spoke about Haiti and how his fascination got started. Along with the memory of Flo, his journey is important too.

FM: When I was 11, my mother took me to the Saint Louis Art Museum to see Maya Deren’s film Divine Horsemen, which she shot between 1947 and 1951 at various Vodou ceremonies. Not only was I really taken by the beauty of the place and people in the film, the rhythms of the sacred music became imprinted on my brain, and the pantheon of the Lwa, who are the spirit gods in Vodou…thoroughly seduced me. Finally, a theology that made sense to me.

I came away from that film needing to know more about everything Haitian. My whole life I asked questions about the place, read books (including Maya Deren’s treatise on the Vodou religion) on history, politics, fiction, etc. Most people didn’t want to discuss it with me. They just told me to forget it because Haiti is this awful poor place where people are getting hacked up with machetes all the time.

Well, when someone tells me I won’t like something, I think, “how the fuck do you know what I like?” So naturally, when I was 30 and I had a chance to go down there with Professor Houlberg, co-curator of the well-received and traveled Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou exhibition, who mentored me in graduate school…I jumped at the chance.

Turns out that the land, the sea, the people, the manners, the food, the sense of humor, the dirty trash, and the language suits me just fine. The Vodou religion is still a very real and sensitive subject for me, but it’s not why I am there anymore. The Kreyol (Creole) language is my current big love affair, I want to speak-write-think-dream it all the time because the sound it makes in me is the sound I want to be making. Life is indeed difficult there, nothing is easy, we only have electricity half of the time, if at all. Water may or may not come out of the tap, and then it could make you sick. It only took a little while for me to adjust. Luckily, I have always liked living rough, raw, and real, and this is what normal is in so many parts of the world.

I could have lived quite happily in the Bay Area, where everything is ideal and everyone is a lot like me (queer and transgendered, environmentally and socially aware, etc.), but why be somewhere so perfect? Why be so comfortable? Why should all my friends be so similar to me? Why not be someplace that is in flux? Someplace where the advantage is that it is NOT overdeveloped and fixed? There are many cultural differences, of course, but that’s what makes it rich, and I believe that all the people who tried to warn me off of going to Haiti are the ones who are sad and poor.

I have been deeply saddened by Flo’s passing. This earthquake was much closer to all of us that we initially thought. Where should one begin to feel and when should one end — from the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the earthquake to Flo’s loss?

Let’s remember Flo for the person, friend, and artist he was. For closure, I suggest the following. When I came across this photograph, I wanted to share it with you. I further invite you to take turns to pretend you are the one locked in this embrace.

I took the liberty to pinch numerous Flo photographs I found online to post along with mine. Flo’s friend Juan William Chavez was kind enough to prepare a slideshow for all of us.


Stay connected through Go With Flo – Flo McGarrell Memorial.

As for his family, our sympathies and wishes are with them.

Comments are closed.