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Stabroek News

Jamaica's ritzy artists
published: Sunday | October 14, 2007


Photos by Anthea McGibbon
LEFT: Charles Campbell holds on to a crocodile which sems to be coming alive.
RIGHT: Una Kelly (left) and Sharonne Kelly look at the baby elephant shown by local vendor Charles Campbell at his stall at the Ritz-Carlton, Montego Bay.

Anthea McGibbon, Gleaner Writer

"The artist is nothing without the gift, and the gift nothing without work," said French novelist and journalist Émile Zola.

Several artists and artisans living along the north coast and who are making a living from their art and craft understand this all too well. They include Christopher Gonzalez, Ryan Morrison, Milton Messam and Elgo.

Dean Watson and Charles Campbell are two typical 'tourist artists'. Specialising in the commodities for the tourist market, both artisans claim tha they repeat their designs by necessity, they strive to be as original as they can get in the craft they produce and unique in the finish of their products.

Essence in masterpieces

In fact, in response to the desire of former JHTA President Horace Peterkins to see "masterpieces of the country's essence in the craft offered to tourists", the two friends carve a variety of Jamaican animals, fruits, insects, instruments, masks and figureheads representative of our culture. Like most of their counterparts, they were never formally trained, but their images are memorable.

While selected craft persons at the Ritz-Carlton, Montego Bay, are rotated, the two have somewhat of a more permanent stay for some 100 pieces Sunday Arts got a peek at.

On display is an animal farm with pigs, rabbits, roosters, dolphins, crabs, lizards, bulls, mongrel dogs, cows and frogs. A variety of wooden fish largely angel, snapper, grunt, stingray, aside from turtles and leaping frogs are also poised for action. Jamaican-influenced figures and heads including the Rastafarian, and pictures of market women are as intriguing as the wooden and sometimes painted fruits like the ripened sugar loaf pineapples.

The friends have not escaped foreign influence, but claim they only carve the few seen elephants, rhinosaurs and giraffes upon request, and "because tourists do ask for that sometimes".

Overall, Watson says "the fish, no matter what sizes or kinds, are the fastest selling items" one instrument - the combination of a bamboo drum with a manual musical grater on the back is another popular choice. According to Watson, Jamaicans appreciate the craft items as much as the tourists, and likewise favour the curved fish which seems to be swishing in motion. Earlier in life, he carved numerous life-scale birds such as eagles, but now finds it easier to do smaller carvings as he gets older.

Tricks of the craft

Willing to share a few tricks with us, Watson explains the relevance of each part of the tree in his success. For example, "the tree trunk is best for the fish and the stingrays because it already has curves".

The 43-year-old has been doing his craft for 25 years. Seven years ago, he remembers being invited to the Ritz-Carlton by the owner, Mrs. Michelle Rollins. As is the case with other hotels, Watson was provided with meals and offered accommodations, where needed, free of cost. In exchange, the guest had easier access to make craft purchases to their comfort and received quick classes in carving.

Two years later, he invited Charles Campbell, who was one of his 'prentices' at the time, to join him on the Ritz property, even-tually showcasing the works of a few other craft persons.

Both Watson and Campbell are from the neighbouring village of Rose Hall.

Watson says he learnt to carve from a friend who was a carpenter. He has four children of whom two are boys, but interestingly enough, it is a step-son who has followed in his footsteps. The other children expressing some interest, believe the career is too time consuming.

Watson, a former full-time teacher, does on-site demonstrations, but lists among his challenges the excessive bargaining by tourists who want to spend less and less for the quality work he produces. His main challenges are the difficulties the tourists encounter with shipping and his difficulties in accessing wood. Oftentimes, he has to hire transport and men who accompany him as far as Ocho Rios for wood. This, he says, is expensive.

The former fisherman and farm-work contractor left picking apples and growing cane in the U.S. and Canada to make a living through his love for carving.

Far from considering his images idol worship, the Seventh-day Adventist sees himself as a "tool in God's hands", creating souvenirs and memories of Jamaica and the Jamaican experience.

One of his main regrets is that the tourists are less exposed than they should to Jamaican life and its many offerings, resulting in too many requests for foreign animals they have grown accustomed to seeing done better.

Anthea McGibbon, a graduate of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, has over 10 years' experience in the fields of journalism and the arts. Contact her at islandartattack@yahoo.co.uk or anthea.mcgibbon@gleanerjm.com.

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