SOUTH TAMPA — News of Haiti's magnitude 7.0 earthquake shook art collector Kay Culbreath Heller to the core.
She was frantic to hear from dear friends, like artist Axelle Liautaud, and for a damage report on the cultural landmarks she has visited for nearly 30 years.
Liautaud was fine, Heller learned, but perhaps 90 percent of the buildings were destroyed or damaged in the Jan. 12 disaster, including the Sainte Trinite Episcopal Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, known for its murals of Bible stories in Haitian settings.
"The church is a mecca for Haitian art lovers,'' Heller said recently. "It is ground zero for art and culture."
Heller was heartbroken hearing of the collapse of the Centre d'Art, where the mural artists got their start. Founder Dewitt Peters, an American artist, began classes and exhibitions there when he went to Port-au-Prince to teach English in 1943. As board members, Heller and Liautaud promote the artwork internationally.
Heller, who lives in a Ballast Point area townhouse for part of the year, is serving as a liaison between Liautaud and Americans who want to help preserve the island's patrimony. She expects to travel to Haiti in a few months. Until then she is helping the Haitian Art Society collect donations through the Waterloo Center for the Arts, home of the largest public collection of Haitian art in North America.
UNESCO and Smithsonian staff already are on site, Heller said, to assess damaged artwork and stabilize the colonial-era gingerbread architecture until humanitarian issues are under control and restoration can begin.
Heller, 62, has deep roots in South Tampa — her father, H.L. Culbreath, was CEO of Tampa Electric; her mother, Betty Culbreath Gibbons, married former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons after Culbreath died. She got hooked on Haiti the first time she visited friends in the textile business in 1986.
"They say the spirits shoot a magic arrow at those they want to come back,'' she said. "Well, I got a double dose of those arrows. Something about it stole my heart."
Her yearly visits through the mid 1990s included weeks volunteering at the Hopital Bon Samaritain, a small hospital, pharmacy and museum in Limbe, on Haiti's northern coast. Heller said two doctors saw more than 100,000 patients a year.
"I started collecting art to be able to describe these extraordinary people to my friends,'' said Heller, gesturing at the valuable paintings, sculpture, metalwork, papier-mache and furniture filling her Tampa home. Vodou dolls and sequined flags honor gods and goddesses called loas.
"You can't be unhappy living with Haitian art," she said.
Her collection of works by first-generation Haitian artists, including Frantz Zephirin, Philomé Obin, Wilson Bigaud, Andre Normil and Edouard Duval-Carrié, depicts daily life, fantasy and religious themes.
"They're literally recording their history,'' she says, pointing out scenes of people working, dancing and praying in colorful, dense detail.
There are more art and crafts in her Washington, D.C., and Franklin, Tenn., residences where she and husband, attorney and author Rod Heller, spend time. The Tampa Museum of Art exhibited their collection in 2000.
Rattling off dates and dictators — Napoleon to "Papa Doc" Duvalier — Heller recaps the time line of what was once France's richest colony. She has also studied economic development in Egypt on a Fulbright scholarship. For years, the former Tampa banker, teacher and art dealer says she brought Haitian artwork back to the United States to sell, then put the money directly into the artists' hands.
"Art has always been one of the ways people support their families,'' said Heller, who speaks a little French and Creole. She said that her sales have been used to fund schools, orphanages, hospitals and reforestation projects.
Meeting Haitian art collectors Beverly and John Fox Sullivan, publisher of the Atlantic, in Washington, D.C., upped Heller's involvement. In 1996, she and Beverly began organizing art shows around the United States under the name Everything From Haiti.
"We'd go to buy art twice a year, bring it here, jack up the price, give away half the money and use the other half to buy more for another show," Beverly said.
In gratitude, Haitians invited them into their homes, to historical sites, even voodoo ceremonies. Heller described one prenuptial celebration. Dancers dressed in white, then later all in red clothing, whirled, drummed and drank native rum. They summoned the spirits with a bell, rattle and candle, calling for blessings from Erzulie, a compilation of Venus and the Virgin Mary.
"It was quite extraordinary,'' Heller said. "You can see how in a very hot tropical climate it is possible to fall into a trance."
Heller remains entranced as ever.
"They say Haiti has nothing to teach the world about good government, but everything about spirit, creativity, dignity and family,'' she said.
Reach Amy Scherzer at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.