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The juxtaposition, faintly surreal, reminds me of a shop I once saw in the rural Deep South, housing both a beauty salon and a hardware store. But Needlepoint Originals and Paradise Gallery (the italics appear right there on the business card), an unassuming little establishment next to the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale, is indeed a combination gift shop and art gallery.
The former is crammed with a claustrophobia-inducing array of needlepoint kits, decorative household items, and other splashy, colorful knickknacks designed to catch the eye of roving boulevard tourists. The latter, against all logic, is home to dozens of pieces of museum-quality Haitian art, including works by some of that island nation's most prominent painters.
Stranger still, the fine art isn't confined to its own space; rather it has been scattered -- seemingly randomly -- throughout the place: a tiny canvas tucked away in a corner, a large one nestled amid clutter high on a wall. You have to wander around the room several times to be sure you've seen everything. It's almost as if the serious art is hiding from the visually noisy merchandise surrounding it.
According to gallery-shop owner Eric Bancel, Needlepoint/Paradise has been in business for more than 25 years, long enough to have seen Las Olas Boulevard pass in and out of fashion and then back in again. (A sister shop in Palm Beach, located on perennially fashionable Worth Avenue, recently closed as a result of high overhead.) Bancel explains that he started dealing in Haitian art "at least ten years ago," adding that "when I started selling Haitian art, no one else was doing it." Now with the recent explosion in popularity of Haitian art, outlets in Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Plantation, Coconut Grove, and Key West sell it.
Although there have been times when Paradise has had as many as an amazing 150 pieces packed into its cramped quarters, a successful summer sale significantly reduced the gallery's current inventory. Bancel says it's not unusual for some of his European customers to walk away with a dozen or more paintings at once. "I don't know what they do with them when they get back home," Bancel shrugs, "whether they sell them or keep them for themselves." Sometimes his supply is replenished directly from the source. "I know a lot of the artists myself," he points out. Other times he buys from Haitian-based brokers and galleries. If you're looking for a piece by a specific artist, he can try to track one down for you. He also accepts selected works on consignment.
Bancel has his personal favorites among the artists whose work he sells, in terms of both their personalities and their styles, and yet he shies away from promoting one artist over the others. "I don't do individual shows," he notes. However, he will offer assistance to customers just venturing into Haitian art, as long as their primary concern isn't finding something to match the living room sofa.
"A lot of people don't know the good artists from the bad," he contends. But rather than foist his own preferences onto patrons, he'll drag out a stack of reference books -- many of them out of print, some of them in French -- and attempt to provide an overview of Haiti's rich variety of art. (The authoritative Where Art Is Joy: Haitian Art -- the First 40 Years, by Selden Rodman, one of the curators of the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art's Haitian retrospective of several years ago, is on hand.)
There are a couple of categories of artists whose work Bancel prefers to avoid. He's wary of those who "overpaint," producing a glut of inferior pictures, often indistinguishable from one another, in an effort to cash in on the continually increasing popularity of Haitian art. Additionally Bancel stays away from painters who, like the New York City-based Mark Kostabi, use a cadre of assistants to execute their ideas.
In recent years the dealer has concentrated on works by a limited number of established artists, and he says he's considering narrowing the focus even further. Bancel maintains that there are now so many Haitian artists at work that it's literally impossible to keep up with all of them.
With seven fairly large canvases on display, Audes SaYl dominates the Paradise right now. His instantly recognizable style typically features anthropomorphic dogs engaged in human activities (no, not playing cards); they're surrounded by tropical fruit, flowers, fish, birds, and, almost invariably, oversize butterflies, all painted in bright colors, with sharp lines that are used more to outline the bold shapes than to fill in the details.
One SaYl painting is of a mother dog in a dress giving her pup a banana, just as a human mother would give her baby a bottle. Another shows two dogs sitting in a chair kissing, just as a human couple would; the female holds a book that seems about to drop from her paw. Huge strawberries and grapes are piled up on a nearby windowsill. A third SaYl focuses on a dog wearing, of all things, a black bikini -- she fishes from a fruit-filled boat as two pups lounge at her feet.