On Sunday, November 3rd I will be staging Geejay’s Artistic Expressions, an exhibition of my work: published books, oil paintings and photography. The event will take place at the Knights of Columbus, 1034 Jeanette Avenue, Union, NJ (yes I am a Knight) from noon to 6:00p.m.
I have chosen the 3rd to celebrate, with my country and countrymen, Dominica’s 35th anniversary of Independence from England; not for being discovered by Columbus since we have come to know that the Kalinago people discovered and lived on Dominica. Even though I have been residing in the US for 27 years, I still base my work on life in Dominica. I am enthralled by all that Dominica has to offer me as an artist and I make no apologies to having based my work on experiences in Dominica. Some people were amazed that I could remember the lingo as well as I wrote it in “Ma William and Her Circle of Friends,” but I wasn’t. I am a Dominican.
The period from September through November, has been one of the most active cultural times in Dominica for many years with all the various competitions taking place around the island in dance, music, literature and art. It is the time that many Dominicans bring out their creativity and talents that they inhibit and they share those with their fellow countrymen. The conte, the bele, quadrille, the folk songs, the poetry and short story competitions and much more come alive. It is a time we take pride in being Dominicans and a multi-talented nation with superstars such as Ophelia, Brumant, the DuBlanc Group, Siffleur Montagne Chorale and Jean Lawrence of years gone by, the late Cissie Mable Cauderion, the late Premier E.O.LeBlanc, Alwin Bully, Raymond Lawrence, Earl Ettienne and the many who continue to keep our cultural heritage alive and kicking.
I must, however, point out that the love and appreciation for our art and culture must not be a seasonal thing, but a daily occurrence, just like speaking kweyol….make it something we feel proud about every day…not just one day of the year. Dacor!
Just recently, I came across a page from a 1975 edition of the Star Newspaper and on that page was an article about my having won both the short story and poetry competitions during the National Day Celebrations, as it was called then. It was somewhat nostalgic for me (I remember being stunned to hear I had won both competitions) and I felt good about myself and where I am today in terms of my artistic contribution to Dominica. The poem I won with was “For I am A Dominican,” later published in The Dawn, my first published book of poems and later republished in The Island Man Sings His Song, and with the short Story “Converted,” which was published in Mesye Kwik! Kwak! a collection of short stories.
I always seem to have to convince many people that I have had no formal training in any of these art principles. Every aspect of my writing, painting and photography, have been completely self-taught. Honestly, I too, am surprised at what I have been able to accomplish with no formal training. But then, who knows! So let it be. However, I believe that though I gained my inspiration for my art from all aspects of life in Dominica…the rain, the forests, the lakes, the people, the land, the politics, the lingo, the religion…everything. I have also been inspired by some individuals who helped me achieve what I have achieved thus far.
When I wrote For I am a Dominican, I showed it to the late Desmond “Dan” Shillingford and he persuaded me to enter it in the National Day Poetry contest. I had already decided to compete in the short story contest and was not too inclined on submitting the poem. But Dan insisted that I did. Well, the eventual result spoke for itself. The days and nights I had spent typing and retyping (pounding I should say) did pay off. From 1974-1976, I was a student at the Sixth Form College (Sifocol) and among my tutors were Mrs. Dorothy Leevy and Mr. Alwin Bully whom I had never met, yet admired for his creativity with the plays like “Streak” and “Nite Box.” These two individuals helped in molding the little bit of what I knew about writing and expressing myself in their own unique style of teaching.
My uncles, Ronald and the late Frank Julien may not be well-known artists…Frank was a tailor in Mahaut and Ronald, an auto-body repair man in Roseau. But in St. Joseph, Mahaut and Massacre, Frank was also known as the photographer who every Sunday, rode his bicycle to photograph events and people in those villages. Ronald was known as the artist in St. Joseph whom the kids and adults, too, flocked around while he painted using just regular oil paint or creating and printing T-shirts for carnival groups in the village and in Roseau. Ronald, who now resides in Canada, still continues to paint. It is a joy when we meet and speak about what each of us does and share our experiences. He, too, was self-taught. I know I may be gifted, (is this why I am called Giftus?) but then the commitment to do what I have been doing is what has prevailed.
I somewhat lost touch with part of it when I entered the workforce in the US in 1987, (much to my children’s chagrin and disappointment, later on) but after being laid off in 2008, I found solace in what I once loved doing and had a passion for. Yes, there is a passion involved when one sits or stands for hours and feels fulfilled to see a painting come alive on canvas; a book held aloft by a fan in a bookstore or a poem read by a child in a classroom. That, more than the value in terms of money, is what turns the cogs of my engine. The same, I am sure, is what drives the various artists and groups to come out year after year and participate, share and perform during the Independence celebrations. It is the same passion and love for what they do, as well as love for their country, that has kept people like Alwin Bully, Kelo, Raymond Lawrence, Glenford John, Alex Bruno, Fr. Jolly, Steve Hyacinth, Justina Henderson, Lennox Honeychurch, Ras Mo, Earl Ettienne and Ronald Deschamps among others, involved the way they have been throughout all these years. It is the same passion that is inspiring a new crop of young artists like Sabina Mingo with “Know Your Culture,” Joszann St. John, Lionel Leevy, Lola Louis, Catherine Pierre, Justina John, Paula John, Delroy Williams and others who will one day step in to be the guides for our younger generation.
Dominica may not be rich in terms of money and the like, but we can be proud that we, as a people, have a rich heritage and culture. We can stand among many throughout the world and feel proud of what we are able to do. I know I do. Yes, when my Mom (God bless her soul) would proudly let me know when my work was read on the radio; when Jenny James proudly displays a photo of herself holding a copy of Ma William and Her Circle of Friends on Facebook for all to see; when Delia Cuffy-Weekes reads from that same book to kids at the public library in Roseau. And when Vinna Royer reads chapters of the same book to the seniors in my home village of St. Joseph and they ask for the sequel, I feel rich, proud and honored. I will always remember those moments. I pray that the event on the 3rd will portray some of that inspiration that I have gained throughout the years and though I may have been away, nothing has been able to erase the smells, sounds, and tastes of Dominica from my memory. I hope to see you and share some of my thoughts and opinions with you.
Thank you, Dominica, for allowing me to be your son and thank you for all the inspiration that you continue to give to those of us who crave for it and accept it; use it and mold it the way we do and bring joy and satisfaction to artist and supporter alike. Happy Independence Dominica and my fellow Dominicans. God bless Dominica.