For Philippe Dodard, an artist known as “the Picasso of Haiti,” a trip to the dentist’s office set his career in motion.
When he was a little boy, his father was late to pick up from his appointment, so the dentist suggested he go check out the laboratory with the technician. There, he was in awe. Metal tools, machines, plaster, wax. “It was like discovering Disneyland,” Dodard recalled.
He asked for a small piece of dental wax and immediately sculpted a tiny musician for his mother. Soon, he was able to sculpt a whole band.
Decades later, the boy playing with wax grew up to be an internationally-acclaimed contemporary artist in Haiti and abroad. Earlier this month, Dodard’s hard work was recognized when he received a lifetime achievement award from Le P’ti Club, a South Florida Haitian arts and entertainment group run by Jimmy Moise.
“I am really grateful to see that my work is recognized,” Dodard told the Herald. “I appreciate receiving it from our own people from our community, like Le P’ti Club.”
The event, which took place Sept. 16 at the Island SPACE Caribbean Museum in Plantation, also honored Haitian artists Claudia Apaid and Jean-Jacques Stephen Alexis and celebrated Le P’ti Club’s 19th anniversary. The museum served as a gallery space featuring the three artists’ works.
Moise, who has known Dodard for many years, said presenting Dodard with a lifetime achievement award was an obvious choice. He is a master in his craft and deserves to be celebrated by a Haitian organization, Moise said.
“Who else could be better fitted?” Moise said of his longtime friend.
Dodard was born in 1954 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to an artist mother and an accountant father who wrote poetry. At 8 years old, he began drawing Disney characters with his father. At age 11, he made his own greeting cards and sold enough to buy his first watch and a car by 17. At 14, he began learning different art techniques at the Poto Mitan art school. He later studied at the Académie des Beaux-arts in Haïti and then the Ecole Nationale de Bordeaux in France. Today, he is the general director of Haiti’s national arts school.
Though he is still based in Haiti, he considers Miami to be a second home. His art has been featured in several South Florida galleries, exhibition spaces and museums, like the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. He has collaborated with fashion designer Donna Karan for a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, adopted jewelry design as a medium, exhibited a retrospective of his political cartoons and displayed his artworks from Paris to Los Angeles.
But perhaps his most important project came in 2010 following the devastating earthquake that struck his home country. After narrowly surviving the earthquake, he felt called to help his fellow Haitians through art.
After Haiti’s iconic Iron Market was severely damaged, Dodard, an iron sculptor himself, teamed up with welders and architects to reconstruct and refurbish the structure’s tower, minarets and columns. It was the first reconstructed building to be completed after the earthquake, he said.
Dodard partnered with Haiti’s first lady to create Plas Timoun, an art therapy center and program for children displaced by the earthquake. The center converted school buses into classrooms, each one teaching a different art medium. The program’s impact was lifechanging, Dodard said.
“It helped [the children] recover social bonds, their sense of family, their sense of home, and also being together and dreaming about the reconstruction of their country,” he said. “So for me, it’s only art that can bring so much love and keep people together.”
David Muir, the Island SPACE Caribbean Museum president, said it was an honor to host a lifetime achievement award recipient as part of the museum’s mission to “celebrate Caribbean excellence.”
“I believe that this space can always play an important role in developing not only the awareness of new artists, but also of the experts, those people who are the legends,” Muir said.
Attendees at Le P’ti Club’s award ceremony saw the night as an opportunity to celebrate Haiti’s rich arts heritage despite the country’s recent hardships and political turmoil. For Apaid, who runs nonprofit Sow A Seed for underserved children, said she came to the event “with a heavy heart” but was happy to see the community uplift Haitian culture.
“When we all come together here to celebrate the dreamers, the designers, the shapeshifters, the people that carry the stories and the heritage of the culture, and share that with the world in an interesting way, it has a lot of meaning,” Apaid said. “In the midst of what’s happening, everybody still showed up here and was still able to celebrate the arts because it’s tied to our identity. It’s our story.”
That Haitian story is deeply intertwined with Dodard’s work. These days, he said he is looking forward to attending the opening of the Pan African Heritage Museum in Ghana next year. He’s currently working on a massive 27-foot long triptych painting inspired by Haiti’s fight for independence and freedom.
As an artist, Dodard feels a sense of responsibility to share his country’s story and heritage. Though his artwork has taken him around the world, Dodard has always returned to his beloved Haiti.
“Artists are always diplomats,” he said. “They represent their country wherever they are.”
This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.