After Robert Maniscalco came across a photograph of a smiling young Haitian girl standing amongst debris from 2010’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake, he decided he had to visit. “I was so struck by how happy she was in the midst of this disaster,” Maniscalco says. Inspired by it, he created a painting titled “Christelle.”
Maniscalco donated the work to Water Mission, the North Charleston Christian nonprofit, and the organization then agreed to sponsor a trip to Haiti for the artist. For 10 days Maniscalco visited and worked with Water Mission in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, but what astounded him was that Christelle wasn’t an outlier. Even amidst the ruble, many Haitians were incredibly optimistic. It’s that feeling Maniscalco has attempted to capture in his series, titled The Quench Project.
“The project is about trying to align my work with my politics, my religion, and my spiritual quest in life,” he says. A portion of the proceeds from each painting sold will be given back to the Water Mission efforts in Haiti.
While in Haiti, Maniscalco took 1,800 photographs and over six hours of video, documenting the nation’s inhabitants. “The project itself as a model is a way to use art to help make the world better,” he says. “To me it just seems like the right thing to do.”
In a country where only 55.2 percent of the population has access to a water source and 70 percent don’t have direct access to potable water, Maniscalco got to watch as Haitains rejoiced at getting a Water Mission water filtration system in the mountainous region of Jacmel. “These children and people in the community were being called to fresh water for the first time,” he recalls. Their enthusiasm for this new source of water was overwhelming, and Maniscalco saw it as spiritual nourishment, explaining, “It was a living water.”
To illustrate such scenes, Maniscalco employs a social realist approach. “My object is to create an experience for the viewer to put them in a different place,” he says. “That’s part of the social realist idea. That art be used to tell a story about something that has meaning instead of just another beautiful still life of flowers.”
Working mainly with oil on panel, Maniscalco characterizes his style as expressive realism, one that employs gestural brushstrokes and slightly abstracted elements, particularly in the background. His compositions are carefully constructed so that the viewer’s eye does not settle on any one point — instead it circulates around the canvas, from background to foreground and back.
“There’s actual energy in the paint, on the surface of the painting,” he says, contrasting them with the objectivity of photorealism. His use of vivid colors is also buttressed by his application of a high-gloss Damar varnish, giving the paintings shiny surfaces. “It’s a glazing which amplifies the color, like a little magnifying glass. It makes the colors as vivid as when I painted them,” Mansiscalco says.
While he is a painter by trade, these paintings are just a part of the entire Quench Project. Maniscalco created a book — also called Quench — and a short documentary called Out of Darkness, which is accessible on YouTube, to accompany the series. He has also established fundraising efforts for the Christian nonprofit Bread of Life orphanage, and a portion of the proceeds of his painting sales will be given to them as well.
With these works, Maniscalco hopes not only to share these stories with the rest of the world, but to help viewers empathize with the psychological states of his subjects. “The world is learning something about Haiti. It’s about edification,” he says. “The project is about building people up, inspired by this synergy of people thriving under very impossible circumstances and finding happiness.”