There is a colorful Caribbean art gallery and gift boutique located downtown in Naples, Florida. The store is small and offers a large collection of beautiful Haitian paintings and other art that you cannot find anywhere else.
The store is named ‘The Lady From Haiti.’ Behind its funky name is a story of love.
Melody Bales owns the store. Bales took an interest in the Caribbean early in life, partly because of its art.
“It was the paintings originally that attracted me to Haiti. I had seen one in a studio in a gallery on St. John's Island, one of the American Virgin Islands," she says.
Melody also was fascinated by the Haitian culture. So much so, that she wanted to go and live in Haiti.”
So, that is what she did.
In the mid 1980s, Melody Bales moved to Haiti, where she taught second grade students.
“I landed there and I was in shock that I couldn't use my French too much because the official language is French, but the people speak Creole. But I adjusted really well to my class," she says. "I had wonderful children from diplomats from all over the world. It was an American curriculum and that's what they wanted."
Bales also taught swimming after school and in the summertime. She fell in love with Haiti, especially its people.
“I think the people of Haiti are wonderful. They're very, very sweet. They're humble, they're accepting of their plight, a lot of times. They work very hard," she says.
Bales says she wishes that Americans knew more about the Caribbean island’s rich culture.
“I would love people in this country to understand that Haiti has so much to offer, even though it's not an educated society, for the most part. They have so much more to offer creatively, musically, artistically. The poetry, the literature, they come from a rich background…"
Bales stayed in Haiti for six years, much longer than expected. She says each time she planned to return to the U.S., something held her back. And, then came the chance of a lifetime: a Haitian baby girl in need of a mother.
“I had wanted to have a child…I had done an unsuccessful in vitro and then I told a doctor friend of mine, a Haitian doctor friend of mine, that it didn't work. And he said, ‘So, are you ready for a Haitian baby?’ I said, 'I just want a baby.'"
Soon, Bales was connected with a pregnant woman who could not afford to care for the coming baby. But, there was little time left to act.
“I met this mother, she was going to have the baby within two weeks. So, in that period of time I took her to the doctor and had a sonogram," she says. "And I was thrilled to see that it was a healthy developed girl.”
Melody Bales says it was a match made in heaven. She named her daughter Rachel.
Bales returned to the United States with her daughter Rachel to begin their lives together.
Rachel was the inspiration for “The Lady from Haiti” store. Melody Bales says she wanted her daughter to grow up surrounded by the Haitian native culture, with its beautiful colors, creativity and spirit.
“The art in Haiti is one of the strongest features about the Haitian culture. There are basically five schools, different schools of art in Haiti. The ones that a lot of people think of [are] the market scenes or the peaceable kingdom scene, the jungle animals. And those are very charming, she says.
“And then there's a school of the voodoo art, which is -- it's pretty strong…Voodoo is a pantheistic religion that came from Africa and the Haitian people brought a lot of those beliefs with them,” she says.
Another popular Haitian art form found at “The Lady from Haiti” is made from recycled material.
"It's called fer découpé which means cut metal, and it's literally 55-gallon drums that have been cut with a cold chisel and a ball peen hammer.”
Bales explains that a design is drawn on the metal before the artist begins to make the cuts.
“And they're fashioned into the most beautiful creations, sometimes they're exotic animals or religious icons or country scenes. But each time I see one, it's just… it's really satisfying because I realize it's hard work, sweat, a wonderful imagination and I love them because they have so much detail.”
Bales also loves the papier mache art made in Haiti.
"I think the Papier Mache is cute just because it's so whimsical. It's made from recycled cement bags. They use a heavy- duty craft paper in Haiti, which is so heavy that it actually cracks when you fold it. And they use a ground up root, I believe it's called manioc, as the paste and they make really charming little animals,” she says.
Melody Bales is grateful for the wonderful things Haiti has given her, especially daughter Rachel. “The Lady From Haiti” gallery will continue to give back to the island as it shares Haitian art, color and spirit with the rest of the world.