Haitian-born artist displays plantain-inspired art on URI’s Providence campus

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KINGSTON, R.I., Feb. 2, 2015 – Plantain leaves fascinated Nixon Leger as a young art student in Haiti, so he put them in his paintings. Sometimes he folded them into a cloudy sky; other times they won a bold spot on the canvas.

Leger became known as the “guy of banana leaves,” a title that he not only cultivates but appreciates. Now Rhode Islanders will get a chance to see his powerful work at an exhibit at the University of Rhode Island’s Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Continuing Education in Providence, where he’s a student.

“When I was an art student in Haiti I fell in love with the plantain leaf,” says Leger, 37, who lives in Pawtucket with his wife and two young children. “The leaves have different shapes, different colors. I love when they grow very long, then break and go back to the main trunk, eventually starting over. It’s the cycle of life.”

The exhibit, on display through Feb. 27, also includes 34 abstract paintings, titled “Symbiosis Fragmentary,” that at times look like rising smoke with tantalizing hidden images: a horse’s head; a slender hand; a wisp of hair.

“These abstracts represent solid pieces that break apart,” he says. “I invite people to search or discover the whole subject.”

Steven Pennell, coordinator of URI’s Urban Arts and Culture Program, says Leger’s latest work is “wonderfully” evocative. “It causes you to think and explore,” he says. “He’s a very accomplished artist.”

Leger’s life story is as equally compelling. And thanks to a special academic program on the Providence campus that helps older students, Leger is on his way to earning a bachelor’s degree in art.

Born in Belle-Anse, a small village in Haiti, Leger discovered the joy of drawing as a boy. But it wasn’t until he met acclaimed Haitian-artist Casmir Joseph that he decided to devote his life to art. A drawing session with Joseph also resulted in an obsession with plantains, a banana-like staple of the Latino cuisine.

“I was drawing a landscape of plantains,” says Leger. “But I saw more than leaves. I connected with them and started putting them in my paintings. It’s something that says, ‘This is mine.’ People will always be able to recognize my work.”

He attended Haiti’s Ecole Nationale des Arts and started teaching art in high schools. He soon made a name for himself, exhibiting his work in dozens of galleries across the country.

But he was restless. He thought there would be better opportunities to market his paintings in the United States, so he moved to Rhode Island in 2008 to live with relatives. Although he had a college degree from Haiti, he discovered that it was mostly useless in America.

He decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree at URI, but realized that he needed to polish his reading and writing skills. A friend suggested he enroll in a program on the Providence campus that helps students like Leger.

Launched in 1986, the semester-long LEAP, or Learning Enhancement for Adults Program, is targeted at older students who want to hone their learning skills before starting URI.

In addition to helping with reading and writing, the program teaches students how to use the library and computers, read and study textbooks, take notes and manage their time.

Students meet two days or evenings a week for a full semester. To qualify, students must have a high school diploma or general equivalency degree, and the desire to earn a college degree at URI.

Leger completed the program in December 2013 and is now taking philosophy and sociology classes. His plan is to eventually transfer to the Kingston campus to pursue a bachelor’s degree in art. One day, he’d like to teach again.

“URI has been a great help,” says Leger, who speaks French and Creole. “The (LEAP) program was so important to me. If I didn’t have these skills, it would be hard to continue with college. I appreciate everything.”

Besides, he says, he enjoyed his time in the program, taking classes with students from all over the world, including Liberia and Spain. Class discussions, he says, were riveting. “The diversity was great,” he says. “All of us had different experiences.”

He’s working part-time for a transportation service and hopes to get his college diploma in two years. Mary Stanley, coordinator of LEAP, has no doubt he’ll achieve his goal: “He’s a very determined young man. His art is magnificent. When I first saw his work, I thought: Well, he’s truly an artist.”

His paintings have been exhibited at galleries throughout Rhode Island, including AS220 and the Chabot Fine Art Gallery, both in Providence. In his paintings, all done with acrylic, plantain leaves represent the human body. His themes are sometimes haunting. In “No Way,” for instance, a mother and her child are lost on the horizon, with nowhere to go. “Choir Rehearsal” depicts plantain-inspired sailors on a ship in choppy seas, with the captain playing a saxophone.

“As an artist, I’m always in movement,” he says. “I’m always looking for new ideas.”

A reception for Leger will be held Thursday, Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m. on the Providence campus, 80 Washington St., a few blocks from City Hall. The reception is free and open to the public. For details, call Pennell at 401-277-5206.

Pictured Above: Artist Nixon Leger, and photos of his paintings on display through Feb. 27 at URI’s Feinstein campus in Providence.

Photos by Nixon Leger.