Staying the Course

I was at an event recently, when a lady came over and engaged me in discussion about my artwork and books that were on display. She was very impressed with the quality of my work, but, before she left, she asked, “Where do you sell your work?” After telling her how I went about getting my work sold, she stated I was doing myself a disservice. She felt I needed to explore more lucrative venues, and events, if I have to be as successful as she thought I could be.

Book by Lennox

Book by one of the Caribbean’s leading historians, Dr. Lennox Honychurch

This is a common theme at a number of events where my work is displayed and after a while, it becomes more of a motivating factor, to move beyond the level, that I am presently. At times too, it makes you ask yourself whether, what you’re doing, is a waste of time. It prompts you to ask yourself what else can be done to make such questions go away, not because you are offended, but because you realize that there are people who appreciate your work and the quality of work. How can you show them that you are interested in making a change or taking your work to another level?

I began writing poetry during my early years of high school in Dominica, and it was the appreciation by those who heard and read my work, that helped me move into the literary spotlight and become a household name. Individuals like Mrs. Phyllis Shand-Allfrey, Editor of the Star Newspaper, the late Marcel “D’jamala” Fontaine, Daniel “Papa Dee” Cauderion, Royston Ellis, and Alwin Bully..

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Island Sunset-Mero Beach

One of the highlights of my literary career, was lying in bed at my home in St. Joseph, many years ago, listening to the late Prime Minister, Hon. Mary Eugenia Charles, deliver her Independence Day message. To my greatest surprise I heard her mention my name and then she quoted lines from one of my poems “Towards A New Day,” from the collection, Words in the Quiet Moments. I was thrilled. The Prime Minister of our country had found it fit to use my poetry as she addressed the nation and the world. What an honor it was.

I dabbled with oil painting and photography before, and after, immigrating to the United States. However, I took them up seriously in 2009 while at home, and wanting to fill time, after having been laid off from my job, the year before. But, I had to deal with the disappointment expressed by my children, and my wife to some extent, who felt I had deprived them of my creativity all their lives. I thus had an added incentive to move on and dig deeper. I am pleased and proud that my daughter is now “stepping into the ring,” and beginning to display her own artistic talent on canvas.

However, being multi-talented, has been a good thing. I have been able to combine them all together when I paint or write or do photography. The knowledge of all three helps me “paint,” for lack of a better word, a clearer picture, when I put oil on canvas, write a poem or short story, or take a photograph. Not that I am an expert, far from that, but the little I know comes in handy. Many are surprised when they visit my booth at events and I tell them that all the paintings, photos and books, are my creation. “You did all this?” they would ask, sometimes, a bit bewildered, and doubtful, until they see my signature on the artwork and my name on the books.

The questions, queries, and words of fans, are rather encouraging. However, as an artist, I, like many of my fellow artists, who now reside, and create, outside of Dominica, face this challenge. I try to portray my art as close as possible to what I understand, cherish and can relate to, yet at the same time, be able to relay my message to the people whom I interact with on a daily basis, that is, besides fellow Dominicans.

Sometimes, the only opportunities we have, as artists, to showcase our work, are at cultural events which are far and few between, and even then, we get more compliments about what we do than selling what we do. Some say it is because our people have not been sensitized enough about Arts as some of us-the artists-expect. Usually, the artist has to make his own connection to attend the events rather than getting an invitation to participate. There is also the argument that it is also that we still, to this day, seem to believe that anything Dominican is inferior.

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Oil painting–The Freshwater Lake

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Oil painting by George “Georgi” Christian.

Dominica just celebrated its 36th year of Independence, and as an independent country, I have not seen a serious effort to harness and save the artistic creativity of our people. I already mentioned this on a previous blog so I won’t go into length on this. We have to devote a little more time at ensuring that the artistic creations whether in theatre, music, paintings, literature, get their rightful place in the annals of Dominica’s history. I have noted, just recently, that some individuals are asking questions as to the origins of certain folk/cultural songs. Is it because it did not matter at the time or we just pay lip service to the arts in our country and even when we go out? I am yet to understand why Dr. Lennox Honychurch, a noted Caribbean historian, has not been commissioned to write a History of the Island exclusively for use in ALL our schools. What are we waiting for?

If our own people do not show an appreciation for our talent and creative abilities (except at certain times of the year-Carnival and Independence,) then how do we expect others to exhibit that same love and appreciation for something that is foreign to them? How do we expect the artists, who spend time and effort at creating, to feel good about what they do. How do we expect them to feel appreciated for what they do, more specifically, upholding the culture of the island in many respects, when their work, is second-guessed, or they are seen as individuals trying to make money off our backs?

I am devoted to what I do. I have a love for what I do, not just to get paid for it (this is great) but because of what I gain emotionally, spiritually and mentally from engaging in the various art forms I have taken a liking to, and I am sure I am not alone. There are quite a number of us out in the “wilderness,” so to speak, honing our craft and being proud to do it: Among them; Christian George; Glenford John; Dave Wilson; Joszann St. John, Paula John, Steinberg Henry, Felix Augustine, Judge Irving Andre and Lola Louis; just to name a few.

So the struggle continues, notwithstanding. Frustrating? Yes. Rewarding? Yes. Enjoyable? Yes. But we need to ensure that our own are sensitive to what we do, not only for the complimentary word, but for accepting, not mediocrity, I should stress, but what is good. We have to debunk the saying “No prophet is wanted in his own country,” and say “All our prophets feel lost away from home.” meanwhile, I will surely stay the course!!!

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The Need for a National Arts Center in Dominica

There has been the suggestion, by a few individuals, about the establishment of what in effect would be a National Arts Center in Dominica. I, too, would like to lend my voice to the establishment of such an institution in Dominica. It would be a center, where the work of national artistes, could be displayed and viewed by nationals, as well as tourists to Dominica. It would be a place where school children could visit and learn to appreciate, from an early age, the work of our local artistic “masters.”

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Old Mill Cultural Center

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Roseau Public Library

I am aware that we have the museum on the bay front (the Old Post Office building) in Roseau; the Old Mill Cultural Center in Canefield, and the Arawak House of Culture in Roseau. However, what I am referring to would be a building that would encompass all the art forms in one central location and where the work of our artistes can be shown on  screens, in videos, or performed or read at certain periods.

We have seen and heard of notable artistes throughout the years, but sadly their legacies have disappeared and in some cases we are at a loss to identify or name the ones who paved the way for our dancers, painters, playwrights: people like Darius David, Mabel-Cissy Cauderion, Jean Lawrence, Lord Tokyo, Lord Solo, and Gaylords, to name a few.

Our artistic creativity, in all forms, is unique. Some may say that painters and writers do not have a unique craft, but the topics and the scenes that they paint or which inspire their craft, are quite different from what are present in many others countries. Our music and dance and speech are indeed unique.

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The Museum on Dame Eugenia Charles Boulevard

We have seen many artistes of promise blossom before our very eyes: Alex Bruno, Earl Ettiene, Steve Hyacinth, Arnold Toulon, Alick Lazare, Glenford John, Dave Wilson, Ophelia Olivacce’-Marie, Gramacks and the list goes on and on, but we need to have a facility where we can proudly present and conserve the work of those talented individuals and groups as a united body, not as individual artistes lost in the art doldrums of Dominica. Maybe that would be a way for all of our artistes to put their heads together and use all available resources that would help improve the standard of their work.

I recently read a post on Facebook by a fellow artiste; a very talented one at that too; about the fear of us losing one of our musical creations – bouyon music – and we know this is a possibility. But what steps do we take or have taken to preserve our own from being copied, modified or pirated? Is there a real national front present to help preserve all our art forms?

We have to get away from the sometimish attitude: local calypsos during carnival season and then packed away to collect dust till the next year while we give airplay to calypsos from other islands; local folk songs and poetry and dance during the period leading up to and during independence celebrations; and plays, just every now and then. It is time we create a culture of oneness.

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Dominica’s Lady of Song-Ophelia

Some may argue; Why waste money on arts? But our artistic talents and uniqueness identify us as a people. They are what we are…from the Kalinago weaving their craft to a fisherman making fish pots, to the quadrille group from Paix Bouche gracefully performing their pieces; this is our artistic make-up or DNA, if I may say so. Many countries have gone to lengths to preserve theirs and I don’t need to spell it out; but is there anything wrong if we do this for ours?

We have made some mistakes in terms of preserving and saving some of our cultural heritage; our symbols and our language and we must not allow this to happen again. The staging of the WCMF (though not fully of Dominican participation) has placed us in the musical limelight. The establishment of the Literary Arts Festival is another superb creation that can only continue to grow and become a really national event. Some of the greatest Caribbean authors are now gracing our shores with their presence and we have shown that we are able to hold our own within the sphere of Caribbean Literature.

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Dr. Lennox Honychurch

I also believe that our radio stations and television stations should devote more programming time to sensitizing Dominicans about the work of their own, rather than the imported American programs. Spend more time letting the people of the island appreciate what is theirs rather than spending so much time and money on programs that create divisiveness, anger and poor national morale. Our cultural and artistic development, are dependent on many aspects and they all need to be highlighted to allow our people to have the greatest appreciation for what is ours, year-round.

In the event that we do see the construction of a new building to replace the existing Roseau Public Library, one which is now long overdue, this may be one aspect that can be incorporated into the layout and functions of that building. One that may well complement what the library should be all about.

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Dr. Alwin Bully

The accolades that have been bestowed on Drs. Lennox Honychurch and Alwin Bully, protectors and promoters of our creativity, speak volumes, and in their own humble way, these two talented sons of the soil, have etched the written and spoken words in our minds — I dare say, hopefully, for a long time to come. Yet, wouldn’t it be nice if we could see Streak or Nite Box shown on national TV or videos highlighting the plays? These plays were performed at very special times in our history, but where are they in terms of being regarded as such? What about listening to recorded pieces by Dr. Honychurch about the island’s history and about its people? Or  maybe a tape recording of Lawrence Brumant narrating some of his contes?

Creating an institution that can keep the works of the artistes of this land alive for generations to come is, in my opinion, dearly needed. We need to give our artistes the incentive to want to continue painting, writing, performing and narrating their stories; not only in February-March or October and November, but year round. In this way we can give the young ones the belief that they too can step in and fall in line or stand side by side with our artistic and cultural heroes and we can have the belief that when we decide to “hang our boots” there will be capable artistes filling our spots.

I hope that this can be a reality some day in Dominica. There are and will be obstacles but if we are determined and focused, I believe we can achieve such a goal. Time will tell, though!