Mortimer McPherson - On a quest to change the face of art education
Mortimer McPherson of Studio Mortimer is an artist who wears many hats there might be far too many to fit in a sentence, but they fit him quite well.
From teaching art, bookbinding, and book care in the public-education system, McPherson has evolved into an entrepreneur who cannot, and will not, leave art alone. In fact, everything he does is art, and passing on the knowledge is also like second nature to him.
Some years ago, his home became a meeting place for young people who seriously wanted to learn art, and he taught them without charging any fees.
But the turning point for what he is doing now with art came when his son was having challenges with CSEC art.
Upon his son's request, McPherson embarked upon preparing him for external art exams. Two high-school graduates also approached him, but there was a hurdle to cross.
McPherson said that when he went to the Overseas Examinations Commission (OEC) he was told that there was no system in place for students outside of the formal education system to do external art examinations, and he had three such students. He was told it was not done, but he said it would be done.
McPherson was advised to contact CXC headquarters, which told him that if the OEC in Jamaica would allow, it could go on. At first, according to him, there was a hassle and frustration. But he persisted.
He was told to find somebody to assist him in marking students' work and that he would have to set up a centre.
He agreed, and the OEC provided him with the space. He took everything that he needed to the new centre and set up school.
"This is the first time in this country that students out of school were doing visual arts exams at CXC. It was history in the making - the first time it was ever done," McPherson told Arts and Education.
He did not give up when he was told it was not done because he said: "I think we have to change the way we think. My aim in life is to empower people. I don't think age should be a barrier. I don't think your not being aligned to an institution should be a barrier. We have to change that. And I took a decision that it has to change."
That was about five to six years ago, and that decision evolved into the establishment of his own art school. The aim, McPherson said, is to develop the competence of artists beyond CXC exams. He wants a system where people go to "learn art and do it well".
But his students were asking about certification, and McPherson said that that was not important to him. It was about competence and that was what he was working towards.
However, he made a proposal to the National Council on Technical and Vocational Education Training (NCTVET) to offer certification for an art programme that he wrote.
The proposal was eventually accepted, and, recently, 18 students graduated from a six-month certificate-in-drawing programme.
The students have done well, and McPherson made mention of Winroy Messam, who he said had not gone to any institution of higher learning and was far better than some of those who have and is in the same class as some seasoned art educators.
McPherson said it is to make the students feel "worthwhile", empower them, get them to think critically, and to develop a knack for problem solving that is the essence of what he does with his students.
He gave the example of how to draw a six-foot-tall man on a six-inch piece of paper. The illusion of the man looking like he is six feet tall must be created on that paper.
Yet with all of these achievements, Mortimer McPherson believes that there is still a far way to go in changing the ways in which artists are trained in Jamaica and that it is going to take a while.