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An Iowan in Haiti paints a different picture of life on the island

Lee Rainboth
Ally Karsyn

In an old chicken coop, glittering paintings line the slat wood walls. Leaving behind the combines in the cornfields, the artist steps into another world of spiritual symbols from mandalas to voodou flags. He’s greeted by the half-finished, sequined smiling face of Sweet Micky, the Haitian pop star who became president. Nearby, he hangs a self-portrait, showing his pasty white body in the buff, which slightly stands out among his other subjects.


Lee Rainboth lives in Haiti but keeps an art studio on his parent’s farm outside of Marcus, Iowa, which people will be able to visit during the Artisan’s Road Trip on Saturday and Sunday. For the 13th years, the self-guided tour invites viewers to travel the back roads and scenic byways throughout northwest Iowa and stop at the studios of more than 40 professional artists.

Rainboth is a first-time participant. Travel inspires his artwork. After graduating from Iowa State University, Rainboth spent the summer in Uganda and Kenya -- doing some photography -- and then moved to Haiti to work with a fair trade organization nine years ago.

He focuses on what connects people across cultures rather than what divides them to portray beauty.

“Some of the models, when they show up to model for me, they can’t believe that I would want to paint them because they’re a darker color of Haitian. They’re a darker skintone or for some reason their nose is flatter or whatever. They’ve always been told by society that they’re not beautiful,” he said. “Just to be able to say, as an artist, yes, I find beauty in you, and I think that you deserve to be in this work of art – I feel that’s important. I think it’s an important message for anyone to hear.”

Rainboth lives in Mizak, a rural farming community in the mountains, where he often paints young, hopeful Haitians in their 20s.

On Tuesday, after Hurricane Matthew made landfall with 145-mile-per-hour winds and torrential rain, he checked in with his roommates to discover there’s a little flooding inside his cement-roof home, but it’s still standing. He won’t have to rebuild like he did when the earthquake rocked the island in 2010.

He usually only comes back to the United States for a couple weeks, once a year. This just happened to be one of those times. He missed out on hunkering down with his roommates and a bottle of rum as Matthew ravaged Haiti’s southern peninsula.


“The biggest part of what keeps me there is having this community and this chosen family that has become so important to my identity as a human being. It’s become vital to my creativity as an artist,” he said. “In order to create work that means something, we have to do whatever we can to relate to each other on the deepest level possible. So that’s why I’m still there. That’s why I love going back, and I love living there.”

Lee Rainboth
Credit Ally Karsyn

However, the latest natural disaster only feeds the restricted narrative of Haiti as a country caught in a constant state of poverty and destitution. This view invokes pity from those who don’t live there.

When he looks into the faces of his friends and neighbors, Rainboth sees their struggles and their joys. Beyond the guise of poverty, they like to have fun just like everyone else whether that means watching soccer or going to the beach or dating.

Through his art, Rainboth helps tell a different story, one that he sees ashaving more dignity than the so-called poverty porn in which charity organizations use exploitative imagery to elicit an emotional response for fundraising purposes.

Within that context, maybe it seems strange that a lot of the people in his paintings appear nude. But the artist believes, when the clothes come off, a subject’s truest self shines through to project and reflect an image of beauty, rarely seen by the outside world or even recognized on the island.

“There’s a lot of racism even within Haiti of different shades of people and between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and saying who’s more beautiful because their skin’s a little lighter or because their hair’s a little straighter,” he said. “Just the simple act of telling someone you’re worthy to be the subject of a piece of art I feel is an act of empowerment. Hopefully, through my art, I’m trying to break down some of those stereotypes and those ideas as well for the Haitians themselves, the subjects that are in my paintings.”

Light glints off of the sequined borders, pulling viewers into the mystical mandalas and the radiant faces at the center of it all that are different yet the same.


Lee Rainboth is Siouxland Public Media's Artist of the Month. To learn more about him and his work, visit leerainboth.com.

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