As many people know by now, Flores (Flo) McGarrell, a 35-year-old visual artist from Newbury, VT, died in the earthquake that hit Haiti last week. He had been living in Haiti for about a year working as the director of FOSAJ (Fanal Otantik Sant D'A Jakmel) a community arts center in the port city of Jacmel, 25 miles from Port-au-Prince. On Tuesday, his body was finally recovered.
Because the epicenter of the earthquake hit in between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, crews have been slow to reach the affected areas of Jacmel. For seven days, Flo's parents, Jim and Ann McGarrell, waited for word that their child's body had been recovered from the rubble of the hotel that collapsed around him. On Tuesday, they finally received confirmation that a Colombian search and rescue team aided by U.N. security personnel found Flo's body and were able to excavate him from the fallen building.
Flo's remains are now in Port-au-Prince, awaiting military transport to Florida, much to the relief of the McGarrell family. Vermont's Congressional delegation is working to expedite Flo's return to Vermont, said David Carle, Sen. Leahy's spokesman. "Sen. Leahy's staff has been monitoring this through the State Department at the family's request," Carle said in an email. "Conditions there have been chaotic, but the State Department is well aware of the situation and is in touch with organizations and individuals on the ground who are trying to help."
When the Peace of Mind Hotel in Jacmel collapsed, Flo had been eating lunch and using the hotel's Internet with Sue Frame, a Chicago artist who Jim McGarrell called "one of Flo's oldest friends," in an interview with Seven Days on Tuesday. Frame, who was in Haiti teaching a workshop at FOSAJ, said they felt a tremor and made a run for the closest exit, according to a Chicago Tribune report. Flo hesitated, perhaps trying to grab his computer, and the hotel crumbled around him. Frame escaped unharmed.
For the past week, Frame has kept vigil at the Peace of Mind Hotel. She vowed, Jim McGarrell said, not to leave Haiti without Flo. Before rescuers arrived on the scene, Frame, along with locals, worked to pull away rubble themselves.
While Flo is considered a Vermont resident because his parents live here and it is his base, Vermont cannot claim the transgender artist as its own. Flo, born female, grew up in Rome, Italy, where his artist parents lived and taught. The family moved to St. Louis when Jim McGarrell got a job teaching at Washington University. Flo finished out secondary school in St. Louis before moving to Baltimore to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Later, Flo moved to Chicago to pursue a master's degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was during graduate school that Flo first ventured to Haiti, a place he was fascinated by since he first learned about Haitian vodoun and the work of filmmaker Maya Deren in high school.
Flo moved around quite a bit in pursuit of his art, which focused on large 3D objects, inflatables and installations as well as film, including the recent Maggots and Men, a retelling of the Kronstadt sailors' revolt in 1921 featuring female-to-male transgender actors. Part of that film was shot in Vermont. In recent years, he spent time in San Francisco, New Mexico and Vermont, as well as his beloved Haiti. It was during Flo's extended stay in Vermont that Jacsen Callanan met him at a Queer Liberation Army meeting. The pair quickly became lovers, Callanan said, and continued to remain close over the years.
Callanan, who now lives in Philadelphia, remembers his friend as someone who was incredibly self-assured. "He was very clear on who he was and he was proud of that." Flo had a big presence, Callanan said, but never was overwhelming. Other friends offered similar sentiments, noting how happy and comfortable Flo always seemed.
In 2004, Flo began to play around with his gender. He took testosterone and started using male pronouns, but he never wanted to become a man, Callanan said. He lived in the space between male and female and didn't try to pass as either. He was a mustachioed transman who wore miniskirts and seemed to revel in the idea of being a gender outlaw.
Despite his fluid gender, or perhaps because of it, he was welcomed into the Jacmel arts community. He told Callanan that he felt a warmth and beauty in the Haitian people and their art. "He was elated about FOSAJ," Callanan said about the arts center. "This was just a total dream come true for him."
During his time in Haiti, people called Flo different pronouns. For the most part, he didn't mind, Callanan said. Some people understood Flo's gender identity, but many did not. "They just said There's some shit going on with his gender and it's cool," recalled Callanan. "He allowed people to move through gender. His transition was about being true to himself and exploring what his body could do. He was never trying to pass as non-trans. He was always ready to have that conversation about it."
Flo is survived by his parents Jim and Ann, and his older brother, Andrew, along with his secondary family of friends all over the world. Once he is returned to Vermont, a memorial will be planned to celebrate the artist's rich life. Friends say they want the event to take on a pageant-like feel, similar to the Haiti's Kanaval. That would have been the way Flo wanted it. "We want to laugh through our tears," Callanan said.