Simone Llewellyn: Don't treat arts as Jamaica's bastard pickney
As a graduate of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, I was moved to write a letter to The Gleaner in response to your front-page article 'Top of the Class' dated April 15, 2015, especially in light of the multiplicity of responses it generated on various social-media platforms.
The arts have proven to be a viable business for me as a designer in a struggling economy like Jamaica's. Leaving high school and in search of a career that suited me, I settled on Edna Manley College because of my love of drawing, despite the initial reluctance of my parents (like many Jamaican parents, a career in arts didn't make sense to them and simply wasn't viewed as economically viable). This was further compounded by the fact that I was the third of four siblings and my parents were far from being well off.
All my high-school counterparts wanted to be doctors, lawyers, marine biologists, and other 'prestigious' professions, and all flocked to the traditional colleges. In fact, while in school, persons would ask, "Which school are you attending, UWI or UTech?" as if there were no other option. However, I worked part-time to send myself to the Edna Manley College to pursue a diploma in graphic design.
Studying the arts is no easy business and, after four gruelling years, not only was I awarded Best Graphic Design Student for 2000, but the practical learning methods employed allowed me to graduate with strong confidence in my abilities as a graphic designer and visual artist.
Almost 15 years later, and checking with some of my high-school counterparts, I am quite happy I followed my dream. Many of my classmates have migrated for work opportunities otherwise unavailable in Jamaica. Many are out of work, which cannot be a surprise since most of them compete for the same few jobs in the degrees being mass-produced by the traditional colleges.
The majority, however, have had to seek different careers or are employed outside of the areas they were trained in (some even getting salaries considerably below their qualifications).
I realise now how fortunate I was that, even before leaving Edna Manley College, in my third year, I acquired freelance jobs from two well-known Jamaican companies, which spiralled into larger contracts and allowed me to build a portfolio of work. It is on this point that I concur with Minister Lisa Hanna's comments in Wednesday's lead story. Her analysis of the situation is in alignment with my own recollection of leaving college, as well as those of my college counterparts.
Not only the School of Visual Arts, but I remember schoolmates from the School of Drama students who were in stage plays and TV productions long before graduation, or even students at the School of Music who were sometimes engaged with other established artistes on tours (even at the risk of missing crucial final exams).
The truth to Minister Hanna's statements seems unlikely to many others because of the preconceived notions many of them hold about artists and job prospects (I confess I have even met some artists(es) who share similar views). This is especially in light of the fact that the traditional colleges largely train their students to acquire office jobs. As such, many Jamaicans see economic prospects outside of an office 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. setting as being not a real job or not economically viable. However, this cannot be further from the truth.
If I may again use myself as an example, I was self-employed for most of my life running my own graphic design business with contracts and loyal clients that I was able to hold on to for years. I never found the need to send out a rÈsumÈ until the last few years, which has only been since the recession, and even in spite of that, freelance work still abounds.
Outside of graphic design, I have sold paintings and delved into fashion and interior design, all a result of the out-of-the-box and non-conforming environment that Edna Manley College provides.
Don't blame parents
I cannot blame my parents for shying away from non-traditional careers, as this is what they grew up knowing, but the concept of the 'starving artist(e)' is all but non-existent in Jamaica and it is time we stop treating the arts as the bastard child of this country.
It is said that Jamaica's greatest asset is our unique culture, and nothing brings that out more than the arts. Merging the arts with entrepreneurial pursuits is the next inevitable step in our economic development. For this to be materialised, a new outlook on the arts is required at all levels of society.