Flo was lost to the world in the Haiti earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010. I will post here some thoughts that come to mind, it being impossible to write a true life story.
A new baby came into my family as a major surprise when I was 17, and we were living in Italy. This baby Flora of course took our life in a whole new direction, and meant my parents effectively raised two only children. She learned the ability to speak in English and Italian at the same time, and it took her time to learn correct gender pronouns. When we were together, she gave me an opportunity to extend some of my childishness as I liked; I remember some apparent absurdities like my asking if she'd have a beard sometime and she said "Yes, because I want to be a man."
The family ended its full-time residence in Italy and moved to St. Louis when Flo was in elementary school. Flo's fearlessness came into evidence: my mother remembers picking her up at school with darkened, ominous skies; while other students were huddled inside, Flo was out dancing in the rain.
Flo went to college at the Maryland Institute College of Art, with an official major in fibers, but with a lot of interest in inflatable sculpture and performance art. She developed a free-spirit style. She remained in Baltimore for a few years, and organized artistic activities in some impoverished neighborhoods. In January 2000, the loft where she was living caught fire in the middle of the night; she and her boyfriend Brian barely made it out in time before it burned completely, and they lost their pets and belongings. The third resident, Sue, was away on vacation in Puerto Vallarta; Flo and friends did detective work to find out what flight she was taking and meet her at the airport and alert her, rather than have her take a taxi to the loft and find it gone.
Flo was on the edge of disaster at other times: some kind of burn on her at a performance, and having to evacuate her neighborhood because of toxic gas from a train.
Flo entered the M.F.A. program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and continued the variety of work, graduating and doing summer teaching. Having bisexual preferences was fine and wasn't something that routinely needed to be mentioned, but Flo came to want to be known as male and took testosterone treatments. I needed to support any choices, but it was a difficult subject to broach with people and start using male pronouns. As I edit this post, I finally say "brother" rather than "sibling."
He went to San Francisco and was involved in the film Maggots and Men, with a mostly female-born cast playing male roles in the story of the Kronstadt Rebellion in Russia. An interest in his art for display was agrisculpture, promoting sustainable living.
Flo had a long-time fascination with Haiti, making some visits and conducting workshops at the FOSAJ arts center in Jacmel. He decided to commit fully to that, and learned the Kreyol language. Because the FOSAJ founder had made some bad decisions and had to leave Haiti, Flo arrived in fall 2008 as FOSAJ director. My parents and I visited in early 2009, and felt a wide range of sensations about Haiti: admiring people's coping in poverty, but also feeling risk. Not so much in terms of crime or harassment of white people, although Flo often had money go missing; more in terms of the infrastructure, with electricity off half the time, and the safety of vehicles and roads: My Haiti trip report
Flo spent the summer in the U.S., doing a lot of FOSAJ management by long distance, and returned to Haiti in fall 2009. He was involved in another film production and the Ghetto Biennale. In December, the bad news piled up: Francesco Fantoli, the Italian owner of a B&B/restaurant where we stayed outside Jacmel, was killed in a mugging in Port-au-Prince. Then Chal, the security guy who really gave Flo all the administrative knowledge he needed, died of a heart attack at 43. The funeral delayed Flo's return to our family's Vermont home for the year-end holidays. Also looming was that the founder's family seemed to be close to selling the FOSAJ building. With Flo's brief visit, I had a foreboding feeling.
I realize that I've given a "mostly the facts" account, and I should give an idea of what others have said about him: boundless energy, remarkably creative, and devoted to Haiti, as well as to cats. It's hard to put down my own thoughts: I looked with wonderment at so much that he accomplished. He said that our skills complemented one another, but he had a good talent in my supposed forte of finding good travel deals. The links at the end can give a better impression.
When news of the earthquake broke, Tuesday at 5 p.m., the focus was on Port-au-Prince; Flo had taken a longtime family friend to catch his flight out of Port-au-Prince on Monday, and was returning straight to Jacmel. my mother talked to people close to the FOSAJ founder who said they thought Jacmel had very little damage. The phone didn't connect, and I made use of Twitter, which I'd just joined a couple of days earlier. The news from Jacmel was increasingly worrisome, and some pictures were coming out.
Sue, who had luckily been away at the tragedy almost exactly ten years earlier, was visiting Flo and conducting workshops at FOSAJ. It seemed like an eternity, but it was late Wednesday evening that word first got out that Sue was o.k., but Flo was trapped in a building and people were working to get him out. On Thursday morning, Sue reached my mother on the phone to give the news that Flo was gone, killed instantly in the quake. They were having drinks at the Peace of Mind hotel when the quake hit; Sue got out in time but Flo didn't. At this writing, Friday, Jan. 15, Sue vows not to leave Jacmel without Flo's cremains, and getting out will be difficult with the road to Port-au-Prince blocked. I will soon be joining my parents for a memorial service in Baltimore; that's how I'm using the Southwest award that I mentioned being issued too early in an earlier blog post.
So, it will be difficult to go on with this huge gap for me and my family; I'll think of Flo with great love, and his loss reflects his risk taking and devotion to Haiti.
Update: How great to learn of a collective blog devoted to Flo: http://wearegoingwithflo.blogspot.com/
Update Feb. 6, 2010: I'm back from memorials in Vermont and New Hampshire. A travel angle: Air Force One with President Obama arrived at Manchester, N.H., airport as I was getting ready to board my return flight from there.
Excerpts from a family statement about donations:
Many of you will, and have already, donated in Flo's name to worthy causes, especially those devoted to Haitian relief which is desperately needed, both immediately and in the longer term. This is primary and we thank you profoundly on his behalf and on our own for that.
Some of you have asked if there might also be a cause that would be personal to Flo as an artist. In that regard we are establishing with the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he so happily received his undergraduate education and later taught briefly, a FLO MCGARRELL COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS FUND which would be for "Awards of up to $200 to be made upon the recommendation of the fiber department chair, to two or more undergraduate students engaged in a special creative project for the purchase of equipment, materials or services which they could otherwise not
afford." It was precisely ventures of this kind in which Flo thrived as a student, teacher and artist.
Gifts to this fund can be made online at www.mica.edu/give by
selecting "restrict my gift to" and typing in "Flo McGarrell
The Vermont Studio Center, on its own initiative, is generously offering a residency for a Haitian artist in Flo's name. For more information on that you can go here.
Sue has posted links to causes that were helpful to her in the aftermath of the earthquake: Rebuild Peace of Mind
Report from the student paper at the university where I work
Tribute with last pictures. Person with him, Barnaby, is the visiting friend who flew out on Monday.
Barnaby's video footage from Flo's last weekend