Thursday, December 27, 2012

Freedom Through Expression

There is an independence about being an artist; artisan; crafter; designer; entrepreneur – you make your own living, you make your own decisions, take your risks and some would say, tend to be less bound by many of the social ‘norms’. There’s a Facebook poster that goes around once in a while and it apparently quotes Queen Victoria; it says “Beware of Artists, they mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous”. There is something about expressing yourself – whether it be visual art, literature, articles like this or poems, song, dance – all of them – that bestows a freedom on the artist. Sometimes that is revered, but sometimes it is also feared by those who don’t have that freedom, or who don’t understand it. Should it be allowed? What is the value or conversely, the danger to society of this artistic freedom…thinking outside ‘the box’, reshaping boundaries and redefining normal?  
Kaftan by SonJ's Wearable Art for CD Cover for Shirley Ann Cyril-Mayers

We can, if we make a diligent effort to collect information, get a statistical value for the Creative Industries or any section there-of; granted, artists are notoriously hard to pin down, don’t always keep records, far less, accurate records and often operate ‘under the radar’ when it comes to taxes. Why is that? Is it that we, the artists don’t want to pay our dues? I know there is reluctance to reveal information for sure, but I think it is more rooted in misunderstanding of ‘what’s in it for me?’ There is a fear that we might appear to be ‘alright’ and no-longer receive assistance perhaps. This begs the question, what is ‘alright’? And for artists/artisans, I get the impression we are expected to be happy being ‘starving artists’ or at least living a meagre life somehow, as though the gratification we get from the ‘freedom’ of our chosen career should compensate us when we can’t pay the rent on time or can’t go to that fete or take a holiday because the income just isn’t there.

So, that tide is changing, there is no doubt about it; when I speak to my peers, they want to be on the books, want to be operating as a ‘real’ business, want to know they can take a couple weeks off for a holiday and things will be fine even without a ‘real job’.  And this is where we ALL need to be – Government, Artist, Consumer – we need to get to grips with the FACT that being an artist IS a ‘real job’!

So, if even just as a ‘real job’ sector, there needs to be appropriate support and planning for the healthy development of the industry; subjects covered in schools, departments properly equipped and supplied with materials for learning; tertiary and certificate learning; facilities for growing and running business; purpose built facilities for training, display, sale, administration, etc – and, accept that the nature of this business is specific and has specific requirements and seek and follow the counsel of experts in the field.

Handmade sandals by Claudius Edgar
But aside from the very real potential to earn significant amounts of local dollars and foreign exchange, provide substantial employment through staffing and creation of new businesses, and improve the diversity of product to support our tourism product and industry, there is another invaluable aspect to the Creative Industries and Arts & Crafts/Creative Goods are no exception: The development of a creative thinking, problem solving, appropriate solution finding, healthily able to express society. This is a reality.

I remember at a Visual Arts Teachers meeting around 2006 or 7, the Ministry official saying that the World Bank had identified the lack of teaching of the arts from Primary School level as the root cause of the problem with the island being able to come up with appropriate solutions for all aspects of life, planning, commerce, engineering etc. Now that just stuck with me, because I think, if we are honest, we can’t deny that we have ‘built’ some pretty inappropriate systems and infrastructures over the years and we seem caught in a repeating cycle of the same mistakes over and over again – another popular Facebook poster comes to mind; Einstein “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again.” 

Art and creativity exist not just for their own sakes, but as the foundations for useful thinking, the catalysts for appropriate action, the fashioning of the heart and soul of a Nation, giving depth to life and opportunities for real and rewarding careers to many that suffer from not being able to find a place within the limitations of mainstream business and the halls of the Civil Service.
Department of Creative Industries, you have a tall order to fill and the potential to achieve unprecedented positive change for our island nation.

Looshan Expressions T-shirt and CWAD Crochet Wrap
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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What We Will Lose

When I was in College studying for my Degree in Crafts, I chose to do an option that allowed me to write a ‘thesis’ – I came back to St. Lucia and with a little sponsorship from NRDF and the help of the Ministry of Community Development, I took a look at the history of St. Lucia’s crafts, what was happening then and what prospects seemed to be for the future. It fascinated me and I’ve never lost that fascination – we are a mix of so many influences – a very few seeping through from the Carib days, some from African roots and a lot from more modern demands of commerce.
Livity Art Studio - lost in Hurricane Tomas, this was a haven for local arts and crafts
What I noticed was the distinct lack of a ‘visual language’ in most of what was made – no symbols that tied back to the melange of cultures that shaped us; we’ll very few – tudor rosettes on some woodwork, wooden fretwork fascia boards that harked back to wrought iron you might find in France maybe, a few Carib style huts or walls in Choiseul, but not much, no African symbols – drums, yes, but not adorned with motifs that tied them to their motherland. Somehow our mix of colonialism had done an efficient job of wiping the heart of cultural expression out of our crafts.
Vincent Eudovic - father of all wood-sculpture in St. Lucia - in the 70s, had begun to infuse our fledgling contemporary crafts with a new symbolism – taking inspiration from history and melting into it, images of life in St. Lucia, Rastafarianism, abstracted conceptual forms. ‘The Camp’ carved fabulously in relief and in the round, complex stories coaxed out of remnants of ancient trees and slabs of local timber … their heartwood stories found homes in the houses of many an appreciative connoisseur but try looking for one today in any public place, you’ll be looking a long time. Perhaps Anse Chastanet Hotel and Ladera are the best examples of where this type of work can be seen but I don’t believe they represent the depth that The Camp achieved at their height. Eudovic’s Art Studio remains a tribute to the Master and Jallim continues the tradition in his own way as an artist, celebrated in far flung corners of the world but yet to see, like his father, real tribute to their mastery on home soil.
So, where are we today? How far have we come forward? Forward? Chinese-made busts of our Nobel Laureates in Derek Walcott Square…well, I guess at least we changed the name from the erroneous colonial Columbus Square. And we do have one Ricky George sculpture in town and one at George FL Charles Airport. First Island to have a Cultural Policy - tailor-made for sitting on a shelf with those Final Reports. But still, no museum, no National Gallery, no ‘Percent for the Arts’…and that’s not all folks! We are about to lose a lot of the little that we have if we don’t do something serious and do it soon.
Khus-Khus grass basket, Choiseul Crafts, St. Lucia
When I first worked in the crafts back in 1992, Choiseul had well over 300 active Traditional Crafters – and for those that don’t know, that means persons working in basketry – palama, kus-kus, ti-kanot, awali, ponm dilyenn in three forms: interwoven, tubecoiled and ‘wicker work’. Traditional furniture makers, crafters making fishpots and chair seats with hex-woven strips of bamboo. We had a slew of carvers too – George Gerald, Marinus Francois, Lawrence ‘Uptight’ Deligny amongst others, still carried on The Camp’s tradition and daily trained youngsters at the Choiseul Art and Craft Centre.

Shaping a Canawi - Traditional St. Lucian Pottery
Then there were the potters: St. Lucia still has the largest existing group of Traditional Potters in the English speaking Caribbean – there are about 30 left. They pickaxe the clay from their own land, pound it with African style 3 ft pestles on flat rocks near their work spaces, pick rocks from the mounds of wet clay and shape coalpots, canawi, carafe, leshwit, plant pots, kettles and more using a technique that is straight from Ghana – soft, wet, large ‘coils’ of clay swiftly transform into full bellied vessels on the potter’s knee. It is an outstanding skill. I know, I learnt from a Ghanian potter in college and doing this is not easy. Then this earth, shaped so skilfully is carefully built up one on top the next, high as your nose, with coconut branches, dried tree-limbs and all sorts of wood to form a pyramid for a bonfire. Built and lit in the early hours of a day when the skies are clear and the breeze light and masterfully tended with a 20ft stick as it burns blazing until there is just ash and the yard-mud has turned to St. Lucian traditional pottery.

We pay this amazing tradition scant attention - at most buying a coalpot during October month where we apparently celebrate our Kweyol heritage. We seem oblivious to its value to our culture, to the Quarter of Choiseul where the average income leaves them sitting in 2nd last place on the island's poverty scale.

Bonfiring the pots
Soon though, if we do nothing, we won’t have a clay coalpot for Jounen Kweyol – this is the last generation of Traditional Potters in St. Lucia: it is a tradition passed on from mother to daughter and not one of the children of any of these potters has any intention to carry on in this beautiful but dead-end career. Without action – serious, thorough, practical, proud action - we will lose this tradition.
There are a few who realise what we have, realise the worth and have begun to  try to do something to save our tradition – MacArthur Phillip of Choiseul, Prof. Patricia Faye of Florida Gulf Coast University, myself to name a few, but it is hard to do this in what seems an ocean of disregard.
Steaming the vines for 'Wicker- work" deep in the rainforest
Steaming a Gonmye tree to make a dug out canoe, Praslin, St. Lucia
There are other similar stories, the potters are just my passion – we hardly ever make Gonmye Canoes for instance – I was shocked and happy to see a couple being made at Praslin a few months ago this year, but that’s a rare sight.  The ‘wicker’ workers number 2 elderly gents in Choiseul and one getting-older gent in Dennery. Traditional furniture, hand turned on hand-built, foot powered lathes…there remain two men making these. When last did you see a bamboo fish pot? The Choiseul Art and Craft Centre, last time I visited, was full of souvenirs ‘customized’ for St. Lucia and made in Colombia and hardly a genuine local craft was to be seen. This is government money buying these things. The training rooms are empty  – no woodcarving, no Taiwanese bamboo craft, no pottery – US$70,000+ worth of pottery equipment left to rot in the rains. I feel like swearing to end this article! What on earth are we thinking?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Creative Industries – Creative Products…an Un-Milked Cash Cow

Printed in the St. Lucia Voice Newspaper, Saturday 1st December: First in a series that I'll be writing in a push to gat development of this sector.
Let me start by saying, I am daily confounded by the lack of attention paid to this sector’s potential for our Nation, even in the recently launched ‘Creative Industries’ Department…where were the creative products?  Our collective heads seem buried deep in our lovely sandy beaches!

I am passionate about this sector:  I live it – as an artisan and as a consultant in this sector. I suffer, along with many others, unnecessarily low income because of the ridiculous challenges that face us here in St. Lucia, NOT because I am happy being a ‘starving artist’- I and pretty much everyone else I know are not happy under-earning.  I persevere because I know very well what the potential is AND I know what’s needed to develop it; I give countless hours of time (as do many others) to voluntarily advising government departments and visiting highly-paid Consultants and to co-ordinating activities…but we seem to have gotten pretty much nowhere over the years; same old, same old place!
Island Effect Beached Treasures Collection - handmade St. Lucian Clay bowl by FinolaPrescott
So in the hope of getting public, private and government support to the level of excitement that it should be at, I am committing some of my time to writing a few articles on this to share a bit about the diversity and importance of this hugely under-recognized under-developed sector– I hope you’ll come back and read more in the coming weeks also.

What is this Sector all about?

The terms ‘handicraft’ and ‘souvenirs’ are the most commonly used words when you hear people talking about our ‘creative products’ here in St. Lucia, but they both give an entirely misleading concept of what ‘creative products’ really are!

Think ‘Fashion’, think ’D├ęcor’, think ‘Designer Lifestyles’, think ‘Gourmet’ think ‘Multi-Million Dollar Industry’ …ok, now you’re more on the right track!
Alcina Nolley's silver Pitons Pendant -
Ok, I’m suspecting the last one – ‘Multi-Million Dollar Industry’ got your attention the most, and, due respect, that’s the most important one for all the decision makers when it comes to deciding where to put money for development, concessions, education, etc - so let’s take a look at that:
We have a tiny population here in St. Lucia with perhaps 75-100,000 spending individuals…BUT… we have about 250,000 – 350,000 stay-over visitors and another 500,000-700,000 cruise visitors per year… let’s say 1,000,000 persons on average, so, yes, visitor spending is a big area of potential for us, though thinking only of ‘souvenirs’ is super-limited in scope, visitors shop for much more that could be locally made, but for now, let’s just look at $$$$$...consider the following:

What if each visitor to St. Lucia spends just EC$10 on buying a locally produced creative product; that equals, EC$10,000,000 PER YEAR in income that originates outside of St. Lucia and stays largely in St. Lucia and circulates in our economy – EC$10,000,000 in EXPORT SALES.

Now let’s be more realistic

We can easily expect every visitor on average to spend US$10 when they stop on our shores – that is US$10,000,000 or EC$26,700,000 in ‘export sales income’. Getting that figure out of visitors is easy: But I firmly believe we can get 2,3,5 times that from many of our visitors and higher even from a smaller number, so we can look at a sector that brings in US$15 – 25,000,000 easy.

Explain to me again why we are not rushing to develop this sector?

There are many challenges facing this sector – competition from cheap imports being THE most difficult for us right now – and that brings into focus, lack of workable incentives for the sector: the current fiscal incentives arrangements are too cumbersome and costly for the current micro-level at which this sector operates; lack of any facilities suitable (affordable and well-located) for shops that sell Authentic local products and / or work as artisan workshops;  turning a blind eye to the fraudulent practice of passing off imported goods as locally products  - ‘hematite’ necklaces, touted as made from volcanic stones from Soufriere when they’re really iron filings in resin made in China, blatantly obvious ‘Peruvian’ style woven products with St. Lucia and the Pitons nicely embroidered on them, Carvings from Guyana, Paintings from Dominican Republic and Haiti, Sarongs from Indonesia…the list goes on and on.

Despite all these challenges, it is undeniable that this sector has huge potential for income earning – and, there are many things that could be put in place without great investment, cost or expenditure, that would go a good way towards improving the climate for doing business. 

I’ll leave it there for this week, please read again next week and leave your comments, ask questions, get involved!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Welcome to Island Effect

Just a quick note to welcome you here and say I hope you subscribe (button on right) and keep up with what I'm doing in my studio and in my consulting work and let me know what you think by commenting too...believe me, that makes blogging for me...I like conversations!

A little blue and white bowl from the Beached Treasures series

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