Haitian art transforms new Union

Haitian art transforms new Union

On The Leaf Raker Cafe’s opening day Arlin Hunsberger was the first person to order breakfast. He ate a breakfast sandwich. 

Hunsberger ate with his two grandchildren on Sept. 2, next to the newly opened gallery built to house the art collection that he and his wife, Naomi, donated to Goshen College. 

The collection includes 100 works of Haitian art, spanning 55 years of Haitian culture. The pieces will rotate through the gallery in the Hunsberger Commons. 

The Hunsbergers took interest Haitain art during their first visit to the island for development work with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 1962. Their offices would close around 2 p.m each day, Hunsberger said, so the young couple needed a place to spend their afternoons. 

“We’d go visit the galleries,” Hunsberger said. The galleries employed painters by supplying the artists with materials and selling their work for a commission, he said. Most of the artists had no formal training, and made what is known as “naive art,” he said. “Naive art” pieces are brightly colored, and often do not use perspective to create depth. 

The couple gathered most of their art from these galleries, Hunsberger said. They would visit galleries multiple times before purchasing a piece, sometimes even bringing it home for a trial run first. Occasionally, an artist would appear on their doorstep with a painting for sale. 

The Hunsbergers wanted the art displayed in a permanent gallery with public access so everyone can enjoy the art as they have.  

“Living with art is different than seeing it in passing on a screen or in a book. Seeing the art repeatedly in person changes what we notice, what we appreciate, and what we learn from the artwork,” said Randy Horst, a Goshen College art professor. 

The Hunsbergers first reached out to the college about donating their art in 2014, but no suitable gallery existed at the time, said President Rebecca Stoltzfus. Stoltzfus worked with Jim Caskey, then-vice president of institutional advancement, and others to design the new Union commons as a space that could feature the Hunsbergers’ art in a permanent, public way. 

The Hunsbergers were enthusiastic about the idea, so “they gave the anchor gift of $500,000, which helped inspire other giving so that we could commit to the project and move it forward,” Stoltzfus said. 

The President announced the project to all employees in Feb. 2018, but they still needed funds. Soon after, AVI Fresh became a big partner in the renovation with their own contribution of $500,000, Stoltzfus said. The new Leaf Raker Cafe now has a spacious kitchen, and patrons can enjoy their food in the art gallery. 

“Being surrounded by that art brings back so many memories,” said Stoltzfus, who went on Study Service Term (SST) to Haiti in 1983. She enjoys the color and imagination of the collection, which captures the “vibrancy and vitality of that beautiful island.”

The Hunsberger Commons are open to the public between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. 

“Having the Hunsberger Art Collection on our campus is a wonderful resource and a window into the lives of Haitians and Haitian artists,” Horst said.

Joy Hess, alumna of the Class of  ‘61, was struck by a piece called “A Haitian Clinic,” she said. The painting, and the collection of art together trigger memories of her past work as a nurse. 

“You can sit and imagine,” Hess said. “You can look at this and remember.” 

Gabe Miller contributed reporting, gabriels3@goshen.edu.

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Written by Kristin Jantzen, Staff Writer

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