I spend more and more time at my desk these days, doing everything from preparing the family taxes to working on this blog. Because of this, my workspace is constantly changing. Holding the clutter at bay is challenging, so I prefer to keep nearby only a few quality items that serve multiple purposes over a stockpile of things I might never need.
My planner is one of those simple ring binder journals you can pick up from any stationery supplies store. White paper. No ruled lines to cage my venturesome handwriting and doodling. I’m an obsessive note-taker and fill pages to the margins with to do lists, rough sketches, and ideas for blog posts. I usually go through one planner every month.
There are millions of tips out there on how to fly with kids, what to bring on camping vacations, which suitcase to buy, where to go and what to see in just about every corner on Earth. What I want to share today is something a little different – something that we discovered last summer during a family hike in the Appalachians.
Who me? Organized? My husband might tell you otherwise, but I do find it hard to keep track of our weekly schedule. You know: school, swimming, grocery shopping, tidying up, paying bills, remembering appointments and so on. Fortunately, in our house we all pitch in. No one person does everything. But we do have a little secret that helps our day run more smoothly.
DESIGNER, ILLUSTRATOR, ENTREPRENEUR, ARTIST
James Hackett is flourishing as an entrepreneur. Along with his business partner, Terenia, he helps design, sew, style, and market his line of luscious clothing and accessories via his company, The Lush Kingdom. His lines, his colours, his whimsy all go toward making his collection attention-grabbing and deliciously desirable, and he successfully reaches an appreciative clientele via several local and global channels, including his own website.
But just four years ago, James faced what could have been the end of his career in fashion design, if he had let the reviews at a major fashion show in T&T, stop him from pursuing his dream. Instead, James rode the wave of disappointment, strengthened his Survivor muscles and used the lesson of that event as part of his way forward to becoming a leading fashion designer and proponent within the Caribbean region and beyond.
He’s also designing a life beyond fabric and thread, and is involved in film making, writing, and illustrating. It’d be true if you said that James is living the lush life – he has a mindset of abundance, his passion is evergreen, and his love for his life and his life’s work is vibrant and colourful.
TEP: Your design aesthetic has a playfulness about it. Is that an extension of your childhood experiences or a design aesthetic you prefer?
JH: A little bit of both, I guess. I’ve always loved stories and adventures and wild ideas and concepts, and I think that bleeds into the work that I’ve been doing. Adventure stories, comic books, books – from the classics all the way up, heroes and super heroes – and also hearing stories about folklore and reading about the adventures of the old stick men; just that love for all these colourful aspects of our lives.
TEP: What was your first exposure to all those things you just mentioned, and who introduced you to them?
JH: My mother told me stories about where she grew up in St. Vincent. She would talk about different little strange things that happened there, and I guess through school I started reading and just fell in love with stories. And comic books were always there. My brother used to buy comic books, and I started reading them and other books.
TEP: Turns out that comic books influenced a large part of your work at the Express newspaper. Your revolutionary ‘Tales from the Dark Knight’ series made a profound impact on the youth of T&T during the 90s.
JH: I was trying to figure out what to do when I left Secondary School because I was just doing graphic design and art and I needed to get a paying job. I went into Express because they had this youth magazine named VOX and some of the sections had illustrations and comics and I asked if there was something I could do in that area. So I began just doing illustrations for stories until eventually I wanted to do my own stories. It was a great platform so I started telling my stories and I interjected an updated look at our local folklore and that kinda took off into its own direction, which was fun and rewarding and exciting.
TEP: There are so many gorgeous colours in your work. Do you have a favourite colour that you try to include in every thing that you do?
JH: I have a very great bias toward blue. Maybe it’s because I’m from the Caribbean, you know, blue skies, blue sea. And then, I’ve always been kind of a ‘blue’ person – kind of a happy-sad state of mind.
TEP: All artists seem to have a medium that they love or prefer above all others. What medium do you prefer to work with, and why?
JH: The ever-present pencil. The pencil is like a workman. If you have to think of something or jot down an idea, you sketch it out in pencil. As much as I love the computer and pastels and water colours and all these things, it all begins with that one pencil, that idea, that sketch. To me the pencil is also a symbol of the beginnings of an artist; you learn how to make a mark, how to draw a line, how to create shapes, and then you go into all the other advanced mediums.
TEP: At what age did you begin getting serious about art?
JH: I think because of my older brother, maybe seven or eight or so.
TEP: That’s the second time you’ve mentioned your brother in relation to your creative growth. How else did he inspire you?
JH: My big brother, Ricardo, was a pretty good technical artist in his own right and he used to do painting, so I would always look at his work and he taught me a few things like how to control my hand and other techniques. I remember doing a lot of ellipses based on his teaching. I’ve told him that he’s been one of those major influences who helped me get into illustration.
TEP: Was it a natural progression for you to go from artist/designer to entrepreneur, and how are you dealing with entrepreneurship?
JH: Part of it is that you want to generate some kind of income and as a creative person sometimes going the route of working for an established company doesn’t really work out because we have a different way of operating. Also, the thinking artists see little gaps in society that we think we can address and sometimes a nice way to be able to do that and still have a life of our own is to come up with a commercial solution. I’ve been an entrepreneur for a while. I think my trajectory in entrepreneurship is marked by a lot of growth and there are things that I’m still learning and it’s still evolving. Some of the lessons were easy, some were very difficult and I think that I’ve brought over the lessons from being an artist in that it’s not easy and it’s not glamorous like some people might think it is. Sometimes we have to go out there and network so we mingle and interact and that’s cool, but the other aspect of it, the very boring stuff that gets to you, that is where all the real magic happens.
TEP: So you are a man of many talents. What made you choose art and design as your main focus?
JH: I just wanted to tell visual stories. Prior to my work telling visual stories and in terms of my writing, in the 1990s I thought that people weren’t really doing things that needed to be out there. Some of our islands’ best writers wrote stories set in a past era, for instance Selvon and VS Naipaul, they wrote about a particular time in the past. In the 90s when I was reading about all these things I thought that I wanted to create something contemporary. At the time we were beginning to become bombarded with information and visuals from international sources such as Japanese films and comics and American TV via the cable channels and the internet, and I realised that there were common threads in a lot of the myths and other stories and I wanted to update what we offer. Because I was in a writing space at the time and it was the best medium then to get something out, I utilised that opportunity to write. Now with so many fantastic opportunities in fashion, animation and film to express myself more widely.
TEP: You had somewhat of a negative experience at your debut presentation of your clothing line at Tobago Fashion Weekend in 2013. How did you get through that experience and how did you come back from that disappointment?
JH: I think I just kept going. Looking back at it, I was full of optimism and thought people were going to love this stuff no matter what. I was accustomed to getting extremely positive reactions to my work and perhaps sometimes that can spoil you because you’re not ready to face when someone does not like what you are doing. As you grow you realise that there’s a professionalism in being able to separate a critical look at your work from somebody who’s trying to bring you down, and that someone can be critical of your work but still appreciate what you’re doing, and maybe you just didn’t hit the mark on this one. So for me it was growing up a little bit more, learning a little bit more and just refining what I do.
“…someone can be critical of your work but still appreciate what you’re doing…”
TEP: I read where you said we are living in a lush kingdom and we should never lose sight of that. What are your thoughts on how we can all help sustain the integrity of our natural environment?
JH: I think we just need to care more about our country and environment. If your interest is taking care of this space and by extension the people who live in it, we will be able to do everything that we need to do. Part of it really comes down to education so that everyone knows how whatever happens to the environment ripples out and affects us in many different ways; for example, if you start to mess with the biodiversity of the swamp, how it’s going to affect our overall environment and our food and so on. If we’re informed, we’ll start making sure that our environment is well handled and we’ll start thinking more about our civil interest. Sometimes I think if I can find ways for people to appreciate and like the things that we have more, instead of constant comparison to what is outside, we can generate love for things like our simple but beautiful features like our Nariva Swamp and the Poui trees.
TEP: What does it mean to you to be extraordinary?
JH: In today’s world I think being extraordinary means having that courage to be true. True about who you are, true about what you’re saying, and true about your intent and then backing it up with action.
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Charmaine Daisley is an award-winning advertising professional, a seasoned writer and an insightful brainstorming facilitator.
Ballet dancers are great at leaping ahead with poise and grace. Yia-Loren Gomez has mastered this art not only on the stage but also through a period of deep loss that occurred in her young life. Now Yia (pronounced Jee Yah) has made a whole new turn that will take her from being in the spotlight, and instead have her illuminating people’s lives.
She began dance school at six-years old in Trinidad at the Caribbean School of Dancing where she joined the ranks of dance teacher. Sadly, in 2008 her father was diagnosed with cancer, bringing together two crucial moments in her life – his illness and her imminent Advanced Level of Education (A’Level) examinations. It was an experience that she handled with as much grace as it takes to do a grand-plie, only this time it was mixed with resilience and fortitude which carried her successfully through that dark period. That grace also accompanied her through her studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, and is her constant companion as she currently pursues a Masters in Art and Design at Loughborough University, England.
For her thesis, Yia has chosen to present her passion of making people live happier and more fulfilling lives through the application of special lights, and along the way she is learning that love and light is all that really matters in the end.
TEP: You’ve said you knew yourself dancing from six years old. Can you say at what age you decided that you liked dancing?
YLG: I have photo evidence of me tumbling around on the bed and my parents took note that I loved to move. It was actually when I was about five or six that dad and mom were deciding if to enter me into swimming, gymnastics or dance and it ended up being dance and I stuck with it. When I really fell in love with dance was when I was about 16 years old; I started to connect with it because the dance moves began to be more expressive around that time.
TEP: What was your first real accomplishment in dance performance, whether it was someone saying so or you feeling within yourself that you had done the best up to that time?
YLG: I would have to say it was when I joined the Metamorphosis Dance Company in Trinidad. I was about 16 years old at the time also. I went from doing strictly balletic technique to Graham technique, and that’s really hard but was great training. A few years into the Metamorphosis experience a visiting choreographer who worked with the Royal Opera House came to put on a performance of a dance called ‘Giselle’. I was very excited because it was my favourite dance. He also adapted it to a folk presentation – he kept the story line but we weren’t in ballet shoes, we weren’t in tights, it was very contemporary and Caribbean. I would say that was my best performance up to that time. It was a moment where all the hard work of my teachers such as Carol Yip Choy, Bridgette Wilson, Patricia Roe, Nancy Herrera, Joanne Decle and others, paid off.
TEP: In addition to ballet you also do jazz, contemporary, modern and other genres. Which one of your dance styles is your favourite?
YLG: It would be Contemporary. I would say that I developed my dance backbone with ballet yet I love contemporary dance. It’s a different level of expression, although you can sometimes feel silly doing something because it calls for an extra show of enthusiasm. Contemporary dance can be any dance expression. It can have some ballet movements, some jazz, there could be modern dance in there as well. It’s grown over the years and is very popular on dance talent shows such as ‘So You Think You Can Dance’.
TEP: You shared that your father passed away some years ago. How did you make it through that trying period in your young life?
YLG: I remember every detail of when I lost my dad to cancer as though it was yesterday. I was in the middle of CXC exams and a heavy schedule when he was diagnosed. I was devastated. I was still encouraged to attend ballet as an outlet. I believe after the experience of losing my dad, I can only push forward and hold a positive frame of mind in his honour.
TEP: How does your memory of your father keep inspiring you in your current experiences?
YLG: Actually this month (May 28th) will be seven years since he passed. I have my ups and downs, everybody does, but I’m a very positive, optimistic, enthusiastic person. However, when I feel down, I’m really down. Sometimes, and don’t laugh at me, when I feel that low I say “Oh gosh, Dad, you there?” I do feel him in my life and that in itself is like a push and a reminder that everything is okay, Yia. It’s going to be fine.
TEP: What area of study are your pursuing for your Masters?
YLG: Well, I did my studies in Art and Design at UWI St. Augustine and my focus was on ‘Lights’, so I’m furthering that area of study here with my Masters. I’m working with lighting design and although it’s a step away from dance, a great deal of the inspiration for the studies comes from dance. Dance and my lights project intertwine all the time. Actually, my project now is at the stage where I’m trying to apply a particular movement to light. I’ve already explored some different materials and my current work is on creating lights that would change how people feel. It’s really pretty exciting.
TEP: Why did you choose to pursue this area of study?
YLG: Through my arts, whether it’s dancing or lights I feel like my purpose is to add some kind of positiveness back into the world, and if this is how I can do it, this is what I want to do. I see light as hope. I see light as God.
“I see light as hope. I see light as God.”
TEP: And what about dance? In addition to it being entertaining, do you think that dance can also help improve people’s lives?
YLG: Yes, definitely! I’ve personally experienced it, and you can see the way people react to a performance and know that you made them feel good about that moment in their lives.
TEP: You mentioned that you are a true island girl and love that your home, Trinidad and Tobago has the perfect weather for you, so how are you coping with the change in climate and weather there?
YLG: It’s funny. I’m such a lover of the sun, like I said, that when I got here I had to psyche myself up and I said to myself; ‘Yia, you will be going outside and it’s not going to be warm, and there’s nothing you can do about that. You will have to learn to put on clothes’. It’s things like that I’ve programmed into my brain to try and adjust to things.
TEP: What does it mean to you to be extraordinary?
YLG: Going the extra mile, pushing further, doing the best you can, that to me is extraordinary.
Charmaine Daisley is an award-winning advertising professional, a seasoned writer and an insightful brainstorming facilitator. Keep up with her on Instagram at The Write People
Mervyn De Goeas has won five National Drama Association of Trinidad & Tobago Cacique Awards for his outstanding work as a Director in the Theatre arena in Trinidad and Tobago. He is a son of the soil, and has himself thoughtfully scattered the seeds of introspection, empathy and cultural appreciation in the minds of thousands of audiences, helping to cultivate a greater appreciation for our way of life and for each other.
His personality is larger than life; a quality which he has translated into directing dozens of celebrated plays, including Master Harold and the boys (1995), MANtalk (2004), Doubt (2005), Beef No Chicken (2006) and 3 Women (2008).
He has moved through the varying stages of his artistic experiences. Once a student impacted by brilliant minds, including his professors at Eugine O’Neil Theatre Centre, later sharing the local theatre space with theatrical icons such as Godfrey Sealey, Albert LaVeau, and Freddie Kissoon. It is difficult to imagine the theatrical landscape of Trinidad and Tobago without Mervyn in it.
At this stage of his life, he is looking both back and forward; like the Sankofa bird, he is learning and appreciating the lessons of the past and planning for a glorious future, an immediate part of that future being his involvement in the upcoming drama series, Plain Sight.
Image Source: Mervyn De Goeas
TEP: The term starving artist is very well-known, whether it still rings as true today as it did in times gone by is up for debate; but were you ever afraid of failing and not having a safety net?
MDG: There was one point when I had considered going on to get a further education in what I do, and my mom was telling a school teacher friend of hers that I wanted to do it, and her friend’s response was “that will be a good thing because then he could teach and he’ll have something to fall back on”. I was like, “fall?” I’m not going to fall!” And that was the end of that because I think that a security blanket and that comfort zone is a hard one. It’s a tough life, but having something to fall back on kind of means you intend to fall. And anyway, this is a business of being not too sure.
“It’s a tough life, but having something to fall back on kind of means you intend to fall.”
Image Source: Mervyn De Goeas
TEP: You trained and started out in Theatre as an actor. How did you become a Director?
MDG: When I was in school, the professors would always give us students a theme to develop or a show or play we had to do among ourselves, and then we’d present it to the class and everyone would critique it. At that time I just thought that I was bossy. I would say, “you do that”, “I would do this”. Then over the course of a couple years I was literally still telling people what I think they should do. So for me without thinking about it, it became a natural progression.
Image Source: Mervyn De Goeas
TEP: I’ve heard you say that The Rocky Horror Show was your baptism of fire. How so?
MDG: Well the late Godfrey Sealey, who I went to high school with, wanted to do The Rocky Horror Show. Now I’d seen the show as a movie; it’s a musical. Not my cup of tea. However, he couldn’t get anyone to do the lead because it’s this Transvestite in ladies’ underwear for the entire show, singing and dancing. And I said I would do it only if I got to direct. He said to me ‘no, you’re not going to direct.’ There is an old saying that goes “a good gambler is always willing to walk away from the table.” So then I answered, ‘well then I’m not doing it, find someone else,’ which was a strange thing for me to say, because nobody was giving me work anyway – because unless you’re affiliated to a company it’s difficult to get hired.
Eventually he caved and we started; and it was a horror! We had actresses fighting over an actor. And this one wasn’t speaking to the other one, and we’re going to entertain people every night but some people are warring with each other. At 24 years old I didn’t realise that part of directing was dealing with the human condition as it stands. In one situation I even got maced. Then Godfrey Sealey and I weren’t talking afterward. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. There were so many personalities, so many scenarios, and you’re just trying to balance it. Everything we do is a learning experience, and it’s such a cliché but it’s so true, that it’s sometimes good when you fail; it’s how you treat it that matters. It gives you a chance to examine it and ask “what did I do wrong?” And sometimes things happen that you can’t help.
“Everything we do is a learning experience, and it’s such a cliché but it’s so true, that it’s sometimes good when you fail; it’s how you treat it that matters. It gives you a chance to examine it and ask “what did I do wrong?”
Image Source: Mervyn De Goeas (Photo- Stefan Simmons)
TEP: I noticed that most of your work focuses on tragedy; the tragedy of life. Why such a heavy focus on this genre?
MDG: I’m not going to be the self-righteous Mervyn; I’m not going to do social justice, because we keep forgetting people are human beings and human beings are fallible and selfish. We’re greedy and a lot of us are not driven by kindness or all these altruistic mores that they give us as children. And that’s what makes us interesting.
If you go to watch a film or see a movie and it’s all about good and caring people, you would be so bored in two minutes. I know I would leave. What makes it interesting is the humanness, the mistakes we make, the wrong choices; that’s what makes us worth studying. Can you imagine someone from a whole other civilization coming to look at us? They’ll be saying “they’re very complicated.”
“What makes it interesting is the humanness, the mistakes we make, the wrong choices; that’s what makes us worth studying.”
TEP: What dent do you think your focus on tragedy is making in our theatrical space in the Caribbean and the Diaspora?
MDG: I deal in truths. You know, I am somebody who specialises in tragedy; the human condition. And I can’t get around that. You look around and you see what Directors or Producers or Writers focus on. At the Creative Arts there is a heavy Caribbean/African Diaspora vibe. You look at (Raymond) Choo Kong and it’s a heavy comedic vibe, and that is just not me. But sometimes you step out of your crease; I’ve done some comedies and I had a ball doing them, but it’s not what I specialise in. I love, and am fascinated by, tragedy. I can’t help it. I think when you see something that is truly tragic, there is a comfort in knowing that no matter what you go through, there are people who went through worse. It also tells you that nobody is all bad. You see and hear people doing things and you wonder how can someone do that? And then you go and look at their history and their story, and you end up asking “how can anybody survive that?”
“I am somebody who specialises in tragedy; the human condition.”
Image Source: Mervyn De Goeas (Photo-Stefan Simmons)
TEP: At the height of your career places like the Little Carib Theatre and Trinidad Theatre Workshop were epicentres of theatrical art in Trinidad and Tobago. But for several reasons they are not that any more. Do you miss those places as they were, at all?
Well little Carib has had a resurgence. But yes, it was that, Naparima Bowl and Queen’s Hall. But thinking about it now, it’s really bringing back some memories. That was a real ‘prehistoric’ situation! And no, I don’t miss it. But I’ll tell you what I miss. When I went to high school in the 70s into 80s there were so many different things being offered – it wasn’t all comedy, it wasn’t all tragedy, it wasn’t all drama, it wasn’t all musical, but everyone had something different.
Because we had so few spaces, you had to choose and choose well, what you were going to do. So we had a lot of diverse happenings in the theatre and audiences were willing to go and see anything. But I keep telling people one of the biggest tragedies that happened to us both in everyday life and in terms of the arts, was 1990. If you stand back and take a look at it, all of a sudden there weren’t tragedies or musicals, it was just comedies to make people laugh and forget, because we as a people were uncomfortable. All of a sudden people did not want to hear any tragic stories; no, let’s laugh, let’s forget about it. So, you had to start building a whole new audience, because the audience that was there just wanted to come and laugh.
Image Source: Mervyn De Goeas (Photo- Stefan Simmons)
TEP: What is your philosophy on being a stage Director and Theatre lecturer?
MDG: I have never ever believed that the Director is your friend. I don’t believe a teacher is your friend. So, because of that, I’ve never been in the business of looking for friends. I work with people in the theatre, I teach people who are now coming up in the theatre, but I’m your Director or teacher; but not your friend. If we become friends over the years then fine – more power to us. Another dynamic of being Director is reminding us that we are all part of a giant journey that has everything to do with us and yet nothing to do with us.
“…we are all part of a giant journey that has everything to do with us and yet nothing to do with us.”
Image Source: Mervyn De Goeas (Photo- Stefan Simmons)
TEP: They say art imitates life. But what lessons have you learned from Theatre that you can now imitate in your personal life?
MDG: When you rent a space in Trinidad there are very specific dates, so you can’t call them up and say “the entire country has Chikungunya, can we delay it by a month?” You would have to still take the space or if not, you are going to lose it and your deposit. One time we had a play and just as we were about to open, the sitting Prime Minister at the time declared a State of Emergency. What are we supposed to do? You know, nobody saw that coming! Again at another time we had a play that was about to open and that is when the Chikungunya hit. You can’t fight these things. You know when they say “the show must go on?” I remember thinking when 9:11 hit, that clearly the show does not have to go on, because the whole of Broadway shut down. So your perspective changes as your life changes. It has also taught me to have the patience of a saint, and one of the best things that I’ve learnt is sometimes you just have to step back, breathe, and let it go.
TEP: What does it mean to you to be extraordinary?
MDG: Extraordinary is declaring “What can possibly go wrong!” instead of thinking, “You know how much could go wrong?”
Marlon James is not afraid to take shots in life. In 2013, he took a shot on love and moved to a new country, and to a new life. He was born and bred in Jamaica, but love, faith and the Caribbean Single Market Economy brought him to the shores of Trinidad and Tobago where he now resides and works.
After an unexpected twist in his story, Marlon turned to his ultimate love for solace and salvation; his camera. And, he decided to take yet another shot. He would use his loneliness, his endless rolling hours alone, his newfound wanderlust and his passion for architecture, to capture the souls of buildings and structures across Trinidad and Tobago.
‘The Lonely Wanderer’ is his photo journal of these solitary days on the road amidst skyscrapers, edifices, and surviving colonial relics Marlon’s photos hold the promise of transporting you to worlds and dimensions where you can learn to appreciate the one you inhabit; they hold a power that reminds us that life is seen according to the lens we use to view the world.
Image Source: Marlon James
EP: At what age did you pick up a camera and what thought went through your head when you did?
MJ: My “first time” would have been when I was around nine years old. My father owned a camera that he would use to take photographs at family events and activities so my first interaction with photography was using a camera to photograph these things. My thoughts were really that I wanted to mirror what he was doing. It wasn’t until I was at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA) that I really realized I had a passion and love for it.
“I really realized I had a passion and love for it.”
EP: What was the very first camera that you used, and what type was your first professional camera?
MJ: As a child, it was a Kodak “point and shot”. Very first professional camera was a Minolta Maxxum X7000 35mm SLR film camera, I purchased this when I started doing freelance photography around 1998/1999. My very first client was Scotiabank Jamaica. I photographed a few of their events, such as Christmas parties and their Staff Appreciation Day. At the time, it was an extra source of income. I wasn’t necessarily excited about it as this was not the kind of photography I was passionate about but I saw it as putting some of the skills I had learned to good use.
Image Source: Marlon James
EP: Did you do any level of study in photography or are you self-taught?
MJ: My major while attending EMCVPA was Sculpture, equivalent to a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture. I did a photography elective as part of my degree program. This is what really ignited my passion for photography.
EP: You’ve done a number of personal portraits in which intimate or private parts of peoples’ bodies are showing (tastefully, of course). Is it ever uncomfortable for you to do nude or semi-nude shots of people?
MJ: When I first started, I did have reservations asking persons to be that open-minded and vulnerable with me but eventually, I was able to get a lot more comfortable. I think that my time at art school at Edna Manley really helped that – I was in a space with a lot of like-minded individuals so over time, it was easy to overcome my reservations.
Image Source: Marlon James
EP: If you had to choose one genre of photography and do that only for the rest of your career, which would it be, and why?
MJ: I would definitely focus on fine art photography, which for me is any conceptual idea mainly for exhibiting in a gallery space; all non-commercial concepts. There are no real rules in this genre – as an artist, you can do anything that you want.
“I would definitely focus on fine art photography, which for me is any conceptual idea mainly for exhibiting in a gallery space; all non-commercial concepts. There are no real rules in this genre – as an artist, you can do anything that you want.”
EP: How long have you been living and working in Trinidad and Tobago, and why did you choose to make the twin islands the latest expression of your art?
MJ: I’ve been living in T&T since 2013, largely on the advice of a Trinidadian colleague who told me that there were a lot of opportunities on the local market for my photography skill-set. When I relocated, I was left to my own devices to explore and to learn the lay of the land; I explored a lot of Trinidad especially on my own, so a lot of what you see in my work, for example – the Lonely Wanderer series – is my documentation of solo travel.
EP: What were your best and worst experiences while doing the Lonely Wanderer series, which coincided with your fresh arrival in T&T?
MJ: The worst is that it all started out of a heartache; my relationship with my then significant other fell apart a few months after moving to Trinidad. I guess I would say my best experiences while doing the “The Lonely Wanderer Series” was that I got to understand and learn the lay of the land.
Image Source: Marlon James
EP: How easy or difficult is it as an artist to leave your homeland and travel the world, immersing yourself in another culture and perhaps, a whole other way of life?
MJ: It depends on the individual. I’ve always felt like I am a bit of a nomad so traveling and readjusting and reflecting that in my work is always easy. I miss Jamaica from time to time. I miss hearing my country’s dialect, as well as the food, beauty of the island (the geography), friends and family.
“I’ve always felt like I am a bit of a nomad so traveling and readjusting and reflecting that in my work is always easy.”
EP: Which is your favourite photography project that you’ve done to date?
MJ: ‘Blackout: Kingston 12, Jamaica’ is a series of images I produced as part of the Small Axe Project and 11 images appeared in Issue 41 of that journal. The project was conceived as an avenue of understanding the practice of skin bleaching and a means of attempting to highlight a certain kind of beauty where many see none. It was funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation. It helped my career in general; as it got my work to be seen more globally. For example, it opened up opportunities for me to collaborate with other artists and be exhibited across the U.S., Martinique and Norway.
Image Source: Marlon James
EP: You’ve taken thousands of photos across your career. But is there still an image that you dream of capturing one day?
MJ: I have ideas that come and go daily. The best part of what I do is the process of getting the ‘money shot’ – that’s the term for the shot that makes me know that this is what I’ve been waiting for in the shoot. Usually when I get my ‘money shot’ the shoot is basically done. I may take a few more shots for safety but I already know that I have the shot of the day for the shoot. That’s what excites me. A lot of times, too, there can be a disconnect between what you set out to capture and what you actually capture.
EP: What does it mean to you to be extraordinary?
MJ: Making every project better than the one that came before.
Creative Director , LOST TRIBE
From showing exceptional stagecraft on high days, to participating in mundane activities that ensure the survival of the tribe, Valmiki Maharaj’s life is in many ways symbolic of the experience of the quintessential tribesman.
Valmiki moves through the world being at once the curious boy who enjoyed the watchful nurturing of his mother and other elders, and the man who has triumphed the inevitable and bitter-sweet passage into manhood. He has embraced his life assignment with enthusiasm and hewed a sure-footed path to self-expression that is not only transforming his own life but leaving an immeasurable mark on the culture of his people.
His job title is Creative Director of “Lost Tribe”, but you do not get a sense that he is concerned too much with titles. Instead, he focuses on the shared and humbling privilege of etching the story of the country’s annual ‘Greatest Show On Earth’ on the psyche of the masquerader and the droves of spectators who catch a glimpse of his inspiration crafted in a spirit of honour and gratitude.
EP: Most creatives can pinpoint somewhere in their childhood when they demonstrated or discovered the passion and path of their life’s work. Was this also true for you?
VM: I have always shown an interest in a creative side; in the arts.
For as long as I can remember I have always been drawing and painting. My mother encouraged me from a very young age and that then encouraged me to pursue art academically at high school. In terms of it being a profession that was a whole other kettle of fish – you only discover where your heart lies or where you want to go when you get to the Form 5 stage to choose your subjects to go to University. That was the age when I said to myself ‘this is where I want to go’; to much objection from my mother.
EP: So even though your mother supported your artistic ability she objected to you developing it as a career?
VM: Oh yes. From the time I entered Form 5 my mother only wanted to hear about me being a Doctor, Lawyer or Accountant, so when I said ‘Mummy I want to be an artist’, in her mind automatically she is thinking starving artist – so with the best of intentions she said ‘no, you’re not spending the rest of your life doing a hobby’. So in my adolescent years, as a student of Queens Royal College, I had to make a decision based on a couple of factors, a huge one being that I wanted to remain living in Trinidad – I was born here but spent my formative years in Canada and by a stroke of faith came back to Trinidad when I was seven – and I wanted to spend my time here exploring the creative industries, and owning my own business. So I decided to go to business school. When I started University I started making connections with people in the creative industry and became good friends with people like Diane Hunt and Peter Elias who really supported me at that time.
EP: Did you pursue formal studies or training in any genre of design?
VM: I studied business at the School of Business and Computer Science because my mother insisted I was not going to fashion school. I did London School of Economics and Political Sciences and BSc Honours, Management. All my training in the arts came from my experience in the industry.
EP: So when and how did you get into the mas business?
VM: I knew that I wanted to do this mas thing when I was in University. I was inspired by all Minshall was doing. So I took my A’ Level Art Portfolio and went walking around Woodbrook to visit mas camps. Attending QRC, Harts was right in my backyard, so naturally I went to Harts, and Gerald Hart couldn’t allow me to design, but he offered me the opportunity to work in the mas camp. He also told me ‘Val, never give up’ which was one of the most pivotal points for me. I also visited Tribe. Back then it was a new band and much smaller than it is now. I also went to Trini Revellers and they put me to work with one of their section leaders. I had stayed in touch with the people at Tribe, and then one day I got a voicemail saying ‘could you come, we need some work done’. That year they played ‘Birds of a Feather’.
“I knew that I wanted to do this mas thing when I was in University”
EP: Where do you find inspiration?
VM: From everything.
I try to see beauty in the world so everything from the trees around to fashion trends, to traveling; everything impacts me in different ways.But my biggest source of inspiration is the masqueraders, because our art and our canvas is not the wall, it’s not clay, it’s people, so we need to remember we are designing for people. In fact we create living, moving art. So I listen to them every year and we use their feedback to create that living, moving art to complement their energy and they remain at the centre of our designing. And sometimes it’s the stories around you that inspires you, and the energy sometimes comes from the national environment.
EP: After you’ve done your part as creator, do you ever have a specific way you want the masquerader to interpret or use your creation?
VM: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I always remember something Minshall said on this in an interview – that as a designer of a band you will make all your designs and plans, and then on Carnival Saturday you realize that you just need to leave it to the Carnival gods to do what they will with it. At that time he was speaking about his portrayal, ‘River’; the mas included a colourful dye for the masquerades to spray themselves when they got to the Savannah stage, but somehow, someone rang the bell earlier than they should on Charlotte Street and by the time they got to the Savannah stage every man Jack was already drenched. But it caused so much euphoria and happiness in the band, that it became something better than he could have ever imagined. And I understood exactly what he meant because I had seen and experienced it myself in Carnival. You can design a stunning costume, but until you see a woman jump up on a wall with it, you do not know how that costume is going to look. That being said, every person enjoys their costume differently because there would be women who would be euphoric without jumping on a wall and wining. I feel like designers create a body, which is the costume, and the masqueraders breathe life into it.
“I feel like designers create a body, which is the costume, and the masqueraders breathe life into it.”
EP: What was your experience moving from designer of a specific set of costumes within a band, to the responsibility and privilege of having creative direction for an entire band?
VM: I’ll describe it like this. Someone in a huge river sees the river and thinks it’s the biggest thing in the world, and then that tributary turns into a main channel and then you’re like ‘Oh my God it’s a much bigger space’! And then you move from that river into the ocean, and then the world of possibilities is more than you could have ever imagined. Your perspective is widened and the world becomes more open to you; it’s almost like you’re given a new pair of wings, altogether. It was a lovely experience which I didn`t anticipate.
EP: One hundred years from now when the electronic ‘Book of T&T’s Carnival History’ is opened in a Form 5 classroom on Mars, what do you want those students to be reading about the work of Valmiki Maharaj in the section titled ‘T&T’s Millennial Mas Makers’?
VM: If you’re asking anything about legacy, I’d say certain things have happened in my life and I did start to think about the difference between living a life and building a legacy. By a legacy I don’t mean something that you will to someone or an estate, but an impact you have left on an industry and a people and more than that leaving a place better than you have met it. What I would like to do is to introduce a generation to something they want, but they don’t yet know they want it.
“What I would like to do is to introduce a generation to something they want, but they don’t yet know they want it.”
EP: What makes you Extraordinary?
VM: I don’t think that I’m extraordinary. I think I am me, whatever that is, and I think everybody will experience me differently. But just how I would like to leave a space I’d occupied better than I met it, I would like that after interacting with somebody that I leave them in a better mood; meaning I would like to contribute positively to any situation I am a part of.
View Lost Tribe`s 2017 presentation : Lost Tribe 2017
ALL PHOTOS Courtesy Mark Gellineau of Gellineau Creative
Danielle was teaching early in her working career when she suddenly and clearly had a sense that that was not what she was supposed to do with her life. Although she was met with scepticism about her career change to artist, she held steadfast to her decision. Fast forward years later, talking about her art, this phenomenon arises again, one of following your feelings and instincts- which is how she describes her painting process. We talked with her about her journey as an artist, and a new development in that journey, motherhood.
EP: When I spoke with Annelie Solis for her interview said that she sees herself as a channel for God to work through, which manifests in her art. I wondered if you shared that view about your work.
DBF: My feelings about my work and where it comes from are really complicated. To an extent I do feel like that, but not so much in terms of allowing a divine presence to pass through me. I`m not closed to that and I do feel like that sometimes but I`m really interested in channeling memory. Channeling my own memory and the stories of people around me…my grandmother and my relatives etc. I think I`m more interested in being a channel to memory and landscape and the kind of buried truth that we live with as women. It`s not just one thing.
“I think I`m more interested in being a channel to memory and landscape and the kind of buried truth that we live with as women”
EP: Did you consciously decide to focus on women as subjects?
DBF: I think that just kind of happened. When I look back at what I used to draw when I was little. I would always draw I guess myself, or my mother. I would just draw these female characters, these presences. It`s something I`ve always been doing without consciously deciding or knowing that I`m doing it. Sometimes I don`t feel like I should have to explain, because it`s not something I would be asked to explain if I was doing paintings of landscapes. People always seem to want a specific reason for it. Sometimes people are even a little offended by it.
EP: Offended that you do women?
DBF: That I don`t do men. Not too much offended maybe, but they feel that there needs to be a justification. Or there needs to be an explanation for it, which I don`t really do anymore- explain.
EP: Would you say that you are fascinated with women?
DBF: I think I kind of zone in on a particular area of interest where my work is situated in terms of my theme etc. without trying to and all of it keeps coming back to women and myth and landscape. I don`t know if it`s fascination but there is a knowing that that is where my work is supposed to be and where I feel the strongest connection.
“There is a knowing that that is where my work is supposed to be and where I feel the strongest connection.”
EP: Do you have any favourite writers?
DBF: Lots and lots. It keeps changing. I`m reading lots of poetry at the moment. I`m reading a lot of the Jamaican poet Shara McCallum. She has this book that has a particular section about motherhood and the interesting divisions between mother, daughter and granddaughter. How we overlap and build on it. I find it really interesting.
EP: What is the starting point for a painting or a poem. Where does that first spark come from?
DBF: I sketch really thoroughly before I start. Sometimes I don`t even know where I`m going with it, it`s just a shape. It might be a really abstract round kind of shape, a curve shape. I kind of see what happens with the paper. And from there I kind of get into it and see what is trying to emerge. My process is really based on instinct. Whatever feels right I continue with and if it doesn`t feel right I start over. I feel like poetry is much harder. It`s less pure instinct and more mental for me . It`s more of a picking apart kind of process as opposed to the fluidity and the natural flow of painting.
“My process is really based on instinct. Whatever feels right I continue with and if it doesn`t feel right I start over”
EP: Do you know the sex of your baby?
DBF: Yes, it`s a boy.
EP: Do you have any thoughts on that?
DBF: I have never thought until I found out I was having a boy about how complicated it must be to raise a boy in the world we live in. And it`s been- and I`m picking my words sparingly because it`s fresh feelings- I`m trying not to sound like a really mushy new mummy, but it just opened up parts of my thinking and my heart that …they were kind of closed off because I work a lot in female figures and I work mostly with girls, even when I have to work with students and stuff like that. It`s been interesting but I feel like it`s something I`m very excited about. And oh gosh I love him already
EP: How has being a pregnant affected your work if at all?
DBF: I thought that it would have had a more direct correlation and that I would know how I feel about everything and be able to process it right away but I feel like…I`m very much in it so it`s very hard for me to process (the pregnancy) and then process creatively at the same time. So I `ve been painting but I feel like a lot of my whole process of turning things over in my mind and in my heart still has to happen. I`m giving it its time.
EP: What would you say is needed to be able to live as an artist. I`m using the context of an artist in Trinidad and Tobago and where “artist” is like a poet or painter, or visual artist, these kinds of things.
DBF: At first when I just started I had this idea in my mind that I would paint, I would exhibit locally, I would kind of link up with some galleries and things like that because I mean this is what you see and as an artist just starting these are the channels that you go through you. But as time goes by I find other avenues and other ways that my art can work and connect.
“It`s a really humbling way of connecting with people and their most personal lives”
I do book covers, illustrative work, I`ve worked with some musicians and things like that. Sometimes it`s a really pleasant surprise the kinds of suggestions people have and it`s a really humbling way of connecting with people and their most personal lives, like wow your wedding invitation? It`s a way of connecting with people through art and I didn`t really anticipate it beforehand but to me it feels a lot more meaningful that just exhibiting.
It`s not any one thing and I don`t think so much in terms of what other artists do. Not for any other reason than it depends on your particular set of circumstances.
Colouring Books with Art by Danielle
EP: When I saw your characters, I thought the artist was someone who had kinky hair then I saw that you have straight hair and I was really curious about that…
DBF: This is an interesting question. I actually always wondered how come nobody ever asked me this. I would have to answer it in a really kind of roundabout personal way. I was raised by my two grandmothers. I grew up in Grande with my maternal grandmother who is of east Indian descent. My paternal grandmother is African and Chinese. I was always very conscious that I was raised by these two women with such interesting stories and stories that I feel really shaped me as a girl growing up. And I was always conscious that all of these identities are part of me. I guess the average person looking at me would not see that or I don`t know… I don`t really think about what people see, but I remain really, firmly aware that these women are quite literally parts of me. And that kind of emerges in the creative process. I realize now that a lot of the things that they imparted became really huge parts of my work. There`s a body of visuals that I keep coming back to. I don`t think I`m specifically trying to represent any one identity but I`m really conscious of being a Trinidadian young woman and that being part of my heritage. Being part of the inheritance as a Trinidadian on the whole- a Caribbean person, all these different voices and memories and identities
EP: What does it mean to you to be extraordinary?
DBF: It does not necessarily mean “not ordinary”, but rather a kind of elevation of the ordinary, because my work is very much grounded. And I think as a creative person it is important for me to be very much grounded in the everyday. I feel like the things that speak to me most strongly in other people`s art like writing, photography, anything..…are things that are rooted in the ordinary. In the minute normal aspects of everyday life but kind of transcend. Looking at them in a different way or elevating them to a symbolic level, connecting with something else, something bigger. That`s kind of what I think of when I think of extraordinary, in terms of what I want it to be in my work, or in other people`s work.
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