A Brief update on Poetry, Art Music; A Celebration to Benefit St. Lucia

Earlier this year, way back in May when the year was fresh and promised endless possibilities, I shared with you my plans to host a fundraiser Benefit for St. Lucia after Hurricane Tomas thrashed the island late last year.

Well, I managed to pull it off and wanted to share some of this with you:

St. Lucia event listed in Chapman University's 150th Celebration Booklet

"Heliconia" one of two glicee prints donated for auction by artist Donna Grandin on display at Leatherby Library

" Bird of paradise" glicee print donated by Donna Grandin on display at Leatherby Library

Leatherby Library St. Lucia display

Me with poet Lynne Thompson and dirtcakes editor, Catherine Keefe

Dr. Anna Leahy, Director of Tabula Poetica, welcoming everyone with "See Me, See Me Now" (image from artist Donna Grandin) in background.

Me along with theater students Vano Kimmel, Kelly Rogers and Malia Wright who did a fantastic job of reading poetry by St. Lucian poets Travis Weekes, Jane King Hippolyte and Kendel Hippolyte. See also event sponsor, Catherine Keefe of dirtcakes.

Steel Drummer Francis Lynch creating great ambiance

Photos depicting St. Lucia before, during and after Tomas on display throughout poetry reading. Images provided by St. Lucian photographers Stephen Paul, Bill Mortley and artist Donna Grandin

Click here to view video recording of the event.

Again, I’d like to say thank you to all involved: Dr. Anna Leahy, Catherine Keefe, Leatherby Libraries, Lynne Thompson, Donna Grandin, Jane King Hippolyte, Travis Weekes, Kendel Hippolyte, Stephen Paul, Bill Mortley, Vano Kimmel, Kelly Rogers, Malia Wright, and last but not least, Deena Edwards for all your support and participation. This wouldn’t have been possible without you.

All donations were delivered to the Red Cross.

Personal Interaction and Gossip in Dacia Maraini’s “Woman at War”

Life has slowed down considerably since I graduated and moved back to Louisiana.  I now spend my days working on my novel, filling out applications, taking long walks to Granny’s house, cooking, and catching up on last season’s True Blood (the new season started Sunday!). I haven’t been reading as much; I went from reading one or two novels a week, to starting three and not finishing any this last month. It feels like my days are all lazy days. Though there’s always a lot to do and I try to accomplish something each day, I know I can always do more.

The thing is, I have ample alone time (something I crave as a writer), but I’m discovering that even that can get frustrating. To my surprise, I’m beginning to feel too alone. In fact that’s how the walks to Granny’s house started. I needed the exercise, yes, but really I needed stimulation; writing requires my senses to be alive. How can I create a world the reader will be happy to be immersed in if I don’t get out and explore and experience the world about me?

That walk through the neighborhood, past the park, Botanic Garden, fire station and police training ground, is quite stimulating. The French architecture, huge

Botanic Garden Sunflower

old trees and flowers are visually stimulating, while the herbs at the Botanic Garden are olfactive. Passing joggers smile and wave, giving me a sense of belonging, and it’s kinda cool to have a sea of soon-to-be -policemen part as I jog through with a reggae and soca soundtrack on my iPod pushing me on. All these little things add to the experience, but the talks in Granny’s kitchen are the real inspiration. It’s amazing how talking to the right person can make me feel more myself.

Saturday, I attended a party (baby shower/birthday celebration for the daddy) and delighted in the opportunity to interact with a new circle of women. There were so many new characters, so many personalities to analyse and so many stories to piece together as I tried to figure out how these women were connected. This led me to think about Dacia Maraini’s Woman at War and Vannina, the first person narrator and protagonist who grows through her interactions with a new circle of friends. Vannina never plans it, but while on vacation in Addis, then Naples, the people she associates with, from all walks of life, change her. She tries to, but finds she can’t go back to life as it was in Rome.

Maraini uses gossip as a literary device to make a quick connection with the reader and uses this protagonist in particular, to demonstrate how personal interaction can influence a person. Vannina, a twenty-five-year-old Roman teacher, is introduced at the very onset of her summer vacation and the reader finds her to be a reliable first-person narrator, because she “gossips.” “So starts my holiday,” she writes in her diary and it is important to note that keeping a diary isn’t something she is driven to out of necessity. As far as the reader can tell, she just does it. This means she has no audience to address, no jury or judge to appeal to, and no listener to impress or persuade. The reader can take her at her word and not feel coerced or manipulated into liking or caring about her.

Vannina doesn’t aim to cloak, hide or explain away any aspects of her personality. The reader can trust her. She records her story assuming absolute privacy and appears quite comfortable with keeping a diary. She doesn’t fear prying eyes because not even Giacinto, her semi-literate husband, will read what she’s written. Maraini presents Vannina as having no reason to lie, and like Tota, a native of Addis who quickly befriends Vannina with her penchant for gossip, Vannina doesn’t hesitate to reveal the most scandalous details about everyone and everything in her diary. The text is designed to allow the reader to get to know Vannina in much the same way she gets to know her new acquaintances and friends. The reader can therefore trust that Vannina has no reason to deceive, and since she doesn’t have to worry about what is appropriate, she can talk freely, sharing all the good gossip. The text takes the form of an uncensored dialogue Vannina has with herself so that the reader can eavesdrop on a conversation that gets real intimate real quick.

Though Maraini lets the reader know that Vannina can be a bore (she appears meek and

 subservient in her interactions with the other characters), the text is chockfull of personal reflections and secret confessions. Maraini allows her protagonist to use language that is raw and honest. When she writes in her diary her voice is strong, direct and bold. She notes the most exciting and bizarre things in the most succulent language and writes with confidence and reckless abandon, precisely because she never intends an audience.

Maraini places the reader in the position of ultimate gossip buddy to Vannina, much like Vanina’s early interaction with Tota, who “started talking straight away in a carefree, natural way as if we were two old friends” the narrative voice connects with the reader as it is straightforward and has an intimate and familiar tone (9). This approach lends the work a conversational tone and the familiarity with which the narrator addresses the reader suggests that Maraini uses the first-person narrative voice to evoke gossip, and by extension, folklore.

Like gossip, the stories Vannina records seem shocking and outrageous at first, but one advantage for Maraini is that the reader doesn’t have to guess at what Vannina might be lying about. Maraini’s technique of plunging the reader into Vannina’s story, just as easily as one would “fall” into a bit of gossip, takes the reader as close as possible to what the protagonist really thinks. She also applies an oral tone to the work by using dialogue—usually without tags— throughout the text as a means of inferring this uninhibited speech, or gossip. In this way, the reader gets the story directly from Vannina, not a third party. Maraini aims to recreate a natural meeting between protagonist and reader and she draws a parallel between the new relationships Vannina strikes up with people like Tota and Suna, and the simultaneous impression she makes with the reader.

As Vannina’s transformation from subservient wife to independent woman isn’t explicitly stated as being her intention at the beginning of the work, and does not become her focus at any particular point in the work, her growing self-awareness is presented by the author as being organic, unforced. The shift occurs subconsciously, “I was sunk into a dark and painful sleep for days. On the fifth day I had a strange and obscurely revealing dream which changed the course of my life” (279). Vannina’s transformation/evolution is presented as occurring, naturally, and as unconsciously as her original social conditioning must have.

In this way, Maraini presents Vannina as somewhat in-condemnable. The author doesn’t try to distance herself from her protagonist and Vannina appears to have an acceptable reputation though she engages in actions and events the reader may not approve of. This encourages the reader to side with her, in the same way Vannina chooses not to judge her new friends, and excuse her improprieties.

Vannina eventually comes to admit to herself that some things she believed to be true about herself and the nature of a woman was only in an effort to gain the approval of the people she deemed to be better than her. This belief is a part of her social conditioning. Like a girl, she still wants to be liked, so she is willing to do things not in her own best interest; “I wanted to say no. But I let myself be carried away by the pleasure of saying yes, of being ingratiating, carrying out a task without question, so that I could then be rewarded with the approval of those who were cleverer and more confident than myself. It was just what they expected from me, naturally, it was my role as a woman” (Maraini 110). Vannina grows to understand that her unquestioning acceptance of these norms is unreasonable. Her obedience therefore, doesn’t reflect her shifting self-image or improve her life.  She learns to be more selfish once she has the opportunity to understand the extreme measures people will take for presumed personal advancement. She starts to form her own opinions and begins to take responsibility for her actions.

Maraini, in the tradition of a folklorist, seems to value the oral text as primary in the way she presents Vannina’s story. The diary format, the gossipy tone, and the repeated use of dialogue all suggest an oral text. The stories a society chooses to tell and retell form the fabric of the culture as “[w]ith time and repetition, some examples of human expression become pervasive and common place. When they do, we conceive them to be traditions or traditional; and we can identify them individually or collectively as folklore” (Georges and Jones 1).

Maraini is brave enough to write about these people, in their words. She does what the history books fail to do and allow the reader to experience the everyday activities and daily lives of these common folk by writing about gossip or folklore.  This has been the function of the earliest forms of literature in narratives by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio and the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

Unlike Vannina, I wasn’t exposed to the personalities, characters and energies of the women at the party long enough to adopt any of their traits or develop any major changes in the way I view the world. The women at the party, unlike Tota and Vannina were more guarded, reluctant to share too much, there wasn’t any gossipping, so I came away with very little. My talks with Granny however, are more embracive and should therefore be more influential. What about my interaction with Maraini through this work? I read it, studied it, wrote my final paper on it and even got the chance to talk with her briefly at The John Fowles Center for Creative Writing Annual Reading Series. I hadn’t known it until the words were spoken, but I told her that her work had inspired me to be more bold in my writing. We absorb something of another in the books we read, the music we listen to, the television shows we watch, the people we work with and those we live with, so be aware of what you’re absorbing, what your children are absorbing and how we are all affecting each other as we evolve in this web of life.

Dacia Maraini is an Italian writer. Maraini’s work focuses on women’s issues, and she has written numerous plays and novels. She has won awards for her work, including the Formentor Prize forL’età del malessere (1963); the Premio Fregene for Isolina (1985); the Premio Campiello and Book of the Year Award for La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa (1990); and the Premio Strega for Buio (1999).

A Lesson in Art Appreciation from Sir Dunstan St. Omer By Nadia Alcee-Miller

Artist Sir Dunstan St. Omer Photo by Chris Huxley

Sir Dunstan St. Omer is a St. Lucian born master painter and renowned muralist. He was born in Castries St. Lucia on October 24th, 1927 to Gerald and Louise St. Omer and was raised in a Catholic household.  The second of three children, a young Dunstan attended the St. Aloysius Boys Roman Catholic Primary School and later the St. Mary’s College. His interest in art developed under the tutelage of Harold Simmons, his Art teacher, who taught him to appreciate the beauty of the country, its’ people, landscapes and seascape. St. Omer therefore spent many weekends exploring St. Lucia’s countryside, searching for inspiration.

The Hon. Dunstan St. Omer works on his Prometheus Mural at the Open Campus site in Saint Lucia. The mural features man receiving from God, the gift of fire and light.(Photo Compliments UWI)

Sir St. Omer married young and fathered nine children. He painted at night and sold his art by day. St. Omer would eventually succumb to the pressures of poverty, and turn to alcoholism, but quit the day his son came home upset. The boy’s friends were referring to him as a drunk, so St. Omer gave up drinking and remains sober to this day.

Sir St. Omer later moved to Curacao to work for Dutch Oil and got the opportunity to work with the country’s most prolific painter, Pandelis. Upon return  to St. Lucia, he taught at the Vide Bouteille Secondary School and also managed to teach part time at his alma mater, St. Mary’s College, and the Extra Mural Department of the University of the West Indies. Sir St. Omer studied art for a year in Puerto Rico, worked as editor and sub-editor for a local newspaper, The St. Lucia Voice, and was Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. He became the Art Instructor with the Ministry of Education in 1971 where he remained until his retirement in 2000.

National Flag of St. Lucia designed by Dunstan St. Omer

Sir St. Omer is known as the most religious painter in the Caribbean region. Famous for designing the St. Lucia National Flag, he has also produced several versions of the Black Madonna. He remains interested in the love of mother for children and believes that a man’s only role is to protect a mother and her children. Sir St. Omer has done many murals depicting community life and cultural activities unique to Caribbean culture. He says he was used to the European version of God as an artist, but wanted to explore an image that represented himself and his people. He painted his first Black Jesus mural in a small church in Jacmel on the western coast of St. Lucia. This mural depicts the Holy Family, not just Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, but also several members of the community, including a dancer, a fisherman, an Amerindian woman and child, and a musician, images that mirror the faces of the people who worship there every Sunday. When it came to unveiling the mural for the first time at the dedication of the new church on an Easter Sunday morning, Sir St. Omer admits to experiencing anxiety, he wondered whether the public would embrace his version of God. Not surprisingly, the people were thrilled and felt that Sir St. Omer had given them a church that finally belonged to them.

St. Martin de Torres, the first black saint, Castries Cathedral. Photo: Nancy Atkinson

After this project he was asked to work on the restoration of the Holy Cathedral in the city of Castries in conjunction with Pope John Paul’s Second visit in to the island in 1985. On this project, Mr. St. Omer painted his own interpretations of many religious figures and scenes. He painted yet another portrait of the Holy family; Mary the Queen of Heaven, St. Martin de Torres the First Black Saint, Patron Saints St. Anthony and St. Jude, Archbishop Webster and St. Dominique Founders of Monasteries, The Martyrs of Uganda and a mural of the Last Supper. Pope John Paul commended St. Omer’s ingenious work, and since then, visitors from around the word have come to The Holy Cathedral to pay homage to his work.

St. Omer dedicates all his work to the Virgin Mary, inscribing each of his pieces with the letters PSLV Pour La Sainte Vierge, or, “to The Virgin Mary.” In his view, people gravitate towards Mary because she personifies love. In 1987, St. Omer was approached by the parish of Francois in Martinique to help restore their church, which was destroyed by fire. Within a period of three months he painted his greatest prismatic work, a style of painting that was established by St. Omer and his friend, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, when they studied cubism in the 1950’s. In Martinique, St Omer portrayed the Life of Christ from birth to crucifixion with the final scene depicting Armageddon.

St. Omer's The Holy Family Mural Roseau Church Photo: Nancy Atkinson

Sir Dunstan St. Omer has received several accolades for his work over the years, including the St. Lucian Cross, a papal medal bestowed by the Roman Catholic Church, and has been declared a national hero by the Folk Research Center. In 2009, Sir St. Omer received the Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) from the University of the West Indies for his outstanding contribution to art in the region and earned knighthood by Queen Elizabeth the Second in April 2010.

I was a student at St. Joseph’s Convent Secondary School in St. Lucia when I got an unexpected lesson in Art appreciation from this great artist. My class walked down Cedars Road and through the streets of Castries all the way to the City Town Hall on Peynier Street. We attended an art exhibition organized by Mr. Dunstan St. Omer and his sons in commemoration of St. Lucia’s twelfth Independence Anniversary from Great Britain and viewed art pieces by local students as well as adults. I was surprised to see family portraits by preschoolers on display, and found the pieces amusing. I did not think these drawing deserved to hang next to works by great artists like Dunstan St. Omer and his sons, so I snickered. Mr. St. Omer heard me and quickly chastised me before my peers. He taught me a valuable lesson when he told me that art could not only be found in galleries, but in everyday life, and in all forms. He insisted that, from a child’s simple drawing, to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, paintings, and all art in general, was valuable and needed to be revered and respected as such.  In that instant, Sir St. Omer, my favorite artist, inspired me to embrace all forms of art and appreciate them as masterpieces in their own right.

Self Portrait Photo by Bruce Paddington Founder of Prismism

Sir Dunstan St. Omer has created great art and has a unique style of painting that truly speaks to me. His works portray familiar faces and grace communities and landmarks in my beautiful island country of St. Lucia. Sir Dunstan St. Omer has helped develop my appreciation for art and also helped broaden the artistic views of my fellow St. Lucians. He has made excellent contributions to the development of St. Lucian culture through his work and dedication to his craft. I remain inspired by all he has done, and grateful for that simple yet valuable lesson he taught me on what was just a regular afternoon in Castries.

Note: Biographical information provided by Strabon Caraibes, Caribbean Beat and Visit St. Lucia Anytime.

Nadia Alcee-Miller is a wife and mother of a three-year old daughter. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but hails from the beautiful country of St. Lucia. She is currently pursuing a Nursing degree
at Concordia University, Wisconsin. She is very passionate about people and teaching and would like to be a nurse educator in the future. She enjoys reading, cooking, baking, entertaining and spending quiet time with her family.

Food and Family in Erri De Luca’s “God’s Mountain”

Erri De Luca (Image compliments: Hyde Park )

Erri De Luca was born in Naples in 1950. He is a columnist for Il Manifesto and a novelist whose work has been translated into seven languages. He lives outside of Rome.

De Luca’s International bestsellerr God’s Mountain demonstrates how important family is to one’s development and highlights the important role food plays in Neapolitans’ interpersonal relationships and social interaction. In God’s Mountain De Luca uses food to create a sense of place and manages to reveal intimate details about the people and their culture.

All the food mentioned in God’s Mountain can be found locally; pulled out of the sea (tender octopus), baked down the street (by Dirty Gigino) or prepared in one’s home kitchen. This intimate relationship with food, and by extension, the people who prepare the food, is reflective of the respect Neapolitans have for family and community. “It’s important to be two, a man and a woman, in this city. He who’s alone is less than one,” the unnamed thirteen year old narrator says. De Luca demonstrates how relationships are forged, developed and nurtured through the sharing of food. It is therefore possible, as the story progresses, to trace the development of the narrator’s relationship with Maria by noting how their familiarity increasing from meal to meal.

Image compliments pizzicletta

In one of the young lovers earliest meetings the narrator is hungry yet he refuses to accept some of Maria’s bread and butter. “I stand in front of her and my stomach feels empty. I’m hungry for bread, to take a bite out of her slice of bread and butter. She offers me some. I say no.” (26) This refusal of food, even when hungry, indicates a lack of familiarity and lack of intimacy in their new relationship.

Image compliments Dan Fredman

In contrast, the Christmas meal displays a real intimacy between the two. It occurs right after they have made love for the first time; “We serve the capon with potatoes, sitting close to each other, side by side. We eat with our hands, bumping our elbows into each other, then we look and laugh at each other in the dark.” (116) “We put a blanket over our shoulders and eat the almond cookies….“ Next time I’m going to make a pie,” she says.” (117) The young lovers are more familiar with each other at this point and the sharing of a meal that they’ve both prepared reflects the level of comfort they draw from one another. With this meal there is not only an intimacy but also the promise of tomorrow, a next time, and probably a lifetime.

Bread with Quince Jam. Image compliments Orange Truffle

Early on in the text we learn that the food signifies one’s level of poverty. The narrator writes in his diary, “At snack time some kids used to take cakes out of their bags. To us poor kids, the janitor would hand out bread with quince jam” (7). The narrator knows he is different based on food. The narrator also chooses to leave school at the age of thirteen due to the fact that his income is needed at home. He has the opportunity to offer financial help in a household where his aging father cares for him and his dying mother. Food is such a basic necessity that it is the only thing we ever see the narrator regularly spend his money on. The sharing of a meal then, this hard-earned necessity, is more than just a friendly gesture; it is an invitation to intimacy, to a place in a person’s life or story.

Food is a necessity and though it is to be enjoyed, anything more than what is absolutely necessary or immediately available is considered a luxury. That is why when “The old man, the landlord brings pastries, a luxury to Maria’s family,” as a way to buy the girl, coax her back to his bed, and leaves “ the pastries behind,” the family chooses to indulge in this rare treat. (74) Eating pastries is a luxury Maria’s family doesn’t refuse though the pastry bearer himself is vile.

Image compliments The Tea Chest

When the narrator starts drinking coffee, instead of coffee substitute, it is a sign that he has matured, as is his leaving money for food. The narrator says, “I was only sharing an affectionate thought about coffee that I’ve only just gotten to know and that I like a lot, black with no sugar. I leave money on the table to buy what’s missing from the kitchen.” (143) Maria’s wine drinking is therefore a similar sign of maturity as she drinks wine to replace her menstrual blood, “ She says that her blood is running but it’s not a cut, it’s a change that women go through. She drank the wine to get her blood back.” Her wine drinking as well as the high heels she later wears mark her as a woman.

Food is therefore important in the development of interpersonal relationships, family and community. Neapolitan’s remain connect to their past, their heritage, and their culture through food and De Luca allows us into the kitchens. Family life, friendships and relationships unfold around the kitchen table so that the kitchen table becomes the heart of Neapolitan culture. The narrator’s father speaks to him concerning the important issue of his mother’s health at the table, the young couple gets fatherly advice from Don Ciccio and the narrator often swaps stories and experiences with Rafaniello over lunch.

The stories behind the food reveal a great deal about the people and their culture. The capon, a castrated rooster, is an Italian delicacy. Maria’s maccheroni frittata dish is made with left over pasta

pizza margherita (Image compliments Yum Ciao)

suggesting poverty. The pizza margherita the narrator’s father request is named for Queen Margherita of Savoy who visited Naples to escape the cholera epidemic in 1899. The ingredients represent the colors of the Italian flag and reaches more than a century into the country’s past. Through food we get a glimpse of the culture of Naples.

Erri Deluca will read at Chapman University’s Leatherby Library on April 4, 2011 as part of the annual Fowles Center Reading Series http://www.chapman.edu/fowles/

Poetry, Music, Art: A Celebration to Benefit St. Lucia

I was born and raised in St. Lucia, a tiny island in the West-Indies, and though it may be viewed as just a dot on the world map, I wouldn’t trade my small island upbringing for anything in the world. At 16 degrees north of the equator, St. Lucia wears a fertile skin of dark rich volcanic earth covered in lush vegetation, and rises pristine out of the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to fold itself into fecund hills and majestic mountains, deep valleys and serpentine rivers all fed by cool tropical rains.

Masquerader on the streets of Castries depicting a pregnant Mary as part of Christmas Celebrations in the city

The island brims with sensuality and life.  The waves’ constant caress carves sandy beaches out of the shoreline and keeps the island and its inhabitants isolated from the rest of the world. As a result, St. Lucians have development a rich and unique culture. The combination of St. Lucia’s impeccable natural beauty and its deep culture that inspire me as a writer. I grew up reading books that took me on journeys and adventures all around the world, creating a longing for foreign places, peoples and languages, but it is St. Lucia that grounds me as a writer.

Castries habor in the background

I had no idea I wanted to be a writer until my late teens, but I think the seed was planted long ago when I attended Methodist primary school and learned that Derek Walcott, had attended my school. By secondary school, I was introducing myself to my classmates saying, “My name is Natalie and I’m fascinated by Greek Mythology.” My good friend Kama and I still laugh about it to this day. I then sat in Mrs. Edwards’ class at St. Joseph’s Convent and soaked up all she had to say about literature. It wasn’t until then that I began to think that I too could someday write great stories. The woman displayed a passion for Caribbean Literature that inspired me to want to read more, to dream that I could someday create and share my very own stories. From there I attended the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College where I studied under Kendel Hippolyte and his wife Jane King Hippolyte, two of St. Lucia’s most noteworthy poets. My time with them was what truly convinced me that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. I remember having a serious conversation about it with Kendel. He told me that it wouldn’t be easy, but well worth it if I was prepared to work hard at my craft, and I am forever thankful for his guidance. Now, as I work on my first novel, I can truly appreciate how inspiring St. Lucia is for a writer.

Severely damaged road in Tomas' wake

I followed the news of Tomas from my Los Angeles apartment remaining glued to my computer. Countless images and stories kept appearing on facebook and I couldn’t pull myself away. That same tropical rain that nourishes all life on the island had become torrential, causing landslides and mudslides, damaging roads and infrastructure, washing away homes, livestock and vehicles.

Damaged home

The southernmost districts of Vieux Fort and Soufriere, home to Hewanorra International Airport, the famous Pitons and the world’s only drive in volcano, were most heavily impacted by the strong winds and heavy rainfall. I know Soufriere and Vieux Fort, but couldn’t recognize them once Tomas had left them disfigured, hardly recognizable. I cried.

Soufriere endured the brunt of Tomas’ rage, getting cut off from the rest of the island as chunks of the major artery of roadway circumventing the island were washed away.  The town could only be reached via boat following the storm and residents were trapped without fresh water or electricity as authorities struggled to address the threat of waterborne diseases. Locals were advised not to consume meat off dead cattle and to boil all drinking water. The John Compton Dam was also severely damaged and roads leading to the dam were impassable, cutting off access to any and all water supply. In the end, there were fourteen confirmed deaths, including one American whose vehicle ran off a road and fell down a precipice. The Prime Minister, Stephenson King, described the island as a “war zone” and damages are estimated to be in the amount of $100 million US dollars after an air survey was conducted.

I followed all this online and was lucky enough to talk intermittently to my mother.  She stays in the north of the island and managed to remain safe throughout it all.  Landlines were down but we could still reach each other via her cell phone until the battery died. The family home suffered minimal damage due to flooding, but my aunt wasn’t so lucky, she lost part of her roof to the strong winds.

Doing laundry after the storm

I was still very affected by all the information coming out of the island when I returned to campus the following week but was somehow unaware that I was carrying the weight of it around with me. I felt helpless, hopeless, and something of a traitor for not having shared the experience with my people and was deeply saddened by the idea of not being able to offer any help from all these thousands of miles away. It was a typically beautiful Southern California day when I emerged from my apartment and returned to campus. The sight of all the smiling young people, students, going about their business as usual, seemingly without a care, struck me as tragic. I felt alone, like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. It was in that moment that I realized how everyone around me was unaffected by this serious, devastating incident in St. Lucia. The news hadn’t made any ripples in America because a small island like St. Lucia does not get a lot of attention in the international media.

It was then that I decided to do whatever was within my power to help. Because I couldn’t afford to send food, water or money home, I approached Patrick Fuery, the Chair of Chapman University’s English Department about the possibility of hosting a fundraiser. Dr. Fuery’s reaction was positive and encouraging, and as a result, the fundraiser, Poetry, Music, Art: A Celebration to Benefit St. Lucia, is scheduled for April 5th at Chapman University.  I am therefore extremely thankful Dr. Fuery and the English department, Catherine Keefe, a Chapman alum, and editor of dirtcakes, for sponsoring the poetry contest, Dr. Anna Leahy of Tabula Poetica, for being my mentor and working with me on planning this event. To Lynne Thompson, thank you for agreeing to read your poetry. Donna Grandin, much love for your donation and photographers Chester Williams and Bill Mortley, and Stephen Paul, thanks for allowing me to share your images. My sincere thanks to poets, Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King Hippolyte and Travis Weekes. It feels good to know there are people willing to lend a hand.

Introducing même bête: The Art of Bag Making

Taribba Hinkson and son

Taribba Hinkson is a 29-year-old development professional. She was raised in St. Lucia and studied in Canada. She has an undergraduate degree in International Development and an MBA in International Management. She also has a professional International Project Management designation. After working in the not-for-profit field, aiding businesswomen to obtain export markets in North America, she decided to use her knowledge to start up a business of her own. 2009 saw même bête’s humble beginnings in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The idea was to create an East meets West vibe by combining the best of Ethiopian leather with the most energetic African traditional cotton. même bête currently works on custom orders for weddings and fashion shows as well as for wholesale orders.

The name même bête comes from a St. Lucian Creole saying that roughly translates to we are all the same. The name also creates a loose pun on the various types of leather used, ox, sheep, goat and cow.

Natalie d’Auvergne: How did you get into the bag making business? What was your initial inspiration and how difficult was it to get your business off the ground?

Taribba Hinkson: As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. I needed some extra cash and was racking my brain thinking of something

Kwéyòl couture!! All styles available in traditional St. Lucian madras!!

I could do to supplement my income. I was already familiar with the local artisans and the materials available, due to my work with trade businesswomen in Ethiopia, so I thought it would be interesting to put a new twist on the typical Ethiopian leather bag. The local leather is abundant and very high quality and I’ve always loved the vibrant colors of the West African Dutch wax. I put two and two together and the rest is history. I have recently branched into making bags with madras as well, which is very popular with my African clientele.

Getting started wasn’t too difficult because I already had so many contacts with local artisans who were able to guide me and assist me whenever I got stuck. I started off at the many bazaars and craft fairs around the country and I have now built up a strong enough clientele that people seek me out when they are looking to buy. I mainly sell custom and wholesale orders from my home now and do the occasional crafts fairs.

d’Auvergne: A major distinction between art and craft is the notion of “art for art’s sake” as opposed to the practicality of craft products. Your pieces  accomplish both; the beautiful bold patterned fabrics are artistic, while the structural design of each handbag offers functionality for everyday use. Tell me a little about the creative process. How do you balance aesthetics and practicality?

 

 

Bold Print compliments même bête

Hinkson: Well, I really want my bags to be functional so I stick with clean classic designs. I leave the art aspect to the makers of the cloth who put a lot of tradition and history into their designs. The color combination between the cloth and the leather is also very important. I try not to make the leather outshine the cloth but rather compliment it. I stick to muted shades when the cloth is vivid and more brilliant colored leather when the cloth pattern is more subdued.

d’Auvergne: How involved are you in the entire process? Do you have a hand in the actual construction of the pieces or are they factory made? Do you design them yourself?

Hinkson: I do everything myself. I design, purchase my materials, make the bags, do the marketing labels, selling… everything. I am a one- woman business. When I have large orders for trade shows etc., I outsource some of the work, especially now, with a ten-month-old son; balancing work and motherhood is difficult.

 

d’Auvergne: You were raised in St. Lucia and now live in Ethiopia. How similar or different are the two cultures and how have your experiences influenced your designs?

Hinkson: Ethiopian and St. Lucian cultures are worlds apart, from everyday nuances to the food and music. In my opinion, the  two cultures have absolutely nothing in common. Most of us as Black-Caribbean people tend to identify more with West-African culture as we are descendants of West African slaves. I am still adjusting to Ethiopian life four years later, and still find myself lost and sometimes lonely. Many people have never heard of St. Lucia and I spend a lot of time explaining how St. Lucia and Jamaica are two different countries!

d’Auvergne: How does your everyday life influence your designs? For example, now that you’re a mother, do you have any plans for a baby bag or something specifically designed for the hectic lives of new mothers?

Hinkson: Yes, of course, I am selfish with my designs and tend to make bags that I would want. Then with customer feedback, I tweak designs to incorporate their suggestions. I find that, being a mother, I appreciate a longer strap on my bags, like a messenger style that will keep my hands free to grab a fast moving baby. This has sat well with my customers.

d’Auvergne: If you were to compare your designs to any existing line what would it be, why or why not?

Hinkson: I don’t think there is an existing line like mine. I’m hoping that African print and madras can be seen as trendy all year round and not just a seasonal print.

Interested in learning more? Visit même bête at http://www.meme-bete.com/

or on facebook  at www.facebook.com/meme.bete.

Place an order at http://www.etsy.com/shop/memeb​ete (worldwide shipping) 

même bête is also available in St.Lucia, contact Taribba Hinkson at  (758) 450-1326

Art with a Purpose: An Interview with Antoine “Ghost” Mitchell

Mitchell- image compliments Advocate

Antoine “Ghost” Mitchell graduated from the Art Institute of Houston in 2001 with an Associates Degree in Graphic Design and earned a BFA from Southern University of Baton Rouge. GHOST is an acronym for God Holds Our Souls Together and Genocide Hinders Our Survival Tactics. GHOST also refers to the fact that this artist’s art and poetry is designed to ‘haunt’ those who are guilty of oppression and injustice.

Natalie d’Auvergne: While studying your pieces I found that they don’t simply tell a story but seem to frequently have a message. Do you create individual pieces to guide viewers to ‘get’ this or that from a piece? Do you ever create pieces just for the hell of it?

Antoine “Ghost” Mitchell: Exploration of my art begins with self-knowledge. Earlier pieces like The Maafa: Afrikan Holocaust/Crucifixion for instance, were created as I was beginning to learn about Afrikan and Afrikan-American History. These pieces certainly were created to prove a point.  More recent works however, such as Won’t You Help to Sing Songs of Freedom, They Don’t Really Care About Us, and Whose Blood?, were created to guide the viewer to a discussion of certain critical issues.

I do feel I am a vessel for those who cannot speak what they feel—a sort of “voice for the voiceless” (that’s my shout out to Mumia Abu Jamal) —wink! However, I do create art pieces for the hell of it, though not as often as I would like. The “UNI-5” piece based on Bone thugs-n-harmony for instance, was a strictly “for fun” piece. Creating it took me back to a time when I was inspired by Bone. I found then that I could simply…draw.

d’Auvergne: You use pencils on most of your pieces. Why pencils and how did you develop your technique? I’m particularly interested in the “backward technique” you used in “UNI-5” piece and the “Afro Blue” collection.

"Afro Blue" pencil featuring "Backward Technique"

Mitchell: Wow, that is a great question. I’ve been using pencils for as long as I’ve been drawing. I’m 29, so that amounts to about 25 years of working with pencils. Pencil, rather than paint, was the easiest utensil to get a hold of. Pencils, I could afford. When I enrolled at Southern University of Baton Rouge in 2002, I took my first Advanced Drawing Class under Robert Cox, my current mentor, and cultivated the DISCIPLINE of the Pencil.  When using a pencil, because I draw from realism, I have to really concentrate on getting the correct tones by applying the correct amount of pressure. Holding the pencil “hard” creates harder and darker marks, while holding the pencil “soft” creates the softer and lighter marks. I view the pencil as the armed revolutionary views the Gun: It’s the power of the Pencil that I use to bring the Revolution that will NOT be televised. The revolution will be carried out with a #HB and #3B pencil. Lol!

The “Backward Technique” is something that I learned while attending the Art Institute of Houston back in 1999 to 2001. In 2000 I took a drawing course where the instructor took Black and White photos of each student in the class. We then had to use a white Prisma color pencil on Black paper. Unlike working on white paper, where the hardest mark one makes is the darkest, on black paper, the hardest mark one makes is the lightest. Thus, what the artist renders are the highlights and light tonal values.  It is a pretty interesting technique that is one of my favorites.  The Afro Blue series, which is a rare painting series, is similar to the “Backward Technique” in that the canvas is painted a dark blue then I paint the highlights. I do still use black paint to paint in the dark tones as well.

d’Auvergne: Black women seem to be your preferred subject matter. You do have images of Bob Marley and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, but I noted the lack of images of ordinary men. What about us inspires you and do you not get the same inspiration from black men?

"Songs of Freedom"

Mitchell: Queen, Black Women are my heart and soul. I grew up around mostly Black Women, so the internal and external beauty of Black Women help me deal with my strengths as well as my convictions.  I have always, and will always have love for Black Women, but it wasn’t until I began learning about Afrikan and Afrikan-American history that I came to realize that the physical attributes of Black Women are greatly unique, and deserve to be thoroughly imitated by my art.  Our sisters represent many visually appealing aesthetics; they come in such diverse shapes, sizes, skin-shades, hair textures, ect. In many of my pieces, when I do use Black Women directly, I aim to inspire Black females, from the youngest to the oldest, to recognize their beauty. I am one man showing them something that they should already know.

That is a great inquiry about the lack of images of ordinary men in my work.  I haven’t seriously thought about that myself, but I think its safe to speculate that the lack of depiction of ordinary men in my work has much to do with the fact that I did not grow up with a full time father at home. HOWEVER, I’ll admit that I don’t give Black Men enough honor. I realize that when I am around men who care for their families and other responsibilities. These men include my uncles, my father of course, my older brothers, my male cousins (who are like brothers to me), many of my visual art and spoken word poetry comrades, and the many positive males I witness daily.  Hopefully one day I can produce works that focuses on males, other than my artistic and revolutionary heroes such as Bob Marley, Fred Hampton, and Malcolm X.

d’Auvergne: Your wife posed for the “Hero” series, what is it like to work with her and how does she feel about having her image analyzed and discussed all over Baton Rouge?

Mitchell: Ha! Believe it or not, in many of the works that have my beautiful Queen as a model she had little or no idea that those photos would become some form of visual artwork.  The HERO series, she did pose for; I took three different photos of her. The first was the pose that I used for HERO III: Power to the People, which was actually the very first in the series.  If you notice, that one looks a little different from the others because she was actually sick during that period.  The pose of her for HERO I: Throne of Fidelity, a favorite, required that I set the timer on my camera. She sat on my back and it came out perfect on the first try. HERO I is a depiction of Queen Nzinga of the Matamba People in Central West Africa. Queen Nzinga led many successful campaigns against the Portuguese during the 16th or 17th century and the pose of my wife sitting on my back depicts a story. One of Queen Nzinga warriors offered his back to her as a seat after Portuguese councilmen refused her one during a meeting.

"Hero-I"

As far as my wife’s image being analyzed and discussed all over Baton Rouge, she has neither negative nor positive feelings about it. It’s just one of those common things for her. Lol! To be truthful, my wife is my best and probably most honest critic.  I tell folks all the time: I DID NOT marry a groupie! And I’m happy for that! She will tell me if she doesn’t like a piece or does not agree with a certain idea. She does a great job reeling me in if I’m ever tempted to let my emotions rule instead of my mind. Lol!

d’Auvergne: Your work has been touring area Libraries. How does one go about organizing a tour and what did your tour entail?

Mitchell: Well, I have to say, compared to New Orleans and other places, Baton Rouge is a little behind on the “Afrikan Culture” front as far as artistic celebrations is concerned.  We do have our cultural leaders here who work hard at educating others about Afrikan culture. For instance, the Africentric Focus/Ma’at Study group, which I artistically and poetically participate in, hosts a yearly Kwanzaa program and we have a lovely store in our Flea Market called Harambee that sells a large collection of books that focus on Afrikan/Black history and experience.  I believe Southern University of Baton Rouge has produced, and still produces, the BEST artists in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. However, aside from all of that, there seems not to be too much mainstream support for the “progressive” work that I create. That could sometimes be frustrating, however, I refuse to let myself get down because of that.

The libraries in Baton Rouge, particularly the Scotlandville Library Branch, hosted my first exhibition right after I graduated from Southern University in May 2007.  I found that the Library was a great starting ground for a grassroots following. That is something that I’ve now acquired and am happy to have.  I’ve noticed that many Black people in Baton Rouge, for various reasons, don’t go to Art Galleries or Art Museums. However, many of those same people DO frequent libraries. So, in a way, library visitors are forced to see my work—works that may appeal to them because someone who looks like them creates them.  Hell, I didn’t know about famous Black artists—American or Afrikan—until I enrolled at Southern University in 2002 and by that time I was 20.  It therefore becomes a mater of making people aware.

"Afrika Unite"

As far as the Artistic Vagabond Tour, I simply went to each library and asked. I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could do a month-to-month exhibition at different locations and also to observe myself as I dealt with any restriction that a library may, or may not, have.  I also tried to use the different libraries in purest sense of a “tour.” I wanted to expose my work to those who may not have seen or heard about GHOST or the types of artwork that I create. It was very challenging physically and mentally.  Some exhibitions were very successful while others weren’t.  However, with the help of family, close comrades, and many that I look up to, the tour ended perfectly.

d’Auvergne: You’re branching out with a spoken word album soon to be released, Shoe Art, Digital Painting and of course commissions. How do these different mediums relate to each other and how do you remain efficient with all these different branches of your creativity?

Mitchell: I’ve been doing Spoken Word Poetry officially since 2002 when I enrolled at Southern University and began frequenting a weekly Wednesday reading called “The Mocha Room Poetry Reading.”  Eventually I would frequent a once weekly, now monthly, open mic reading called “The Eclectic Truth.” These are places where I learned, from many of my poetic comrades, how to perform and develop a style of my own.  I’ve been writing since I was about ten.

"Eymbrace Together" Digital Art Piece

I released a local Spoken Word Poetry album back in 2007 called “Gye Nyame Warrior,” which had a more African-Centered feel to it with underlining Revolutionary activism.  This current project called “2013: The GHOST Story” is a mixtape that I have recorded, arranged, and produced myself with whatever time and equipment I have.  This project is almost an autobiographical project that very slightly follows the mixtape tradition (where pre-existing music is remixed into the DJ/MC’s version) and is a compilation of new poetry, as well as past live performances and past poems never released.  I also created the graphic artwork for the album. I think one thing that makes me a little more unique than many other independent music artists/poets is that I have the ability to market myself by using the Graphic Design skills that I have.

The Digital Painting is my ‘fun work.” I have always been a huge fan of comic books and anime and those genres are actually my escape from the more serious issues I tend to convey in my works.  It’s basically painting in programs like Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter.  Creating a comic book series and/or a Graphic Novel is something I have wanted to do ever since I was eleven years old.  Comic books such as X-Men and video games like the Final Fantasy series keep me inspired.

Mitchells’ work may be viewed on his website: http://www.poeartry.net

Mixtape available here: http://www.poeartry.net/ghoststory.html and online store: http://www.poeartry.net/store.html

Daddy Issues and Allison Joseph’s “My Father’s Kites”

My Father's Kites Cover Page

Allison Joseph’s My Father’s Kites is an intensely intimate collection of poems that dissects the poet’s relationship with her father. The opening piece “Bio Note” suggests, by repeating the line “Tell me about the poet,” that the speaker has lost a bit of herself with her father’s passing. The collection therefore  seeks to restore the poets identity by analyzing and scrutinizing every aspect of her relationship with her father. Art and the creative process become therapeutic and by the end of the collection the poet has reconnected with herself and is able to assert her right to speak on what she has not been able to speak when her father was alive. In “A Daughter’s Villanelle” she states:

Allison Joseph (image compliments dancingpoetry.com)

If you could read these words, I’m sure you’d damn

the talent that I waste trying to scan

the junk of memory for what I need.

I write about your life because I can, (lines12-15)

The collection does indeed scan the poet’s memory, revisiting her childhood, her college graduation and the dreamlike moments directly following her father’s passing. The poems reveal a strained father-daughter relationship, as the poet remembers and recreates, in metered verse, the significant moments of her life, moments when her father was absent or fell short of acting as she thinks a father should. Through the act of writing, the poet comes to realize how these moments have influenced the way she views and presents herself in the roles of daughter and artist. In revisiting moments when her father had failed her, causing silence, distance and resistance on her part, Joseph manages to show how her father’s story is inseparable from her own. Presenting a dynamic image of her father, we get to see him as neglected son, “black man fighting for his dignity (Defrerred, line 3),” widower and diabetic.

At once her father is the kite-maker whose contraptions would “grab ahold of the wind to sail/ into the sky like nothing in our neighborhood” only to end in a “collapse of grocery bags.” Her father, the man who would “sing/a made-up tune to show the world how proud he was of [her],” the man who called her sister “stupid” and her “clumsy,” the same man who was “the advertising man,” “the real estate exec,” “insurance man,” and “nurse for hire.” The man who lost a part of himself when his patient, “a boy with sickle cell, kidney disease” died.

Fallen Kite (Image compliments Rajasthan Jaipur)

Even as daughter paints a picture of father, the poet demonstrates that she is aware that she can only share her version of the story. She reminds us that the vision of the man we’ve encountered in these pages is heavily colored by a daughter’s subjective perspective, by her emotions. She admits that she may failed to play the perfect role in their relationship. In “On Not Wanting to Write a Memoir” Joseph states, “My memory is insecure. I have no proof/ that what I claim is true. There’s always doubt” (Lines 4-5), and in “Dereliction” she states “I wasn’t there to help you when you fell (line 1).” Then, in ” My Father’s Hand Mirror,” she even identifies with her father saying, ” I hold the mirror as my father did,/ see imperfections, blemishes, and lines…now I glimpse the lines under my eyes,/ can feel that doubt he knew begin to rise (lines 1-14).” In acknowledging her limited perspective, Joseph allows herself to note the similarities between herself and her father. She is finally able to erase the distance, seeing his reflection in hers, knowing that they share a story. She is now able to reveal what she couldn’t when her father was alive ( I suggest you read the collection to find out).

Sprinkled throughout the text however, is the underlying fact that her father was from the Caribbean, the island of Grenada to be exact, and by the third section of the book we learn that her father’s own father, her grandfather, might have had a hand to play in who her father was.

My grandmother remained behind as he

departed to make money in the States.

She later learned my grandfather begot

A secret shame: another family. (“Father’s Lineage “Lines 11-14)

This aspect of the work is what stuck me as most poignant, for I too have a complicated relationship with my father. My father left my mother in her sixth month of pregnancy with me. He went to the States in search of a better life, promising to return to us or send for us to join him. As so often happens however, he begot another family, and the two of us still don’t have the kind of relationship I always imagined we could. This absent parent is not an uncommon occurrence in the West-Indies though. It is rather common for one parent, or sometimes both parents, to migrate to the States leaving children to grow up in single parent homes, with grandparents, or sometimes with other, more distant relatives. To grow up in the shadow of this absence is not easy, it affects one’s self-image, for as a child it is difficult to understand how a parent can choose to leave one behind.

Daddy and I at the wedding

As I participated in my father’s wedding last Saturday, the day when he finally made “his other family” official, I couldn’t help but remember Joseph and My Father’s Kites. In telling her story Joseph made it easier for me to share my own. I dare say that we share this story with countless other children who were “left behind” by West- Indian parents, who promised to return, may have wanted to return, but never did, or did too late. I still have hopes of cultivating a closer relationship with my father, and  My Father’s Kites has played a role in helping me understand that he is only human, as I am human. I accept that one only evolves as one has experiences and that one works through the process as Joseph demonstrates with this collection. My father may never be able to reveal his full story, but I can see a bit of it in my story. I think I can understand him better through analyzing myself.

Works like My Father’s Kites make me aware that the perfect relationship may never be a reality, but sadly, or not so sadly, I am okay with letting things run their course. I admire Joseph’s courage in speaking out on such an intimate issue and look forward to hearing her read on Tuesday Nov.4th  as the final guest reader for Tabula Poetica’s annual poetry reading series.

A Lesson in Reading Rae Armantrout’s Pulitzer Prize Winning “Versed”

Rae Armantrout

The more you study poetry, the more you realize that each new collection requires the development of a new set of reading skills and a complete submission to the work at hand. You must approach each with an open mind and suspend everything you thought you knew about the world. The rules are different with each collection, yet you may find if you submit, that there are endless possibilities as to what you may experience. A skilled poet can create a world in which certainty of anything, even your own existence, could hinder your enjoyment and experience of their work.

To read Rae Armantrout’s Versed, you must first say goodbye to your family, friends and busy schedule, any potential distraction, and focus. You must comfortably sit or lie in a quiet place, and when I say quiet, I mean to the point where you can hear wave after wave of your own thoughts dissipating into the air and out to the universe and the collective consciousness. You will need to be alone with her thoughts, sorry, your thoughts, for an hour, maybe two, or three…. Let’s just say as long as it takes to “get it” (I assure you each new reading will produce fresh interpretations). Once in solitary, you will have the opportunity to study the front cover.

Is that a face? A hostile planet? The curve of a right breast?

This book has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2010, National Book Critics Circle Award, and

Versed

was a National Book Award Finalist, yet here it sits in your hands.

This a little ambitious, a bit overwhelming? What on earth could she have she written in these pages?

Don’t you dare drop that book! You haven’t even read the Table of Contents, maybe that will give you some clue as to what this is about, but all you see is a list of mostly single word titles, all seemingly unrelated. After all, what does Results have to do with Name Calling have to do with Heaven have to do with Take Out?

Okay, so this is about Reality TV. Wait, She won a Pulitzer Prize for a book about Reality T.V?

The second stanza has nothing to do with Reality TV: oxidation…digestion, and … anteater?

Wait a minute! None of this makes sense.

You have to keep reading if you’re ever going figure this out.

Maybe this is above our heads, maybe we should have gotten high before….Whoa! Above …head…high,…floating …anteater. What if Armantrout, in her genius, has created a world, based on her own rules? Rules which allow her to successfully captured and recreate all those qualities of consciousness in written verse? What if the swift change of subject from stanza to stanza recreates the fleeting yet connected quality of thought, while the asterisks floating midway between stanzas, both separating and converging, recreates the effortless leap from one thought to the next, like electrical impulses zipping through synapses in the brain? What if…


Rea Armantrout is scheduled to read at Chapman University as part of Tabula Poetica’s Annual Poetry Reading Series at 5 p.m. on September 14th 2010.

The Creative Process as a Path to Self-Discovery: An Interview with Donna Grandin

Donna Grandin, Artist

 

Donna Grandin often paints close-ups of tropical foliage, landscapes, and sometimes incorporates figurative or still-life elements. Donna received an Honours B.A. in Art from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and has had solo shows at Toronto City Hall, Henderson General Hospital in Hamilton, and at the Hamilton Central Library. Group exhibitions include McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts, Burlington Art Centre and St. Lucia City Hall. Donna is currently represented by The Inner Gallery in St. Lucia. Her paintings can be found in private collections in the Caribbean, Canada, the United States, England, and Australia. She received the Newcomer’s Award in the Visual Arts category at the M&C Arts Awards Competition in St. Lucia in 1996, and the Gold Award in 2001. In 2009 she was commissioned by the city of Toronto to paint a mural which was then installed at 400 McCowan, Scarborough, Ontario.  

   

Natalie d’Auvergne: Hi Donna, thanks for doing this interview with me. Do you ever think of the creative process as a spiritual journey?  

Donna Grandin: Natalie, thank you for contacting me for this interview. Right now, as I near the end of one series and prepare for another, I’m in the “writing stage” of my creative cycle. I am working through my thoughts on paper, so I welcome the opportunity to discuss it with you. I agree, the creative process is a journey, a path to self-discovery, but I’m not anxious to reach the destination. Reaching the destination represents death for me. As an artist, whether I’m working on a painting, or just appreciating the world, life is my inspiration. Something as simple as sunlight shining though paper-thin petals, creating dramatic yellow green patches on leaves that are otherwise in the shade, inspires me. With all the external stimuli however, remaining on my path becomes the challenge. Making it to the end of one series represents a crossroad and beginning another represents a path chosen.  

"The Light Within" from the Hibiscus 'n Bananas Series

 

d’Auvergne: When did you first recognize your artistic ability? Did you have family members or friends, who were artists and did they encourage you to pursue your dreams?  

Grandin: Others around me recognized my artistic ability long before I did. I spent most of my childhood reading, even entertaining the idea of becoming a writer, but there were times when my artistic talent was apparent. I remember being so taken with a black & white illustrations of a young woman in renaissance-style clothing that I copied the  drawings. I was surprised when other people liked them because I thought they looked squashed. I took Art as my ninth CXC subject at St. Joseph’s Convent, which entailed two years of drawing class with Sr. Claire along with watercolour painting with Sir Dunstan St. Omer.  There was also my maternal grandmother, who dabbled in oils in her youth, but ultimately chose a successful career in finance instead. I saw the still-life paintings in her house and although they were good, I also noted that she displayed no desire to pick up a brush. She played a pivotal role in my artistic development when she gave me a set of acrylic tube paints on my twelfth birthday. Many of her family members in Barbados are artistic, but I only realized that after I had identified myself as an artist. When my parents got to accept the Art Award from St. Joseph’s Convent on my behalf, though they have always been supportive of me, I imagine that the award provided confirmation that I was on the right career path.  

Donna Grandin in front of "The would-be twins"

 

d’Auvergne: Your St. Lucian/ Caribbean heritage is immediately apparent in “the abstract rhythm[s] and patterns of light and colour” you employ in what you refer to as the “controlled chaos” of your style. How do you stay connected with that part of yourself now that you live in Canada?  

Grandin: Regrettably, my art is one of the few links I have to my Caribbean roots now that I live in Canada. I’ve been assimilated, and I suppose it’s my own fault. I knew when I chose to pursue my art degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, instead of York University in Toronto, that few people there would share a similar cultural background. At the time I thought I was only committing to four years of my life and wanted to be completely open to experiencing a new culture. The first six years there I made regular trips home for the Christmas and summer holidays. Now, every other year or so, I return to the Caribbean for at least a month to reconnect with family, friends, and the place itself. I usually have some idea as to what I want to photograph once there, but in preparation for those spontaneous shots, I carry a camera with me always. Back in Canada, I sort through the digital files, looking for themes, in terms of subject and how I feel about the images and I  paint from my own photos because I have an emotional connection to them  

d’Auvergne: Most of your paintings capture nature with “close-ups of tropical foliage” and “landscapes,” but some pieces, a few in your “Caribbean Imagery” series for instance, include human figures and tell a story. Do you consider yourself a storyteller and exactly what was it that inspired paintings like “Soufriere,” “Domino Players,” and “Just Friends?” Were they based on real life experiences?  

Grandin: Yes, each painting was painted from my own photographs taken in the summer of 1996 as a part of the Caribbean Imagery series I painted in my last year of University. I was engaged at the time and realized that I would probably be remaining in Canada.  With that series I was asking, “What does St. Lucia mean to me? What am I giving up?” I realize now that I got my answer because I painted the land, the people, and the light! The very essence of St. Lucia. On another note, I haven’t really addressed the artist’s role as a storyteller yet, but I do realize that my art has a way of making my life an open book.  

d’Auvergne: Art is communication, a sort of dialogue between artist and viewer. In viewing your pieces I felt like I was having a conversation with you, a little piece of your soul, or perhaps your worldview shines through. Do you approach the canvas with something to say, or do you try to remove yourself completely and simply let the pieces speak?  

The artist's studio, May 2010

 

Grandin: Of course I am saying something with each painting. The way I manipulate the paint, the composition and the colour says a thousand words about the themes I’m working on in a series. The finished product communicates how I feel about it, how I feel about the act of painting even, however, the real interesting thing is that during the creative process, the painting has a dialogue with me. It communicates what it needs saying, “this edge is too hard, that green is altogether wrong, needs more lemon yellow.”  The current painting for instance, is telling me, “you need to work bigger, need more space to breath, to stretch.” In some ways, the painting is a mirror, reflecting who I am at the time of creation, it is a snapshot. Each new painting comes to represent the person I was when I painted it. Not just in terms of my technical ability, but also in terms of my attitude towards painting, and my interests at the time. A commission might be different, but for my personal work, I open myself up to the viewer, inviting them to get to know me, and years later, when I look back at a painting, I get a whole new messages, by then I am a different person.  

d’Auvergne: From a writer’s point of view, I’m curious as to how you choose your titles. I especially enjoy title like “Banana Peel (Striptease),” ‘The Light from Within” and “ The Lullaby,” as they tend to guide a viewer’s thoughts. Halle Berry, when asked what she had decided to name her unborn baby, said that she was waiting to meet him/her before choosing a name. Is the naming process the same for you? Do you have to complete a piece before naming it?  

Grandin: Yes, the names usually come after the painting is done. Sometimes the name pops into my head before completion, and at other times a name that I initially liked just doesn’t stick. With the Hibiscus ‘n Bananas series for instance, I sat with a bunch of the finished paintings and just looked at them. The first words that came to my head were the right ones because they expressed what I saw in the paintings and maybe even what I saw of myself in the paintings.  

d’Auvergne: Each of your collections express something different about you. Your most recent collection “Hibiscus ‘n Bananas” gets up close and personal with nature. This collection doesn’t seem as abstract as some of your other collections because of the “blown up” or magnified quality of the pieces, and the absolute attention to detail. These pieces are drenched in lively green hues, and big, bright, bold, blooming colors, which force the viewer to get intimate with nature, as some of her most private and delicate parts are on display with a playful sexuality. In the “Caribbean Imagery” collection you use deep dreamy night and water scenes bathed in blue dancing hues, and that dreamy quality makes these pieces a bit more abstract. However, I also noticed that you do something completely different with the “Madras” collection. The color theme and pattern there seems to introduce new rules and guidelines to your creative process. Is every collection a self assigned challenge? If so, what inspires these different “seasons” of creation?  

"Flower Forest" from the Jungle Rhythms Series

 

Grandin: Uh… yes, yes, and yes … you’re good at this! In each series I pose some questions to myself, and go searching for the answers. All my series are related because the common thread is me. Each new series marks the next step in my development as an artist because a breakthrough in one leads to the creation of another, which means that, the imagery in my paintings, for example a red hibiscus, is not really my subject, it’s just a vehicle.  

d’Auvergne: While studying the pieces I realized that certain of them,“ My heart light” and “Spiritual Landscape” for instance, were marked as “Artist Collection Pieces.” How do you choose which pieces to keep, and why keep any at all?  

Grandin: My own collection sort of just grew, two pieces from the Jungle Rhythms series were damaged when “we” were overzealous with a drill, putting in the hanging hardware. Another 4’x5’ painting flipped off the top of the top of our VW station wagon when the bungee cord snapped as we drove up the Hamilton escarpment in rush hour traffic. I made the decision not to sell damaged paintings so I kept them. Then there are some that are my favourites, and I think worth holding on to. One day these will form part of the legacy that I pass down to my sons. And speaking of family, please let me just acknowledge the support my husband has given me since we met almost fifteen years ago. He makes it possible, on so many levels, for me to pursue my passion, my creative journey.  

d’Auvergne: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring artists, especially in St. Lucia where artistic ability isn’t as supported and encouraged as academic excellence is?  

Grandin: Young artists are at an advantage because today’s technology allows access to all sorts of information about artistic techniques, tools, career development etc. They can study art history, or look up contemporary artists because the world is at their fingertips. Even for people without Internet access, the libraries surely are much more up to date than they were when I was younger. Having a formal art education like mine is not even necessary. By making art regularly, and continually seeking ways to improve, an aspiring artist can find their voice. The second part of the equation is getting their work seen, the art world in St. Lucia is small, visit the galleries, seek out other artists, build a network, share tips on where to buy supplies, how to present your art etc. If artists treat each other as competition, then divided they will fall, if they see each other as being on the same team, then they will find that the quality and quantity of art produced by St. Lucians will continue to improve.This in turn will lead to a more art-literate St. Lucian public and a wider base of collectors. Also, I am always willing to connect with other artists. I can be contacted by e-mail at donna@bluerootsartstudio.com, and while you’re at it, take a look at my work at www.bluerootsartstudio.com.  

All images compliments www.bluerootsartstudio.com.

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