Cambria Heights painter immersed in craft

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"I was born into painting," said Wapage, who changed his name in 1995 because people were confusing him with his father and six other family members, who are all well-known Haitian artists. "Before I started painting, I was a painter."

Sitting in his Cambria Heights studio, he recalled a childhood in Haiti dominated by art.

"We had a big backyard that was a reunion area for young artists - a center of art. Painting was my toys. Everything was there, I did not have to go very far."

Wapage was born in Port au Prince in Haiti in 1957, when Papa Doc Duvalier ruled the small country that shares the island of Hispanola with the Dominican Republic with an iron fist. During that era the political situation of the country made an impression on the artists, writers, poets and journalists who hung around the Wah family home.

With the army's backing, Duvalier was overwhelmingly elected president of Haiti in 1957. His regime, known for its brutal reign of terror, was the longest in Haiti's history and lasted until his death in 1971.

At 12 under the tutelage of his father Marcel Wah and the painter August Elysee, Wapage began to learn the finer qualities of painting and sculpting.

He said his art education was never formal in that he never attended an art school. The people who taught him about art were friends and family members.

"The teachers were my friends," he said. "They came to my house and I went to their studios to get lessons. I had no specific teacher. All of them gave me lessons."

He considers himself an artist who comes from Haiti. He said there was a time when he painted the traditional Haitian art. Now he views himself as a "universal artist" who uses some of the colors and touches of his country's naive painting, but the concept is not Haitian.

Bold reds, blues and greens play an integral role in Haitian art, which burst onto the international art scene in the 1970s when the primitive oils and watercolors caught the attention of serious collectors at international auction houses such as Sotheby's.

"I believe Dali was an influence, but my uncle was a surrealist painter and he gave me the inspiration," he said. "But I believe I am a surrealist and visual painter. I am not an expert. I leave it to the people to decide. I don't want to influence them."

Shubert Denis, a fellow Haitian artist who lives in Laurelton and has known Wapage for more than 20 years, said the structure of Wapage's paintings are crisp and clear and have a classic finish.

"He is very good," he said. "He knows art and stories and exactly what he is going to do when he sits in front of the canvas."

Wapage, who is 43, has dark curly hair salted white, a beard and stands about six feet tall. He lives and works in Cambria Heights. His studio is in a small back room of a warehouse which contains an easel, a desk covered with paints and painting materials, walls covered with paintings, a small refrigerator and filing cabinet.

"I paint everyday from when I wake up to midnight," he said "Sometimes I even sleep in the studio. When you are painting, there is an inspiration behind it. It gets you and challenges you to finish it."

He arrived in New York for the first time in 1978. He said he stayed eight months before he returned home, but was overwhelmed by the whole art scene in the city.

He said the biggest difference was how easy it was to get painting material, whereas in Haiti there were no large art stores to buy materials even if you could afford it. A lot of times artists could not buy materials because they needed to eat, he exclaimed.

He came back to New York in 1982 and then left two years later, but now he has been in the United States for 10 years and has no plans to return.

"New York, California, Chicago and Paris are the only places I want to be and need to be for my art," Wapage said. "What I do in art, my country is not good for that type of art."

Wapage makes his living as the curator of the Auction Galleries in Cambria Heights, a manager of seven Haitian painters and as a painter.

He said he, Denis and a few other Haitian artists are trying to take Haitian art into a different and new direction. He said they are trying to move away from the primitive and better-known Haitian art

"Before 1945 it was not that we didn't have anything to say, it was the world did not want to listen," he said, quoting Haitian art critic Michel Phillippe Lerebours.

Haitian art is on the rise, Wapage said. There are now shows in galleries throughout the city and in the Brooklyn Museum.

He said the young - artists age 18 - 22 - are carrying Haitian art onto the world art scene. The movement is taking place in cities where Haitian immigrants have started new lives, such as New York and Paris. There were even three books on Haitian art published in France over the past couple of years, he said.

"There are more than 50 Haitian artists who were born here and have become part of the art scene," Wapage said. "They go back and learn about the art and culture. The art differs because they are incorporating American culture in the their art as well."

He said the next step for Haitian art is to get the government involved. The art needs to be regulated so people cannot forge original pieces, which drives down prices. He said if the Haitian government would take control of the art being produced by Haitians, people would be talking about them in the same breath as world-famous artists.

Some of the painters in the city doing wonderful work are Joseph Fatal, Shubert Denis, Maryse Edward, Andre Juice and Fritz St. Jean, he said.

"If you have a good heart and good friends in life, you keep and polish your work day after day," he said, "I think you will make it and people will remember you."

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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