Area artist dies in Haiti quake
By GREGORY TROTTER VALLEY NEWS | January 15,2010
NEWBURY — A Newbury artist was killed in the earthquake that devastated Haiti on Tuesday.
Flo McGarrell, 36, died when the Peace of Mind Hotel in Jacmel — a beach town about 20 miles south of Port-Au-Prince — crumbled during the earthquake, according to his parents.
A visual artist, McGarrell was serving as director of FOSAJ, a nonprofit art center in Jacmel. He spent the summer in Newbury with his parents, James and Ann McGarrell, and also returned for the Christmas holidays, leaving for Haiti only about 10 days ago.
"It's unbearable," said Ann McGarrell, her voice raw with emotion, in a phone interview Thursday.
A friend of their son called the McGarrells on Thursday morning on a satellite phone.
"The first thing I asked, 'Is Flo still alive?" his mother said. "She said, 'No.'"
The friend said McGarrell was returning from the airport in Port-au-Prince, having dropped off his godfather for a departing flight, and had stopped briefly at the hotel when the earthquake struck.
As an artist, McGarrell recently was known for making large-scale inflatable sculptures that could envelop people in light and air.
"By putting viewers inside the form, I force them to consider the space in relationship to their bodies, and to sense that they are inside a living, breathing organism — a monstrous creation whose beautiful physicality cannot be ignored," McGarrell wrote in his artist's statement posted on his Web site.
More recently, he turned his attention to "agrisculptures," using plants and recycled materials to make statements about sustainability.
In September, he had a well-received exhibition at the AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon. Buckets of tomatoes hung from the ceilings.
Outside, cherry tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers hung in old detergent bottles and other recycled containers.
"It was one of the most extraordinary exhibitions we've had," Bente Torjusen, executive director of AVA, said by phone Thursday. "He was such a talent. This is such a tragedy."
The gallery director was also impressed with McGarrell's talk at the end of the exhibition. , declaring it to be one of the best she's ever seen.
McGarrell was born in Rome, Italy, as a female, but about six years ago, underwent transgender therapy to live as a male, his mother said.
"I think he would want that to be known," she said. "He felt he had always been a boy inside of a girl's body and it was time to be very honest about that."
The family lived in St. Louis before moving to Vermont in 1993.
McGarrell attended an art-focused magnet school there where he was already seriously envisioning a life committed to art. His father, a painter, recalled yesterday: "Flo did everything I don't do — installation art, performance, 3-D, video art."
Flo McGarrell's interests were varied. He studied metalsmithing and Italian language before attending the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in new art and fibers in 1997-98. He graduated from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 2004 with a master's degree in arts and technology studies. In 2007, he attended an artist-in-residence program in Roswell, N.M.
McGarrell also was the art director of the film, "Maggots and Men," an experimental retelling of the story of the 1921 uprising of the Kronstadt sailors in post-revolutionary Russia.
Working in Haiti was "a lifelong dream" for McGarrell, his mother said.
His parents remember him for his passion, dedication, confidence and generosity — and for boldly living his own unique life.
After receiving the tragic news, Ann McGarrell said she was watching an unending film of Flo's life in her mind throughout the day. One of her favorite scenes from that movie starred a 12-year-old Flo McGarrell at school in St. Louis.
A tornado was approaching, Ann McGarrell said, and the skies were darkened and ominous. She had gone to school to pick her child up and take her home. "Everyone was huddled inside," Ann McGarrell said. "Flo was outside, dancing in the rain."