In the afternoon, the smell of ganja drifted down the beach, giving a mild creative abandon to my normally controlled painting activities. I’d been aware of a few dreadlocked, Haile Selassie-type characters down there — now they were being joined by large, laughing women and a few rag-tag children who ran noisily and furiously in and out of the surf. Like a scene out of a movie, the crowd now moved toward me, their shoulder-born reggae growing in volume as they approached.
“Wot you doin’ mon?” said a nicotine-stained voice behind me. It belonged to the skinniest, tallest Jamaican guy I’d ever seen. “You got all those nice colours there, you oughtta use them, mon.”
The Rastafarian religion claims only about 100,000 Jamaicans, but its influence permeates the culture. There’s spiritual healing when all else fails and a sense of community like no other. It doesn’t seem to matter whose kids are whose, or even whose lady is whose — a moving, bumping, singing family of mankind is exuding love and the unabashed celebration of life. Intellectual examination is out of the question. Bob Marley is the prophet.
The short pause by the tall gentlemen was meant as encouragement. Indigenous Jamaican paintings, for the most part, are laced with a laid-back, colourful and carefree energy. Influenced from many shores — from cubism to primitivism, as well as Black Africa — it’s less about technique than magic. Like the loud but faded shirts of some of these Rastas, Jamaican art often tells stories.
Intuition drives a great deal of Jamaican art. Extroverted groups and daily life scenes are loaded with gossip and frivolity. Albert Artwell (b. 1942) is an example of the Jamaican Intuitive School — in his case the reworking of biblical material laced with Jamaican humour and comment. A Crucifixion scene, for example, shows a range of goofy onlookers including colonial figures and a British officer. Clear and fresh colours, flatly painted, mark his and many other Jamaican paintings. The shops around here are full of similar work. It’s been my observation that art can be an island, especially when it comes from an island.
PS: “Life is one big road with lots of signs,
So when you riding through the ruts, don’t you complicate your minds:
Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy!
Don’t bury your thoughts; put your vision to reality, yeah!”
(from Wake up and Live by Bob Marley)
Esoterica: Today is Bob Marley’s birthday and the beach people are partying hard. Some go swimming with their clothes on, then set up a clothesline right on the beach. It’s straight out of Milton Messam (b. 1944), known around these parts by the nickname “Artist.” He’s a taxi driver and chef who became a celebrated painter after taking a correspondence course in commercial art. The skinny guy comes back. “Come and join in, mon. You’re taking things too serious.” I figure I may as well, though it’s part of my culture not to let these acrylics dry up.
Haile Selassie-type characters?
by Linda Thoman, GA, USA
I take exception to your comment about Haile Selassie. The last emperor of Ethiopia was one of the most distinguished and intelligent rulers of the 20th century. He was not a dread-locked ganja-smoking Rastafarian. The one time he did visit Jamaica to meet the Rastafarians who worshiped him, he wouldn’t even get off the plane once he saw them. If the League of Nations had listened to him in the late ’20s and early ’30s, World War II might not have happened.
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You visit Jamaica, mon?
by John Powell, Jamaica
Hello Robert, Nice to hear from you, mon; I never know you visited Jamaica? Next time you visit please let me come visit you by your hotel? NB. I told you that I’ll be layed off my teaching job come September so, I go full time painting and travel and would like to visit you in Canada?
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Seeing in retrospect
by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA
Sounds like a terrific time you’re having. I’ve never known anyone who came back from Jamaica without a pretty big smile on their face. This may further go to prove that less really is more. I hear the people in Jamaica are very poor, but joyful.
It was also only upon my return from the island that I noticed the colors of the watercolors I’d done on the trip were all very citrus and tropical. The paintings contrast greatly to the red clay tinge of my North Carolina landscapes. Sometimes, we see things much more clearly in retrospect.
by Frederick Winston, Havelock, ON, Canada
One year my wife gave me a Christmas gift of a little box of watercolour paints. She then signed me up for a class while on vacation in Barbados. Three sessions into the class, the kind teacher drew me aside and asked me, “Can you see yourself, as an artist, painting and selling your works, and being in a gallery? I can.”
She gave me the best gift I had ever been given on a Caribbean vacation; the gift of a beautiful vision. I realized her vision. Within a few years and next week, I will greet one of my students who will be arriving from Canada. Call it Caribbean magic if you will.
by Phillippa Lack, Cheyenne, WY, USA
As a Jamaican, sadly far from home due to corrupt politics and being on a ‘hit’ list for my family to be eradicated, I need to take issue somewhat of your impression of us Jamaicans. We are not all Rastas. Indeed my brother is a believer, with no dreadlocks, but sadly, that is the only impression outside folks have of us. I am constantly asked why I don’t look like Bob Marley (his father was English, by the way), and have to explain that there are Jamaicans of all shades, mostly outside their beloved country. We are a creative, happy and intelligent folk, who don’t take most things too seriously, as the man said… I know more world geography than the average American I come across. Because we are from a small island, we were taught, back in the day, about other places and peoples. Sadly, the island culture has been focused on reggae and ganja. Jamaica has become a place for spring break, with awful photos of drunken women who have abandoned their clothing and are behaving in a way they never would at home. Please don’t get me wrong: I have an extremely broad mind, but the stereotype of Jamaica saddens me greatly.
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Memories of Jamaica
by Sue Gow, South Africa
I was born in Jamaica and left when I was 13 so this letter was very atmospheric for me. Both parents were born there, too, and apparently on my grandmother’s side they were one of the first families to come and farm there, etc, etc. — colonials all. And in those days the Rasta Man was used as a kind of bogey man for small children — be careful … or … We came to South Africa in ’58 and I haven’t been back and short of a lottery win am not likely to, but would love to re-visit the Blue Mountains and Irish town where I spent many a holiday with an aunt. It would sort of close a circle for me. I recently went to a Literary Festival here where the Jamaican poet Kei Miller now teaching in Glasgow was present — wonderful to hear his voice and his poetry was poetry. I paint and sculpt and write (but not as much as I would like) and have been mentored by Dorian who helped me publish a book of poetry and I have written about my childhood memories of that small island. Certain smells and tastes like frangipani and lantana and mango take me back there and I am eating roasted breadfruit and soursop and star apple fruit salad, sailing in Kingston Harbour and swimming in the clear water of the river at Ocho Rios. Delicious. The Same Earth by Kei Miller…
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Grief after loss
by Nancy McGrath, Wynantskill, NY, USA
This past September I lost my greatest fan, my brother Glenn. He was only 54 years old, which was way too young and he was a beloved member of his community. I won’t list all of his accomplishments but his art lay in helping others; policeman, fireman, ambulance worker, town council, etc.
When I say I lost my greatest fan, I am not exaggerating. Glenn was always the voice with the cudos and encouragement, sometimes the only voice, and the first one to yell when he thought I didn’t get enough money for a piece. All of this brings me to the point that I have not picked up a paintbrush since his passing. Intellectually I don’t think it’s because of his passing but emotionally I am not working. I would just like to hear from others who have gone through this process. How did you cope?
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A modern day mystic
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA
You bring to mind with your entertaining and colorful description, another Jamaican artist, complete with Rastafarian-influenced dreadlocks: a modern day mystic with the memorable moniker Mooji, who swiftly transcended Marley mania to become a world teacher who gathers his followers first through YouTube and then through his amazing gift for painlessly penetrating his listeners with his clear, transformative observations. His message calls forth a type of awakening with the absence of ordinary religious trappings. When one first sees Mooji (an affectionate nickname for Tony Moo), one wants to smile, and then when one hears his message spoken in his soft Jamaican accent, one’s spirit begins to soar! Surprisingly, it’s Marley’s message, “Don’t worry about a thing,” but now made complete with a clear recipe for how to bring that about!
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Request for airport advice
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
Spring and summer are quickly approaching and with that come domestic and international trips. Was wondering if you could give advice as to what art materials wouldn’t be investigated or confiscated in carry-on luggage.
I remember having to go retrieve my son’s oil paints from the airport authorities. He could fly them out of NYC but couldn’t return with them!
We are planning a trip abroad with only carry-on luggage. So whatever supplies we are taking need to be small and minimal. Thinking of taking one 5″x 7″ journal with suitable paper on which to write, draw and watercolor. I have a small Cottman travel box into which I’ve substituted my Schmincke 1/2 pan watercolors, a Japanese ink brush pen for sketches on the run, a couple of pencils and the new water-fillable brushes. Plan to fill them once we are there.
It would however be helpful for future, more extended trips to know where one can find the art supply limitations online. TSA covers all forbidden objects but no mention is made about art materials.
Knowing you travel often, perhaps you have picked up some do’s and don’ts for those of us with wander lust and wanting to bring home a little more than digital photos.
RG Letter: The flying artists, November 9, 2007
RG Letter: Packing for a trip, September 9, 2005
RG Letter: Travel tips, March 12, 2002
RG in Ireland: Just a reminder, June 16, 2009
RG Letter: Yoho park, July 19, 2002
RG Letter: Thinking ahead, July 31, 2009
Ten years in Jamaica
by Olgateresa Gonzalez Baigas, Taos, NM, USA
For ten years I lived in Jamaica and have now moved to Taos. Jamaica has many sides, but the smell, the society, and the sea is a wonderful experience. You have shown some beautiful artwork that gives one the sense of color, business and activity of the island. I have spent so much time painting there… the salt of my sweat dripping on my oils or wetting my paper drawings…
My home is now for sale in beautiful Negril — if you know anyone who loves it enough to move there. See it on my site.
Old Barrie Road
acrylic painting 24 x 30 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
Enjoy the past comments below for Jamaican afternoon…