Sunday, March 16, 2014

Old Friends and New Friends, Part 2: Tortola

 For the final segment of this trip in the Leeward Islands, I left Antigua for the short hop to St. Maarten, and then on to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands to catch up with Aragorn Dick-Read, who runs a marvelous artists community in Trellis Bay, right next to the Beef Island airport.  The many small islands of the BVIs are a haven for boaters, and it's pretty surprising to find a well-established sculpture and pottery studio in this setting. I was here four years ago to attend the Caribbean Arts and Crafts Festival, and since I was in the neighborhood I decided to stop in for the tail end of this year's festival.
Trellis Bay, Tortola, BVI
The Bitter End Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda, BVI
 Aragorn is best known for his cut metal sculptures and 'fireballs', open work steel spheres that are filled with wood and burn spectacularly for special events and full moon parties at Trellis Bay. In 2011, he spent seven weeks in China making his largest fireball to date - the 14' sculpture titled 'The Dream of Human Harmony' was fired up at a full moon party on August 8, 2011 for the 12th Annual China Changchun International Sculpture Symposium. Google it - very cool. The compound at Trellis Bay has sculptures everywhere, plus an excellent retail shop with art from all over the Caribbean.
Sculptor/painter Zaka from St. Lucia and Aragorn Dick-Read take advantage of the excellent wifi outside the  shop
 Aragorn has worked very closely with craft producers in St. Lucia and Dominica, and has long been a champion of indigenous history and culture. He always has about a million things going on, but we were able to take a couple of hours to have a nice long chat about the book project, Caribbean pottery, craft history, and all sorts of fascinating things.
 Since I needed to stay in Antigua to visit with Hyacinth Hillhouse, I only made it to Tortola in time for the very last day of this year's festival. After three days selling at Trellis Bay and one day in Road Town, the capital of Tortola, the whole operation moved by boat to Virgin Gorda to set up at the very posh Bitter End Yacht Club.
 Amongst the paintings, prints, baskets, jewelry, tshirts, musical instruments, dolls, pillows, leatherwork, turned wood vessels, painted wooden masks, and lots more there were two truly spectacular sculptures made from giant red cedar roots by a Rastafarian wood carver from Dominica.
 Also from Dominica was the delightful Jeanette - Theresa Lucien - who brought a wide range of handmade products from the Kalinago (formerly Carib) Reserve. Always friendly and smiling, it was so much fun to hang out with her, and with the other artists and craftspeople from across the Caribbean.
 Thursday back at Trellis Bay there was time to walk the beach and snorkel, and to catch up with the Irish women who run the pottery shop for Aragorn's Studio.
 Liza and Deb, originally from Ireland, have settled beautifully into life in the BVIs, and they make an extraordinary range of high quality functional and decorative pots in the small, well-equipped studio. It was great to see them again after four years, and we talked at length about the book project and raku glaze recipes and making pots in the Caribbean.
Their ceramic version of Aragorn's fireballs, intricately cut and fired in the raku kiln -  raku firings are a popular feature of the monthly full moon parties

So now I'm back in Florida, unpacked, clothes washed, groceries bought, all notes transcribed, and ready to dig back into the more formal aspects of the book. I had previously intended to condense the Nevis and Antigua documentation into a chapter on ceramic history in the Caribbean, but not after this trip - I'll be working on Chapter 6 this week, titled something like "Nevis and Antigua: You Have To Love This Job", based on a comment Hyacinth made. Wish me luck with the writing, and the next stop on the Caribbean pottery tour will be the wood firing workshop in Jamaica at the end of April. Irena Alphonse is going to meet me there, and I'll actually have a week to just make pots. Sounds great.
New additions to the Caribbean pottery collection - check out the seriously mini 2" coal pot sets from Edith Lyne 

Old Friends and New Friends, Part 1: Antigua

Every day in the last week has been so incredibly full that I must apologize for the lack of upkeep on the blog. In both Antigua and Tortola I met up with good friends from previous visits, and made fascinating new friends that enhanced this trip in so many joyful and unexpected ways. I was last in Antigua in 1999 for a brief visit to find out about the traditional pottery community at Sea View Farm, a village in the center of the island; at that time I was also able to meet with deeply respected local historian and archaeologist Desmond Nicholson, and his daughter Nancy, who just happens to be an excellent production potter. Sadly, Mr. Nicholson has since passed on but his brilliant legacy continues in the archives and collections of what is now the National Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in the Antiguan capital of St. John’s.
After a very comfortable night in my deluxe apartment at Ellen Bay Cottages in the seaside village of Seaton’s, I spent Friday finding my way around the island in my reliable little Toyota. The road signage is a bit elusive, but I really never went wrong since Antigua is quite a manageable size and eventually you figure out where you are.

 The views are lovely, the beaches famous, and the water that indescribable shade of turquoise in the shallow water bays. As I drove out of Seaton’s I worked on memorizing landmarks so that I could get back at the end of the day, from the beautiful little gem of St. Stephen’s Church to a really spectacular property fence made out of a dizzying array of mechanical objects.
 The pottery discovery game in Antigua was great fun. On Saturday morning I met Karima Daley helping Velma Hughes “The Corn Lady” with her weekly organic vegetable stand and corn-roasting operation on the side of the Pares Main Road. They feature a big clay coalpot from Sea View Farm doing what it does best – portable cooking.
 Antigua’s oldest sugar estate is called Betty’s Hope, and one of its two windmill towers has been restored to working condition; I believe it's only used occasionally for demonstration purposes but it was fascinating to finally get an idea of how these things worked. Big sails would have been attached to the four spars on the left, and the whole operation could be repositioned using the big wooden handle on the right, turning the entire upper mechanism to best catch the wind that drove the cane-crushing machinery. Underground gutters – made of local clay by the way – ran the cane juice to the boiling house for immediate processing into sugar since the juice will begin to ferment almost immediately. This is the reason why the five or six months of the cane cutting season ran at such a hellish pace.
 The University of California has teamed up with Antiguan historians to excavate this site, and on the floors of what was the Great House they have found the original red clay pavers and have labeled this as their most exciting find. Gotta find out more about this.
 After I booked this trip I ran into what I hoped would not be an insurmountable problem. I knew I wanted to visit Hyacinth Hillhouse, Sea View Farm’s best known potter and by some reports, the only potter still working. When I did reach her she told me she would be out of the island most of the time I would be there, but we figured out a way to meet up on my last day in Antigua. I headed up to Sea View Farm on Friday anyway, and saw this great sign for their 2012 village reunion, with Hyacinth and her coalpots as the feature image. With so many Caribbean people living abroad reunions like these are organized years in advance, so that as many villagers as possible can return and see each other once again. I stopped in at Elvie’s Pottery, named after Hyacinth Hillhouse’s mother, and had a nice long chat with her daughter Lynda Roberts (who is not at all fond of being photographed so I can’t show you her lovely face) who runs a snackette right next door and when she said she would be making ‘cook-up rice’ the next day well that was all I needed to know. On Saturday I went straight back up to Sea View for an excellent lunch with Lynda, and then walked up the road to photograph the building I had seen the day before.
 For the reunion the community center in the middle of this very densely packed village was repainted with images of the pottery-making experience – coalpots and cooking pots and jars and dishes and even the donkey baskets used to transport both clay and pots in earlier times before pickup trucks. Sea View Farm is historically the only place on the island where traditional pots were made, and it is clearly celebrated as the core of the village’s identity. I heard from many people that at one time pottery was made by women in nearly every house in Sea View Farm.

 Donkeys can be seen wandering about on many of the Leeward Islands (along with goats and sheep in the hundreds) and there is a long history of their use as pack animals on roads that were usually steep and rocky. I had never seen these wooden baskets before; they don’t seem to have been used in Nevis, but they were definitely also used in Tortola. Inside the community center I met Verona Anthony who was cooking what she called ‘rice pudding’ and since that sounded like an excellent follow-up to my lunch I had a look but sadly for my vegetarian sensibilities it turned out to be blood sausage with rice, handstuffed into cow intestines. Since lots of people were coming in to buy it I’m sure it was very nice but….
 So I’m standing there talking to this lovely lady and two of her friends and I look across the narrow road and what do I see but some traditional pots and quickly found out that this was the home of Edith Lyne, who indeed makes pots right there. I spoke with her niece Simone who was selling very tasty johnny cakes (fried dough sorts of things; they come in many shapes and kinds across the Caribbean) and she said that her aunt had gone to look for wood as she was going to burn her pots that afternoon. SHE’S FIRING TODAY ???? I said with my usual over-the-top enthusiasm but gosh golly to be lucky enough to A) find a potter that wasn’t supposed to be there, and B) who was actually going to be firing her pots while I was in Antigua – that was just way too exciting. Simone humored me and suggested I come back in a couple of hours which was perfect as I had to go into town to try and get to the museum (which turned out to be closed unexpectedly). Back at Sea View that afternoon I met the amazing Edith Lyne, whose mother and grandmother were potters. She made pots herself when she was younger, and about five years ago decided to ‘go back into the muddy’. She interviewed me pretty darned carefully at first, wanting to know just what the heck I was doing there, and to my absolute delight decided to take me on. I spent the afternoon Saturday with her, most of Monday and several hours on Tuesday morning, starting when she started around 7am, and she systematically took me through every single step of the pottery making process in Antigua. It was just wonderful.
 My first lesson was in clay preparation; she had a pile of clay soaking in the small yard next to her house right there across from the community center, and she showed me how she hand-pounds it with a kind of miniature version of the big ‘pilon’ they use in St. Lucia. Picking out the rocks is a long process in multiple stages as there are many many little rocks in this clay.

 Edith took me down the hill as far as my Toyota would go on the rough road, and we walked up to where she, and all the other Sea View Farm potters, dig the clay. The clay looks similar to the Lucian clay, but fires a much lighter color, a sort of light brown on its own but the potters use a red mineral ‘paint’ to brighten it up, just like the potters in Nevis. And after seeing the whole process through, the pottery techniques used here in Antigua are a fascinating mixture of St. Lucian and Nevisian methods, and short of time travel we’ll probably never know how these connections can be explained. What is increasingly clear to me is that the traditional pottery practices in the Caribbean, rather than being a monolithic or singular tradition, in fact demonstrate the same variety as the ethnic range of the slaves brought from Africa. Much more on these techniques later in the post.
 I had the great good fortune to spend Sunday afternoon with Nancy Nicholson, who I met briefly in 1999 and emailed about the book project prior to coming to Antigua. Her work is just gorgeous – born in Antigua to Irish and American parents who spent a great deal of time on sailboats, the sea is her great inspiration. She also spent six years living in New Zealand, where she became deeply involved in the Maori visual and spiritual traditions. Her father Desmond was a fanatic amateur archaeologist and as she roamed the hills in Antigua with him looking for history in ceramic shards she grew up with the idea that clay was an essential and intrinsically important part of the human experience. It’s no wonder that she chose to become a potter, and all these influences are immediately apparent in her pots.
 I was absolutely astonished to find out that the white clay she fires to midrange stoneware temperatures is actually a local clay – in all this time in the Caribbean I have never seen such a thing. Apparently, there was once a team of Yale researchers on the island identifying different sources of clay, and this vein of very nice white stoneware was found. She’s been digging it for many years, and uses a very straightforward wet processing method – soak it with lots of water, pour the resulting slip through screens and into old sheets, wrap it up and wait for it to dry out enough to be workable.
 She throws a broad range of functional forms, and the wide surfaces of bowls and plates show off her beautiful decoration particularly well. Its always fun for me to come across ceramic techniques that I can’t quite figure out, and equally fun to then see how its done.
 The majority of her decorative surfaces are created in one of two ways, using a dark blue slip made from the same clay body that contrasts sharply and clearly against the white pots. I thought she must use stencils to make the designs, but no, every bit of it is hand-drawn and painted, either by covering the pots with the blue slip and carving through to create the imagery, or by using a water-based wax emulsion to apply the negative spaces of the motif. Brushing the blue slip on top of the wax reveals the lovely images and patterns in the design.
 The pots are then bisque fired in her gas kiln, glazed with a plain clear glaze for blue and white designs, or with her signature clear turquoise seen in the image of the pots above. Great work, great potter. And for a number of years now she has sold her work through Rhythm of Blue, her art gallery in English Harbour, with an international repeat customer list in this famous yachting destination. What a marvelous afternoon, and you can see more of her work at
Over the weekend I did manage to fit in a trip to the beautiful Long Bay near Seaton's for a couple of hours of swimming and snorkeling at this gorgeous beach. And to make it a perfect day, I noticed a white pickup truck displaying the logo of 'Cedars Pottery' and while I was photographing the truck out of the water came Richard Hunt and Imogene Margrie, clay soulmates who met at art school in London and who, since 1996, have run a business here in Antigua making terrific functional, decorative, and sculptural ceramics. I had heard about them but did not, sadly, have the time to visit their studio so it was great to meet them right there on the beach. Check out the work at

Both Monday and Tuesday mornings I was back up at Sea View Farm with Edith for my lessons in Antiguan pottery methods - I am so grateful that she was willing to take the time and effort to teach me, and just as grateful for her warm friendship, great sense of humor, and amazing patience with my camera - like many people, she is not overly fond of being photographed, and I have respected her wishes as regards keeping the camera focused on the making of pots. Wonderful lady. The pictures below document the Antiguan basics of forming a coal pot and burning a small set of pots.
 The potters work on a board in front of them to make the pots; the 'Old Time Way' to turn the pot was by wetting the board as in Nevis; the 'New Time Way' is to use ashes on the board to keep the clay from sticking, and to turn the board itself rather than the pot. In studying traditional process it is critical to understand that while working methods are relatively consistent over time they are not permanently fixed, and to acknowledge that innovations and adaptations are always being introduced to improve efficiency and product.
The base is pushed down, and handfuls of clay rather than coils are progressively added to the wall and smoothed in, using the characteristic right-hand-into-left motion
Calabash ribs are used to smooth and stretch the interior
The slab is added to the inside of the cylindrical form to make the upper  bowl of  the coal pot
Coil handles are added on each side
This is that one motion that is ever consistent - the use of a carefully folded wet rag to smooth and shape the rim
Edith makes one hole in the center of the bowl to offset the expansion of air as the clay dries; the remaining holes and the cut opening for the ash in the base of the cylinder will be added once the coal pot has stiffened considerably.
The finishing of the half-dry pots takes place in several stages. These small flower pots were made the day before, and are now being scraped with a metal tool to remove excess clay and further define the form.
Next, a corn cob is used as a kind of rasp, and rubbed over the pot to finish evening out the surface.  Then the pot is rubbed with a large smooth stone to finish it off.
Once the pots have dried completely the surface is sponged with a red 'paint' and further burnished with smooth rocks, just as they do in Nevis altho in this case coalpots do receive the red paint, and the outsides of cooking pots do not - they'll just get black anyway from the fire. Two rounds of paint and rubbing are applied to get a nice shine on the pots. 
The pots are dried first indoors, then outdoors, then painted, and then fired (burned). A thick base layer of wood is piled on top of galvanized metal, and the pots stacked on top.
Kindling is mixed with the wood, and diesel fuel is used to light the center of the pile.
Once the fire is well lit, more wood is added to cover the pots. In the past, grass was used to cover the pots but it was very smoky, and more liable to create problems in a small yard such as Edith's.
Another innovation that Edith learned from Hyacinth Hillhouse is to then cover the burning pile of wood and pots with galvanized to retain more of the heat.
After about a half an hour the pots are carefully checked and rotated as needed to ensure complete firing.
The entire firing process takes about an hour and a half.
A wonderful lunch of fried red snapper. cucumber, and wheat bread !
Another wonderful lunch of stewed fish and fungee (cornmeal) with okra !
 Potters are such great cooks...thank you Edith !

On that very last Tuesday in Antigua, in the hours before my late afternoon flight, I was able to reconnect with Sea View Farm's most famous potter, Hyacinth Hillhouse. It was touch and go right down to the wire, as her flight back from Dominica on Sunday had been cancelled, and due to the heavy post-Carnival traffic from that country she only got back to Antigua quite late on the Monday night. Great potter, amazing woman, and absolutely dedicated to the Sea View Farm pottery tradition.
Hyacinth Hillhouse
Hyacinth's mother, Elvie Steven, making an order of ash trays for a hotel at Long Bay; I must find out the approximate date of this image. It was shot by a photographer from the Antigua Museum and has been reproduced quite often in local publications. Hyacinth had a really good copy for me to photograph, and it should be clear enough to reproduce in the book (with permission from her and from the Museum).
A selection of Hyacinth's well-crafted pots; she fills lots of flower pot orders for hotels, and also keeps a good stock of all forms at her shop - Elvie's Pottery, named after her mother.
 In 2009, Hyacinth Hillhouse was appointed a Grand Officer of the Most Precious Order of Princely Heritage, and awarded this lovely medal by Dame Louise Lake-Tack, Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda and representative of the Queen of England. These awards were instituted in Antigua in 1998, and provide an excellent example for the Caribbean of the celebration of important holders of heritage traditions.
 Because of the very short time frame, it was not possible to see Hyacinth actually making pots, but the cycle of tasks in her workshop were ongoing - these quite large flower pots were set out in the sun to dry completely before application of the red paint.
 Her firing site is at the back of the family complex with lots of wood piled and saved for the three firings she does each month. Hyacinth prefers to fire similar pots together and groups her work cycles accordingly; larger pots demand a different approach to firing than the smaller pots. It was a a really fascinating visit, and I look forward to coming back to Antigua another time to see more of the pottery works at Sea View Farm.
In my final two hours on the island I met again with Michele Henry, the Director of the National Museum of Antigua and Barbuda to confirm use of materials and images from their collection, and then went after the very last photograph I wanted to collect. I had seen a small story in a Caribbean airline magazine last summer about a Rastafarian restaurant in Antigua using traditional pots, and with good directions from the folks at the Museum I was able to go straight there and meet Shoy Southwell, owner of the One Stone Ital Shack, who sang the praises of the local ware both for cooking and for keeping the vegetarian offerings warm throughout the day. And, of course, I had a great lunch to take away with me to the airport, where I dropped off the car and waited for my next flight.