Guyanese immigrant shares his story through art, teaching
Collects discarded objects, produces art that speaks to the struggles of being black in U.S.
From construction sites to deserted beaches, Jason Fitz-Gerald has a knack for finding beauty in unlikely places. The 70-year-old Guyanese artist finds materials left by the wayside and transforms them into paintings and sculptures. His art depicts elements of the black experience.
“Black folks were discarded,” he says. “During the civil rights movement, we were used, abused, thrown out. Hung. Lynched. Homes were ravaged. Broken apart. You weren’t even a human. This is my getting them back together, to make them whole and beautiful.”
When Fitz-Gerald is not making art at his Fitchburg home, he’s teaching English to immigrants in East Boston, where he’s long had a presence. He, too, is an immigrant. He knows what it’s like to be a long way from home.
The door of Fitz-Gerald’s home, tucked away on a quiet street in Fitchburg, opens to an enclave of African-themed masks, paintings and sculptures. A painting called “Sun Children” features silhouetted figures dancing on wood splashed with oranges, yellows and reds. Another shows a face, shaped around the natural marks on a piece of wood Fitz-Gerald found at a beach.
“My work is more African-themed, so there’s a primitive bent to it,” he says. “It’s not polished and neat, and I think life is like that.”
Fitz-Gerald came to America in 1969. He was 21 years old. Brooklyn was a far cry from the fruit trees and tropical climate of Guyana — and the icy cold wasn’t the only difference.
He arrived at the tail end of the civil rights movement. Race relations were constantly in the news, and he heard the word “minority” in a new context.
“[In Guyana] people intermarry … I grew up with a mixture of people,” he says. “I never knew about giving people other names. ‘Minority’ is something I learned when I came to the United States.”
That reality sank in when he was stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana during the Vietnam War. He recalls going out one night with fellow recruits, who were white, and being told he couldn’t enter a certain bar. At first, he thought his friends were joking.
“Later on that night, people got a little bit more inebriated, then the stuff came out,” he says. “They said, ‘You know why you couldn’t go? Because they don’t allow black people into there.’”
It was a stark introduction into what it meant to be black in America — a theme that his art grapples with.
To his neighbors in Fitchburg, where he’s lived for about a year, Fitz-Gerald is an enigma of sorts. He’s a towering man who walks around in old, wrinkled clothes. He lies in the grass. He talks to trees.
“As an artist, I can be confusing to myself. I know I can be very confusing to people,” he says. “I have a very hungry, creative beast inside of me that needs to be fed.”
That “creative beast” has fueled a decades-long career in painting, sculpting, acting and screenwriting. It’s taken him to cities around the world—London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Blantyre (Malawi) and Windhoek (Namibia). He’s studied at a number of schools, including the American Film Institute, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and Lesley University. His art has appeared in venues including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Art Institute of Atlanta.
Fitz-Gerald’s art probes elements of the black experience. Some paintings evoke images from Guyana and Southern Africa, where he lived for two years — fruit sellers, dancers, villagers. Others depict scenes of suffering and oppression — a man with scars dug into his back.
“I don’t want to ever forget what came before me,” he says. “I always want to honor these ancestors and the road they have walked, things they have felt, the joys, the degradation, the being spat on. This is a part of me.”
Fitz-Gerald knows what it’s like to be an outsider. He explored this theme in a screenplay he wrote in the 1990s, about “a person who felt displaced and was trying to find home.”
In the play, the main character leaves his country as a boy, comes to America and serves in the military. Then he returns to Guyana — only to realize it has changed.
When Fitz-Gerald traveled to Guyana in 1997 to assemble a cast and shoot the film, the movie started playing out for him in real life. “People looked at me like I came from the U.S. with bags of money,” he says. “So they were looking to see what they could get from me … it kind of broke my heart.”
He’s since returned to Guyana to visit friends and family. But he doesn’t know if he could live there. “I don’t think I fit in,” he says. “I’ve always felt as an outsider, in many different communities. I’m an outsider.”
In a spacious classroom at Mario Umana Academy, Fitz-Gerald grabs a black Expo marker and draws two horizontal lines on a whiteboard, which he fills in with squiggles. The drawing shows a “crosswalk” — a vocabulary word that he repeats loud and clear for his eight students.
It’s a Thursday night and Fitz-Gerald is teaching his ESOL class in East Boston. The students come from Central and South America — Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil.
Fitz-Gerald the teacher is a sharp contrast to Fitz-Gerald the artist — he’s chatty, animated and curious, asking students about their lives outside of class. He asks one student about how her family is doing. He gives advice to another about how to secure housing — during the chapter on finding a home.
“They’re a good bunch,” he says, as he leans back on a desk.
But he gets angry sometimes. He chides students who rely on their phones to translate. He wants them to think for themselves.
“I don’t like when students don’t do the work, when they don’t make effort to even fail,” he says. “Because even failing—there’s a lesson in that.”
Lessons emerge outside the classroom, too. He takes his students to museums and libraries. He brings them out into the neighborhood to practice English. He tells them stories about his life. He’s molding them, like he molds his art.
“I have walked their path as an immigrant, and whatever it is I can do to make their course less bumpy, a little smoother, this is what I do,” he says. “I teach me. I use a lesson as the guide, but I teach me.”
Fitz-Gerald is a fixture in East Boston. He lived in the neighborhood for over a decade, created art in a studio on Border Street and went to Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church.
“I really miss him,” says Don Nanstad, pastor of Our Saviour’s. “He was just such a gift of a human being to have in the church. People would walk in for some occasion and they knew Jason. It was just something … it was a presence that mattered.”
Fitz-Gerald has settled into his Fitchburg home, but his studio is still a work in progress. The four-car garage features a giant wooden easel, a slew of cardboard boxes stuffed with art supplies and stacks of wood for frames. He’s already thinking about the first painting he will create there — he wants to explore the phrase “Take my hand,” which he saw on a sign at his new church.
“This is what creativity does to me. It gets me to my deeper self,” he says. “I don’t know how to make a ‘nice’ picture. I know how to make a picture according to how I feel. If it comes out nice, fine. If it’s not nice, that’s fine too. I want to speak my truth.”