Sun | Jul 22, 2018

Caribbean heritage from the simplicity of clay

Published:Sunday | February 25, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Creole Clay cover
Ocean inspired pottery by Nancy Nicholson of Antigua.
1
2

I first met Patricia "Tricia" Fay on one of her trips to Jamaica. She was travelling with a potter from Saint Lucia, where Fay had lived for two years.

Fay, a professional potter in Massachusetts, in 1993, she had a graduate degree in ceramics, her own studio, and an established business "making high-end functional pots" when she took a family vacation to St Lucia.

At a local market there, her whole life was altered. She bought the most honest pot she had ever seen and spent the next 24 years "trying to understand the story embedded in this one apparently simple pot".

Creole Clay: Heritage Ceramics in the Contemporary Caribbean is a well-written account of the lives and work of scores of Caribbean people in St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana, with special emphasis on Saint Lucia.

Maps and photographs in colour and black and white guide through the ways in which they live and how they achieved their creations, while some follow ancient traditions from Africa, Europe, India, and South America; some pursue innovations of their own design or embrace modern technology from abroad.

In each instance, Fay provides historical context, human back stories and anecdotes that make the book absolutely absorbing reading for even those who have no interest in ceramics.

Her description of the sugarmaking process in the 1770s on the Balenbouche Estate, near Choiseul, the centre of traditional pottery on the south coast of St Lucia, is the most vivid:

"Walking through the ruins of the sugar factory buildings is an eerie experience. An enormous fig tree has wound its roots under, over and through the very centre of operations where the waterwheel and cane-crushing machinery intersect the boiling house. ... As with all such ruins there is a melancholy romanticism about the place that is possible only with historical distance from the reality of its purpose. The daily experience of the slaves who were processing sugar cane in this facility would have been horrifying; they were engaged in back-breaking and extremely dangerous labour in a superheated environment ... marked by frenetic activity ... there was no stopping the rollers, even when the fingers and arms of exhausted slaves were inadvertently drawn into the machinery. The cane juice was transferred into copper vats heated by fires that needed constant tending ... The noise, the heat, and the dense, sweet humidity in the boiling house must have been appalling, all day, every day, and most nights as well during the season of the cane harvest." pp114-115.

Little wonder then that though pottery making itself is a difficult life, sourcing clay, digging it, removing stones and debris, moulding pots, building open bonfires or kilns to fire the finished product and then carrying it to market, either in boats or trucks or walking with burdens over mountainous tracks all of this Fay describes with the caveat that the individuals are masters of their own fate, entrepreneurs who can control their chosen profession and take pride in it.

Each of the seven countries discussed were permanent colonies of Great Britain at some time between 1627 and 1814 and have some shared culture but Fay takes us through the differences in each.

She notes: "My purpose in writing this book is to tell stories that have not previously been told, about people who have generally been overlooked, and who make objects that have routinely been deemed unimportant.

There is a strange silence that hovers over functional pottery in the anglophone Caribbean, and to date, the only book published on the work of a living potter is Laura Tanna's collaboration with Cecil Baugh titled Baugh: Jamaica's Master Potter."

This will soon be remedied with the publication of Jamaican Norma Harrack's book, but Fay had to supplement her own observations and interviews during research in Caribbean countries and West Africa with the limited mentions of potters and pottery in historical books and reviews.

 

CREDIT TO ALL

 

She gives credit to all who assisted her and is meticulous in citing her sources, not only because it is the right thing to do, but she intends to leave a record that will enable others to build on her work. You might expect this to be the norm, but you would be shocked at those who do not do this.

Whether noting that the first documented indentured potter arrived in Barbados in 1658 from Bristol and wheel throwing and kiln-firing technology were introduced from the English countryside, and continued in the post-emancipation village of Chalky Mount through family-based potteries of former slaves and descendants right into the 1980s; or noting that the walk-around style of Clinton (Junior) Panton right here in Trench Town today can be identified with that of Gwari potters in Nigeria, Fay brings to life all the nuances and details of this heritage form of culture.

She describes the thriving Indo-Caribbean pottery industry surrounding Hindu rituals in Trinidad and obscure Amerindian pottery of Macushi women in the vast wilderness of Guyana's Rupununi.

She delves into origins of the coalpot, monkey jar, Spanish jar, ubiquitous earthenware containers known to all in the Caribbean. She ponders the tourist industry's role in the juxtaposition of traditional and studio ceramic arts; gives Jamaica credit for having the only institution of higher education in the anglophone Caribbean to offer a bachelor of fine arts degree with a concentration in ceramics; and highlights Jamaican potters Cecil Baugh, Louisa Jones, Merlene Roden, Donald and Belva Johnson, David Pinto, and others.

Now a professor of art and ceramics at Florida Gulf Coast University, Fay writes:

"In the coming years, it will be fascinating to watch the power of technology applied to the preservation of tradition."

Her most heartfelt acknowledgement, however, is to St Lucians Sabinus and Eugenia Thomas, who perished when their Livity Arts Center was buried in a landslide caused by Hurricane Tomas; and to potter Catharina (Catty) Osman, who graces the cover of Creole Clay.

 

Copyright: 2017, Patricia J. Fay, The University Press of Florida

ISBN: 978-0-8130-5458-2

Price: US$9

Available on Amazon and University Press of Florida