MOUNT VERNON — Most art museum directors wouldn’t be found driving cross country in a box truck, but Kent Shankle is driven, literally, to add to his collection of works created by artists in the Caribbean nation of Haiti.

“If you have Haitian art, I have a truck. I will travel,” said Shankle, executive director of the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa.

This weekend Shankle’s passion for Haitian art took him and his climate-controlled truck to Mount Vernon and the home of Barbara Skapa, who is donating to the museum six works by artist Gerard Fortune. The museum, which has about 2,000 pieces of Haitian art, has a collection of about 50 works by Fortune, including Skapa’s donation.

“He’s getting a lot of attention right now,” Shankle said. “With this gift it gives us enough of his collection that we could do a major exhibit.’

Skapa bought the paintings while living in Haiti in 1986 during the overthrow of the Duvalier family’s brutal dictatorship.

“I bought them because I wanted to understand the nature of such horrendous evil,” Skapa said.

Skapa now wants to share that insight with the public. She contacted three museums in the United States that specialize in Haitian art when she decided it was time to donate the collection. She ultimately settled on Waterloo.

“It needs a good home and this is the best home I could find,” Skapa said.

The paintings have a market value of less than $5,000, but the collection’s worth cannot be measure by the market.

“It’s priceless, but it’s not very valuable,” Skapa said.

Shankle said Skapa’s collection are particularly intriguing because of their size — some measure 30 inches by 48 inches — and subject matter. Some of the paintings depict Duvalier. Artists took their lives in their hands creating such paintings, Shankle said.

“These paintings are special because they have some political context in them. It makes them somewhat unique,” he said. “There aren’t many of them out there.”

Haitian art makes up one of Waterloo’s primary collections. The three largest museum collections of Haitian art in the country belong to Waterloo, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Figge Art Museum in Iowa. Shankle is at a loss to explain why the three Midwestern museums, all withing a few hours’ drive of each other, came to specialize in Haitian art.

“The (Midwest) in winter is probably a lot like Maine,” Shankle said wryly. “It’s nice to dream of Haiti and go to Haiti and maybe bring back some work.”

Waterloo’s collection started in the late 1970s when a local couple who enjoyed adventuresome vacations began returning with Haitian artwork. The museum director began working with the couple to select pieces by specific artists. Shankle said the artwork, which was used to present hands-on galleries to local schools, helped the area heal in the years after the 1968 race riots.

The museum has continued to add to its collection. Shankle said he is always particularly pleased to add works by Fortune.

“He’s very representative of the unique quality of Haitian artists,” Shankle said. “It’s filled with colors and joy.”

But that joy is only on the surface, he said. Underneath there is far more complexity and maybe even darkness.

“Embedded within it are all kinds of things that relate to religion and politics and just different aspects of Haitian life,” Shankle said. “I find Haitian art to be really engaging. There isn’t any art like it anywhere else in the world.”

The artwork collected from Skapa will be photographed and cataloged before going before the acquisitions committee for final approval, Shankle said. He hopes to organize a show, which will include the paintings, to coincide with a meeting of the Haitian Art Society in 2017.

Shankle hopes Skapa will attend that show. He said those who collect Haitian art, like the artwork itself, are often a special breed who put together collections to make a statement.

“They want them to stay intact,” Shankle said. “They want to share them with other people.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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