By Annette Hinkle
This weekend, the Richard J. Demato Gallery in Sag Harbor opens a one woman show to benefit The Retreat, the East End’s domestic abuse shelter.
That woman, Jeanette Martone, was the winner of The Retreat’s Art Contest which was judged by Christina Strassfield, director of the Guild Hall Museum and gallery owner Kathryn Markel.
Proceeds from the contest and the show benefit the work of The Retreat, and given the altruistic nature of this exhibit, it seems somehow apropos that Martone was named the winner.
That’s because as an artist, Martone has merged her talent with her passion by creating imagery depicting the people and places she has gotten to know while volunteering on humanitarian projects in the developing world.
Specifically, it’s been the people of the Dominican Republic who have captured her heart during her volunteer stints there, and they are the subjects of Martone’s intricate graphite drawings which will be on view when “Hope’s Journey,” Martone’s one woman show opens this Saturday at the Demato Gallery.
Martone explains that because her parents grew up poor, volunteer work was always something she was inspired to do. So in 1994, Martone took her first two-week trip to the Dominican Republic as a volunteer with the St. Vincent DePaul Society. She was in her mid-30s at the time and notes that though people in this country hear about the poverty in developing nations, experiencing it first hand is totally different. Martone’s been back to the Dominican several times since, and notes there’s a big distinction between perception and reality when someone first visits.
“it’s just more real,” she says of life on the ground in the Dominican Republic. “They don’t have the things we take for granted. When you come back home, you don’t have to worry about water coming from the tap or about getting sick from it.”
On her trips, Martone also learned she had skills (some of which were new to her) that could be used to help make life better for the people of the Dominican Republic. From working with women to make quilts as a way of developing their economic independence to building schools and homes, Martone quickly found herself jumping into projects she had never before tackled.
“We were making a house — I was using power tools and hammers,” she says. “I can’t believe the roofs — they were metal zinc and they cut them with a machete. One slice and they did it.”
But what Dominicans may lack in material goods and modern conveniences, Martone notes they make up for with a sense of good will and community spirit.
“These projects got the whole community out and gave them inspiration knowing that people came that far to help them,” says Martone. “They were also so giving. The people were so welcoming, and whatever they have they share. It’s very communal — people helping each other.”
“Sometimes I didn’t know who belonged to who,” she added of the way in which members of different families melded into a single social unit in the course of their daily lives.
For Martone, a graduate of SUNY Purchase whose work has been exhibited at museums and galleries both in the U.S. and abroad, bringing her talents and art supplies to the Dominican Republic was another way to give back to the people who had so generously welcomed her to their country. When she wasn’t building schools or making quilts, Martone would often pull out arts and crafts materials and work with the children.
And while she was there, Martone recognized the opportunity to use her artistic ability to capture what she was witnessing in the Dominican Republic. A sort of visual travelogue, not only to preserve the images of the people who left such an impression on her, but to highlight the difficult conditions they live in for folks back home.
“I wanted to bring back what I saw,” explains Martone. “At first, it was such love, I wanted to bring that back. The more I went I saw the poverty was so ingrained and the awareness was lacking here. People here complain about so many things, but just flushing a toilet is a big deal there.”
It’s not that Americans don’t have a sense of the Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern half of Hispaniola, the island it shares with Haiti. It is a popular vacation destination. But Martone notes very few Americans actually venture from the “safety” of the resorts where they stay.
Which for Martone means they’re missing a huge part of the experience.
“When they do travel and go to a resort, it’s a closed community,” says Martone. “They’re told ‘Don’t go outside.’”
“But the people there are just like us, just with different experiences,” she says. “They are so kind and generous and they pull out whatever they have and share it when you come by. Even if you can’t speak the same language, you can communicate.”
When it comes to her Dominican experience, Martone’s primary (and extremely effective) form of communication is the nearly photo-realistic portrait drawings she has created from photographs taken during her many volunteer trips.
Martone who renders her drawings from photographs she takes herself, knows what she’s looking for in an portrait — and a posed shot is not it. Like every National Geographic photographer in history, when it comes to taking candid portraits, Martone understands she has to take a lot of photos. Initially, Martone explains, her subjects are intent on posing. But if she keeps at it long enough, soon people tire of posing and ignore her altogether.
That’s when she gets the picture she really wants — people being themselves in every day life.
“Living with them made a big difference,” says Martone of the images she was able to capture. “They would see me as the crazy person with the camera. You’re like the pied piper, they always wanted to be around me. Some kids looked so sad and lonely. There was a lot of sickness — worms are very common and the eye infections.”
For Martone, however, the most emotionally powerful location was the garbage dump just outside town where residents would go on a regular basis in search of food and objects to help them survive.
“I met a little girl there and saw her grow up — that was a way of existence,” says Martone. “One boy there my husband and I helped in a bad situation. He was killed in a car crash. Another woman we got close to died — she had TB.”
While Martone’s illustrations help shine a light on life (and death) in a very poor part of the world, she adds that she knows of a woman who has started making the experience more real by taking vacationing Americans from the confines of their Dominican resorts and into the communities to help out for a day.
It’s a gentle, yet effective way to illustrate what life is really like beyond the fenced in vacationland. It also provides tourists with an easy way to explore the notion of “voluntourism” sans a big commitment. At the end of the day, they are back at their resort.
“When you stay at the resort, you know you don’t have to worry about your health — so you set the agenda and can decide how much you want to do,” says Martone.
“Hope’s Journey” by Jeanette Martone opens Saturday, April 27 with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at Richard J. Demato Fine Arts Gallery, 90 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Proceeds from the show, which will be on view through May 11, benefit The Retreat. For more information, call 725-1161.