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BY ASHLEY MIZNAZI
In years past in Haiti, nothing said ‘joyeux noël’ to many like the sight of fanals — those handcrafted, cardboard house lanterns of all shapes, sizes and colors — lighting up the balmy night skies on Christmas Eve. A fixture carried by throngs of celebrants in streets all over the country, from the largest cities to the tiniest hamlets.
Alphonse Piard remembers those lanterns well, from his days as a kid in Les Cayes on Haiti’s southern coast. He also recalls seeing those intricate crafts become a rarer and rarer sight each year.
Now, Piard, a Miami resident for 30 years, hopes to revisit and revive the fanal making tradition he fears is at risk of extinction. With a little help from technology.
“I’m making it more sturdy, and I’m improving the drawing and everything,” Piard said. “So it’s a new adventure, based on what we knew what I used to do when I was 12, 15 in Haiti.”
By day, Piard assists clients at Sant La Haitian Community Center with their taxes. At night and on weekends, the self-taught artist studied and practiced painting for years, often making fanals as a hobby around the holidays.
For a work event at Sant La this May, he made fanals as table centerpieces. Attendees’ thrilled reactions, and orders for custom pieces, made him realize there was still interest in the Haitian tradition so dear to his heart.
In Haiti, every part of the process is done by hand, Piard explained recently. Templates were traced and intricate pieces were cut out of the cardboard with a sharp blade. You had to switch out every few template pieces. Piard said oil and sweat from your hand would also transfer onto the paper, making it more flimsy.
Piard usually made three or four fanals per year, spreading the traditional process over a couple of months.
“There is a kind of happiness that brings you back to the time of your childhood,” Piard said about the craft. “It’s a pleasure to be the simple instrument of perpetrating a tradition.”
Once word got out about his fanals, orders increased. To keep up with the demand, Piard went to YouTube for ideas. That’s when he learned about a scan-and-cut machine that could speed up production of the craft.
Piard now has 13 different fanal designs people can choose from. He ships the finished fanals, currently priced between $85 to $250, to customers all over the U.S.
“I want people to have a certain pride in owning them,” Piard said. “When you have it, you have a piece that was crafted with love and care from somebody who cares about his tradition in his country and what it meant to be a Haitian 60 years ago.”
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