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Haiti tragedy hits close to home

To some people, the tragic earthquake in Haiti may seem like an issue millions of miles away. But for long-time Western employee Andrew McGarrell, the incident hit much closer to home.

McGarrell, a cataloging librarian at Missouri Western for 22 years, lost his only sibling—Flores McGarrell—in the Haitian earthquake on Jan. 12. Thirty-five-year-old “Flo” was born female, but was transgender.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, the McGarrell family learned that Flo was trapped in a building. He had been having drinks at the Peace of Mind hotel with a friend when the quake hit. Thursday morning, his family received news that his friend had survived, but Flo did not. The McGarrells visited Baltimore last weekend for his memorial service.

His brother, Andrew McGarrell, cataloging librarian at MWSU, honors his brother in a remembrance blog he started after Flo’s passing. Photo by Sara Baum

Flo began working in Haiti in 2008 for a year and a half, directing a non-profit art center for local artists to collaborate and learn from each other. Andrew started a blog shortly after his brother’s passing, in order to share a little about Flo’s history, education, work and travels. (http://andrewmtrav.blogspot.com/2010/01/in-memoriam-my-brother-flo.html)

“Flo had a longtime fascination with Haiti, making some visits and conducting workshops at the FOSAJ (Fanal Otantik Sant D’a Jakmel) arts center in Jacmel,” Andrew wrote. “He decided to fully commit to that, and learn the Kreyol language.”

Kreyol—formally known as Creole—is the dialect of French that is spoken in Haiti.

Flo’s passion for and interest in Haiti revolved around a combination of things.

“He really wanted to let Haitian people (know how to) conserve their (resources) and learn things like composting, but he also made artwork that demonstrated those things,” Andrew said.

Some samples of his work can be viewed at http://blog.art21.org/2009/08/28/inside-the-artists-studio-flo-mcgarrell/.

Kiku Langford, the exhibition coordinator at the Alliance for Visual Arts Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, became friends with Flo through their experience working together at AVA.

She laughed as she shared a about how serious he was about his work.

“His exhibition actually included a lot of plants on hangers, and he was worried about them getting watered,” Langford said. “He would drive down to water them (even though it was several miles away).”

She said he would also create inflatable sculptures, and described one particular incident.

“Somehow, whatever they were using to inflate it, they used flammable gas and not air,” Langford said. “It kind of seemed like he was always flirting with disaster.”

One particularly fascinating aspect of his work was the fact that he did not spend any money on his materials.

“It was all items he would go dumpster diving for,” Langford said. “His goal, I think, in what he seemed to do, was to make his life kind of an art project.”

As an artist, he was a risk-taker, but as a person, he made people feel safe.

“He was just the kind of person that made you think you’ve known them forever. I remember immediately feeling totally comfortable with him,” Langford said.

Born in Rome, Italy, Flo could speak Italian even before he picked up the Kreyol language later in Haiti.

The McGarrell family moved to St. Louis after its full-time residency in Italy when Flo was 8 years old. The move seemed to bring out Flo’s true character.

“Flo’s fearlessness came into evidence: my mother remembers picking (him) up at school with darkened, ominous skies; while other students were huddled inside, Flo was out dancing in the rain,” Andrew wrote in his blog.

Andrew recently learned of a collective blog dedicated to Flo, which includes input from several close friends and people who worked with him.[

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