The works of internationally acclaimed artist Mathieu JN Baptiste have delivered messages of hope and inspiration to Gulfton residents — and also to a Boston University president and visitors to the Haitian presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, near where he grew up.

His work, known for its rich colors, attention to detail and forceful messages, is on display in Haiti and the U.S.

Since first coming to Houston in 2014 and later making the Bayou City his permanent home, JN Baptiste has delivered a series of dramatic and inspirational messages across Houston through his art.

A big man with a friendly manner and quick smile, JN Baptiste became a U.S. citizen last year. He and his wife Crystal, a Houston native, have a 1-year-old daughter, Morrisa.

Gulfton is one of the city’s neighborhoods that has become a favorite palette for the Haiti native, whose keen sense of place and commitment to hope in the face of struggle is a key element in his art.

In addition to his street murals, JN Baptiste produces paintings and sculptures at his studio in Sawyer Yards and frequently exhibits his work locally and nationally.

An exhibit reflecting his impressions of Haiti is on display at The Jung Center in the Museum District, and he is preparing works for another exhibit in 2024, in addition to a group exhibition in Chicago in February 2024.

A follower of the Mannerist Movement and the Realist and Surrealist School of abstract art, his works are known for their bold colors and strong symbolism. Voting rights, climate change, mental health issues, and eliminating violence are major themes.

He said his public art energizes him the most because it is accessible to a wider audience.

“Being from Haiti, I like to do projects that involve people,” he said.

JN Baptiste said he strives for art that can change someone’s day for the better. In Gulfton, that started with his work in the middle of the basketball court at Burnett Bayland Park.

With support and encouragement from Houston District J City Councilman Edward Pollard, the Gulfton Area Management District, Houston Police Department, Harris County Precinct 4 CommissionerJack Cagle, and Harris County Justice of the Peace Israel Garcia, JN Baptiste has also brought his art and uplifting message to the streets of Gulfton.

Pollard had been impressed with JN Baptiste and the two had discussed approaches for more meaningful public art in Gulfton.

The community is seeking ways not only to  reduce crime but to change the narratives about Gulfton.

“When I got there the city council already had their vision on how they wanted to shift the community to the arts, to lower the rates of crime in the community and to erase the rate of prostitution,” JN Baptiste said. “I want to bring beautification and a sense of life to make people look at this community as a place where they want to stay and  grow,” JN Baptiste said.

Pollard told JN Baptiste that public art could be a force in that effort and the best place to start was the basketball court.

“That is where the kids go to play,” he told Baptiste. “That is where a lot of fights take place.” JN Baptiste said he was all in on the park basketball court project even though it would be a first for him.

“I had never done one like that — painting where I am standing on the painting,” he said. “I usually stand in front of my murals when I paint them.”

His second work in Gulfton is a panoramic mural on the back of a building in an area that used to be a drug-dealing hangout.

The wall mural with a striking yellow background includes images that acknowledge Gulfton’s Hispanic and African immigrant heritage. Its centerpiece is a map of the management district overprinted with the graphic statement “Gulfton Pride.”

Images of African masks, wildlife and grasslands are expressed as well as scenery and traditional dress of people in Mesoamerica.

JN Baptiste said he wanted to do “something cool” in a place that was a former drug hangout and likely target for graffiti writers.

He explained that he wanted it to be a work “that if people see it, they will never think about putting anything over it.”

“That is the power of public art in Gulfton and other locations in  Houston,” JN Baptiste added. “When people see it, they respect the  message and the hard work that goes behind it.”

Just as important to the success of the message are the residents who watched him paint the mural, he said.

“They watch me do the mural  and they connect to it. They believe in the community and the mural says Gulfton pride. Don’t mark up your own wall.”

A third JN Baptiste project commissioned by ACLU TX was designed to motivate residents to vote in the city’s December runoff election. The panels include Gulfton references and spell out the word “vote.”

Other JN Baptiste works here include a mural for the ACLU office on Emancipation Avenue that focuses on voting rights issues; a 10,000-square-foot mural at Hobby Airport in collaboration with Mario Figueroa Jr.; a mural celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 2021 in collaboration with Figueroa; the roller-skating rink mural at Discovery Green Park; the “Earth, Wind, Fire & Water” monuments at Emancipation Park collaboration with RCA and an Equality Mural collaboration with RCA at the University of Houston.

One of four children, JN Baptiste gives credit to his older brother for inspiring him to become an artist. The brother, now a policeman in Port-au-Prince, had a talent for sketching cartoon figures and action heroes. Mathieu, five years younger, caught the bug from his example.

JN Baptiste says his mother recognized his talent at an early age and always was there for him, always providing him with the best tools and equipment he needed to grow and build a career in the arts.

A huge break for JN Baptiste came in 2009 when he had the chance to meet with the president of Haiti, which resulted in some of his frescoes being placed in Haitian National Palace, the country’s equivalent to the White House. The placement opened many doors for him in Haiti, including a stint teaching art to prison inmates.

In 2013, he realized a dream to visit the United States when he won first place for a painting competition focused on the subject of climate change. He went to Boston with a group of 6 other winners and the first international exhibit of his creations.

The president of Boston University saw his work and was impressed to the point of offering him a scholarship to an art program called VASI, where Mathieu had a chance to study with other students on numerous art forms

He returned to Haiti after his studies there and he would return to  the U.S. after a friend with a church group in Houston told him that the University of Houston offered an exceptional arts program.

“She said I could stay with him and we would work this out, “ Baptiste said.
It did work out. JN Baptiste continues to travel widely with his exhibitions, but he now calls Houston his permanent home.

— by Phil Shook