Rising along the river

Haitian artist makes a living selling paintings along River Street

Like many passersby, I found myself captivated by a painter on River Street.

Every day, Jean Claude Martin sets up shop along with many other businesses lining Savannah’s riverfront. As locals and visitors begin to stroll the cobblestoned streets during this warm season of the year, crowds surround him — some to marvel at his artwork, some to buy.

Martin uses vibrant colors, an island flair, and endless inspiration to paint lively people and places with no two paintings being identical, the artist said. Martin said that he gets to River Street by 10 a.m. every morning, he leaves after 7 p.m., and when he gets home, he continues to work.

The painter said that on average, it may take him anywhere between three days to three weeks to complete a piece. On a weekly basis, he said that sometimes he sells three paintings and sometimes he sells nothing, but he still makes it to work everyday.

Martin is originally from Haiti, where his family currently resides. While in Haiti as a young boy, Martin spent time watching the elders as they farmed and harvested crops, carved sculptures, weaved baskets, butchered cattle, and painted pictures, and he knew that he would soon have to find his own way to make a living for himself.

“In Haiti, it’s no joke, there’s nothing,” Martin said. “If you want to survive you have to come up with something on your own to get where you want to go.” Martin uses vibrant colors, an island flair, and endless inspiration to paint lively people and places with no two paintings being identical, the artist said. Martin said he began painting at age 11 and by age 16 he knew that it was his money-maker. The artists said that he has been painting for 27 years, and he has never worked for anyone but himself.

Seventeen years ago, Martin and a friend traveled from Haiti to come to Savannah and he has been selling paintings along River Street ever since. Though starting his new life in a new location was not easy, Martin was determined to make it work. “Anywhere in the world, when you first get there, life is tough, but the only thing that you have to do is that you take it how it comes, tough or not,” Martin said. “That’s what I did when I got here. I knew it was going to be tough for me, but it’s okay. I’m an artist. I say I’m going to survive one way or another way. It doesn’t matter how tough life is, I’m going to make it one day anyway. That was always in my mind.” Martin shares that his priorities are his and his family’s stability.

“As long as I can pay my bills, I’ve got enough to survive, I’ve got enough to eat, and I can paint a picture and sell it to make money to send it to my family to survive in Haiti — that’s my goal,” Martin said. “That’s when I feel like I’ve made it.”

Though Martin is content providing for himself and his family, he shares that everyone has aspirations for a better life. “No artist has one goal in his mind. You have to work to see where it takes you,” Martin said. “That’s the way life is.”

About The Author

Brandy Simpkins

Brandy Simpkins is the community/ event journalist for Connect Savannah. Simpkins is a born and raised Savannahian and an alumna of Savannah Savannah State University where she received her B.A. in English Language & Literature. Simpkins enjoys writing more than anything else in the world. She is a curious journalist,...
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