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Pat Brintle - Haitian-Born Queens Artist Explores Inner Conflicts of Immigration

Written by: Father Frank Mann

Father Frank Mann recently sat down with artist Pat Brintle, a parishioner at St. Luke’s, Whitestone. The two discussed her life’s work, her inspiration, and the influences that growing up in Haiti has had on her life. Here is part of the conversation:

Tell us about your upbringing.

I was born in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. Besides being one of the most beautiful islands in the Antilles, it has a wonderful yet tumultuous history that has had repercussions for the entire New World. It has been independent since 1804 as a result of the only successful country-wide slave rebellion in history and is the oldest black republic in the world.

I grew up in a town called St. Michel de l’Atalaye where my dad had a sugar cane plantation. When I was about eight we moved to Puilboro in the northern mountains. Because there were no nearby schools I went to live with my godmother in the capital to attend parochial school but my holidays were spent in the mountains. My youth thereafter was spent in Petion-Ville (while in school in Port-au-Prince) and I immigrated to the U.S. in 1964.

What are your most profound memories of growing up in Haiti?

The long walks alone through the lush greenery of the mountains will remain with me always. Climbing to the top to take in the view before me was priceless.

On the tropical island, in the evening when the sky darkens, a colorful glow seems to permeate the environment. There is always color. The mountains are very green and lush, the sea is turquoise; the sky is of a strong blue with clouds so bright they seem to be made of light; the sandy beaches are either pink or black depending on where you are on the island; the fruits are vivid hues of yellow, red and orange and just beg to be eaten. The people always smile and wear colorful clothing. If they do not it is because they are wearing the black of mourning or white on their way to the river to be baptized or to a voodoo ceremony.

How long have you been painting and what is your first recollection of painting?

I have been painting all my life. I do not remember a time when I did not draw and Papa Noel (Santa Claus) knew that my best presents were art related.

My very first memory of drawing took place in St. Michel after I had finished eating a mango that was particularly fibrous. Rather than discard the pit, I fashioned arms and legs out of the fibers and with a coal from the outdoor kitchen I drew eyes, nose and a mouth in order to make myself a doll to play with.

At what time in your life did you first realize that you were an artist?

I realized I had potential when strangers loved my work enough to pay for it. I made Christmas cards each year and made enough money to purchase my school uniforms, shoes and books for the school year plus a play thing like a radio or a record player and buy gifts for my friends and family.

Tell me about your work.

My work is extremely varied and does not follow any particular school of painting. Because I am self-taught I was not influenced by a teacher. I do, however, read art books and magazines about art and that is my principal source of learning. My paintings and style fluctuate with my moods, yet there is always the colorful undertone that says that the work is a Pat Brintle. My work inspires joy and hope. Even when the subject is sad or even poignant, there is always joy and hope.

What inspires you to paint?

Life inspires me. I paint my emotions at the time of creation and the finished artwork will only depend on my feelings at that particular moment. My relationship with God plays a pivotal role in my art. I feel that God uses me to reach others. I don't know what storyand to whom. I don't need to know. God knows and that's good enough for me.

My life is also the result of an inner conflict – a loving one – created by my strong love both for my adopted country, the U.S., and my native land, Haiti.

My island lives in my heart, this is the land of my birth and where my most treasured childhood memories reside.

The United States has been generous to me and has provided me with the means of becoming the adult that I am today and this is where my most treasured adult memories reside.

My art strongly reflects that conflict and those distinctions can be found in the symbolisms of each piece.

My work is always optimistic and positive. Looking at my portfolio, one may be puzzled at the variety of style, but one will also notice that the choice of colors ties the style.

My colors are purely Haitian but my portraits do not only depict Haitians; my landscapes are not just from Haiti but reflect global settings; my botanical works show flowers which are not only native of Haiti and my historical pieces do not only speak of Haiti's past.

What inspires you to paint a particular subject?

It may be a visit from a friend, a conversation, or even a dream. It may be a homily at church or a scripture passage. Many times it's world news or an article in a magazine.

Or it may be a cause: I've created works for breast cancer, a few organizations that help Haitian children in Haiti, in New York and in Miami, the Holocaust Center in Manhasset, and now I am working on a piece for a gala fund-raiser for a water project in Haiti.

Do you try to reach a particular audience?

I do not paint for the world. I strongly feel that my responsibility as an artist resides in the artwork itself. Once the artwork is finished, it no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the world and each person takes a piece of it with them when they set eyes on it.

Regardless of what I think, the piece will not necessarily please everyone, some people will love it and others will find controversy, but this is something that I cannot control.

Once the work is signed, it flies on its own.

How do you keep motivated when things get tough in the studio?

I do my best work in the morning. I wake up around 5 a.m., get some espresso and go up to my studio where I work until mid-day. I love seeing the morning unfold, all is so calm and the air is so pure. My mind is totally opened and ready to receive the creative signals.

But sometimes, things are a little off, so I just ride the wave. I know it's only temporary and I just have to be patient.

What famous artist has influenced you and how?

There are two: Michaelangelo and Raphael. I knew of their work through books but seeing it firsthand in Rome was priceless. Their work in the Vatican is splendid.

I study how they handled the brush work and am amazed at how simple their palette is.

How has your culture of origin influenced your artwork?

My artwork is strongly influenced by my native land. Regardless of the subject my colors remain dramatically bright. The brilliant sunshine of Haiti causes me to gravitate toward vivid colors. Even when depicting a heartbreaking subject, my choices of color tend to be bright.

Haiti is a paradox because although the country is very poor and ridden of violence and distress, the heart of the Haitian is always joyous and filled with hope.

Because Haiti is so full of turmoil, the Haitian has become very aware of each small moment which makes up their lives, good or bad.

Have there been any dramatic events in your life that have shaped your art?

Many dramatic events have changed and shaped my art but two readily come to mind: the first event is my immigration to the U.S. and I've spoken about it earlier.

The second event is the death of my 11-year-old son, Robert, in a car accident in Haiti in 1981. Since Robert's death, my art has taken a more serious turn. There is more symbolism and meaning in my work. I do more religious work, especially of the Madonna with whom I feel an affinity since she too lost her son.

Moreover, since I've gone public with my art, when I sign my work, I draw a tiny little angel next to the year because I feel that I have an angel in heaven watching over me.

What was the hardest point in your artistic journey?

The hardest points were between 1964 and 1967. When I moved to the U.S. in 1964, I spoke no English and in 1965 my daughter Sheilla was born. It took me a couple of years before I could set myself up with canvas, paint and brush.

Those few years were the most difficult as an artist because they were "dry" years. The desire to paint was a constant nudging in my heart and had to be stifled because life had taken over. When I finally started to put paint to canvas, it was done scarcely because of the smallness of the apartment and the safety of my daughter around the oils and turpentine.

What was the most gratifying experience for you as an artist?

A few things come to mind:

My artwork on nuclear disarmament titled, "A Perfect Balance," won the Albert Schweitzer Institute's "Images of Peace" National Juried Competition. The competition was held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Schweitzer's call for nuclear disarmament. The work is on permanent display at the Institute's museum.

My artwork for the Holocaust Center in Manhasset for the past three years. Those pieces are on permanent display at the Center and used as a teaching tool for the visitors. Although we are aware of the harsh atrocities of the world, we tend to become immune to them. I suppose it is our way of protecting ourselves from becoming discouraged or hopeless in order to continue with our everyday life.

My artwork "The First Mother" participates in the Black Madonna traveling exhibit which made its debut in May, 2007, at the National Museum of Catholic Art and History in New York and now travels to museums throughout the country until December, 2008.

"Living the Vision" commissioned by the Diocese of Brooklyn Office of Pastoral Planning which was to represent artistically the work of pastoral councils throughout the U.S. It was used as the pictorial focal for a weekend in January where pastors and council members throughout the U.S. came to the Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, to discuss the formation of their individual councils.

How did you come up with the artwork for "Living the Vision"?

First, I met with Bob Choiniere and Ellen Rhatigan of the Office of Pastoral Planning to discuss their ideas. I then went home and started working. I made five designs with their ideas in mind that I could tweak later.

Then I remembered a discussion I had with Father Joseph Wilson about the process of the early icon artists, and how they blessed their brushes and prayed before starting their work and continued to pray throughout the creation of the painting.

So I decided to make one more design and before starting, I prayed that God will guide me. I then started thinking, not of the ideas discussed, but of what exactly was living the vision of God in our lives. It was daunting because everything was on all extremes: hot, cold, calm, turbulent, high, low, frightening and soothing all at the same time.

So I came up with the following sentence: "The work of God is the energy of a fire, the peace of a mist, the enlightenment of a mountain top, the bravery and hope of the light in the abyss." The result was the piece they chose.

How did you come to participate in the Black Madonna exhibit?

When I painted The First Mother, I became a little attached to her. I found difficulty in naming the painting so I just called it "The Lady" and hung it at my home. I was invited to exhibit at the UN and did show her. She had a huge success and some people were interested in purchasing her but for some reason I could not part with her.

I decided to keep the painting for myself and make limited edition giclees that I would sell.

I offered one as a gift to Loyola University Press and as I explained the painting to the vice president, she said that it seemed to her that it described the first mother, the one whose bones were found in Africa and who is the start of the human race.

One day, a client of my husband came to the office – he has a home office – and after the consultation asked to speak with me. She asked me to tell her about the painting and invited me to participate in the exhibition.

Where has The First Mother been so far and where is she at present?

She has been at the National Museum of Catholic Art and History in Manhattan, St. James Chapel at the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, The Cultural Center of Birmingham, Alabama, and finally, the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

What is the best and worst part of being a full-time working artist?

The best is twofold: the freedom to make my own hours and working in the field of my heart. The worst is the irregularity of funds. The best far surpasses the worst.

Why are some of your personages shown as silhouettes?

When I put a face on my paintings, the viewer is obliged to deal with the face I put on the canvas. By keeping a silhouette, it is the viewer's choice to put a face on the person and the viewer becomes more aware of the story of the painting.

What other interests do you have outside of creating art?

I direct St. Luke parish's Folk Group. We are the contemporary ensemble that provides the music at the 10:30 Mass every Sunday at St. Luke's Church in Whitestone.

We number 30 when all the members show up and I'd say that we are a small spiritual community. Besides singing at the Sunday Liturgy, we pray together and have retreats and we do community work.

We are often invited to sing outside of St. Luke. For example, we sang for the morning service for the National Conference of the "Living the Vision" in January, and for the Youth Rally at Bishop Ford H.S. in April. We are scheduled to sing at the UN some time in the summer, but the date has not been fixed yet.

On May 18, we will participate in an ecumenical festival at the Free Synagogue of Flushing.

We give concerts: this past December we put on the Christmas concert not only at St. Luke but also at the Russian Orthodox Church and the Queens Public Library.

I also give after-school painting and pottery workshops for the children of St. Luke's school. In March, my students had an art show at the local art gallery. It was very successful and the gallery owner told me that other schools want to follow suit.

What would you like your art to accomplish?

I would like my work to be thought-provoking. I would like those who view it to learn something new, not just about the world around them but about themselves.

Of course, since I paint full-time, it's important that my art sells, but more than that it must teach. It's essential for me that it makes a difference in the lives of those who view it and that by seeing my work they'd want to know more.

Image Credits:The First Mother - Acrylic on Masonite 24" X 24"

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