Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Art in a bowl

Image on a square plate by Bunty O'Connor
Pat Bishop used to say that art is the well-making of what needs to be made. Perhaps it was not the most complete definition, because it leads you to wonder about a lot of things that are efficiently well-made and mass produced. It also makes you wonder about what passes for art - is "needs to be made" a criterion? I dare you to ask that of the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Picasso's Guernica, or the work of Bach or Mozart, Boogsie or Bishop herself. To begin to understand Bishop's definition, I use as a starting point the humblest most utilitarian objects - bowls! Their essence is containment - to hold water so to speak. Bowls have evolved as symbols of fullness (or emptiness), abundance, completeness. A bowl - its roundness, circularity, waiting to be filled - is a starting point.

Bunty O'Connor of Ajoupa Pottery fell into pottery as a young mother of three living in Santa Cruz. And I wish I still had one of the little pots that she sold at Dina's art shop in Maraval. It was at Dina's too that I acquired bowls made of native clay by Vanessa Urich. In those years - mid to late 1970s - Gloria Harewood made elegantly symmetrical stoneware bowls. Linda Bower's hands formed more organic shapes and finishes. But it is Bunty who has made the longest journey in the well-making of bowls, establishing a contemporary tale of pottery in Trinidad and Tobago.

Even as she was developing her trade, it was inevitable that Chinese cups and bowls would naturally outsell and outnumber the elegant Ajoupa Pottery ware - patiently hand-glazed at an open air bench and depicting the birds and flora of our tropical islands.  China after all has a centuries older tradition in ceramics, and has given its name to fine porcelain and ceramic ware. It is that country's sustained attention to the craft and art of ancient pot-makers that has built its dominance in the manufacture of household and art wares. But it was appropriate that a potter like Bunty should arise in Trinidad where shards of ancient Amerindian pots - made from native clay - are still found; where others still carry on the traditions of Indian ancestors. It was to be hoped that many here would recognize and appreciate skill, craftsmanship and art -don't we all need bowls!

Bunty was ever the artist in her exploration. Not content with shape and utility, she used her pots as vessels of expression. Flowers, birds, forests and fish, villages of ajoupa houses flowed from her imagination. Knowledge of the clay, and shaping and firing techniques combined to produce exciting forms, textures and color.  Bowls, platters, table tops, mosaics and sculptures emerged from the potter's hands. Then, after decades of the craft that provided the artist's bread and butter, Ajoupa Pottery the business closed.
Quartet of Sea Sponge bowls

What remains though, is Bunty's impulse to continue to make well what is to be made. She recently started experiments with raku, the Japanese technique of hand-shaped, open air (low temperature) firing of vessels.  Her exploration is shared with classes of weekend students. The result is a line of calabash bowls - small, medium and large - and "sea sponge" bowls (inspired by underwater sponges). She has also created a flock of miniature chickens. These palm-sized creatures were easily shaped in the sitting room in the company of her 95-year old mother - "so she could see me nearby for the whole day." They have the feel of volcanic rock colored by fire, in shades of copper, slate and deep green.
Chickens by Bunty

Rooster with a ruddy copper based wing

In the store room, however, Bunty's art project grows. There's a turtle, elegant elongated heron vases, more calabashes filled like arks. There's also a group of macabre creatures that are the stuff of nightmare - misguided mutations, Bunty says, the result of man's inhumanity to the earth. She is worried that the collection "doesn't hang together." Life is the link. But we who have grown so accustomed to themes - in parks and entertainment and art - must resist the easy theme. After all, it is a lifetime of surviving, rearing children, minding parents, seeing the world, growing hands that are thickened and knotted by one's craft that are being poured into Bunty's new bowls. Art in a bowl, life in a calabash.

Medium calabash bowl

Medium calabash bowl

Calabash cut outs

Trio of calabash bowls

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Apprenticeship begins

The apprentice arrives - late on the first day. The plan for early afternoon slips to early evening. The chocolatier is anxious, running on little sleep, maybe also anxious about what an apprentice's expectations might be.

I am just here for a couple hours. It's my first time. I'll just watch today. Relax into the moment and do what I do best - observe.

She says she's making bark. These are shards of dark chocolate with generous sprinklings of flavor toppings: desiccated coconut and pineapple; candied ginger; nutty nibs of pure cacao. Liquid chocolate is going around in a large vat, recycling smoothly from a spigot. The timed fluctuations in temperature deliver the sheen and hardness that give the "snap" to well-tempered chocolate. The smooth semi-liquid is released - by foot pedal - onto trays prepared with silicone mats. In one practiced movement, she tips the tray to spread the chocolate then taps it firmly on the marble countertop to break up and release any bubbles. Braba-dap brap-dap braba-dap brap...  firm as a tap dancer's rhythm.

Before the chocolate sets, she scatters the topping heavily over the surface. In a few minutes, she deftly lifts the mat, transfers the now hardened chocolate slab to a board, and cuts elongated triangles with a big knife.

Her process is organic and habitual, the flow of movement easy, unaffected and efficient. It's hard to figure where an apprentice could insert herself. She's relieved not to have to make work for the apprentice. 

The chocolate triangles are weighed into cellophane bags. She's hardly over or under weight. As my mother would say, her hands are like the scale.

The next day is a small lesson in packaging. All labels and tags are printed, scored and cut on the guillotine, folded down and stuck on the individual packages, quarter inch from the bottom.

Nibble nibs on Cocobel bark

Cocobel pina coco bark
pineapple and coconut

Another day, the chocolatier is making moulds - tiny dark chocolate shells for fillings that are bursts of intense flavor, caramel, coffee, passionfruit, mango pepper. A foot pedal on the tempering machine controls the flow into the mould. Vibrate the air bubbles out of the mould. Du-du-dud-du-dud-dah... Tip the mould against the heated bars of the tempering machine and let the still molten chocolate in the middle drip out, creating the cavities for filling. Scrape extra chocolate off the sides and bottom, no waste, no mess. Deliberate steps, no panic. The chocolatier has choreographed mould making. She is patient but instructs the apprentice firmly. Scrape it off the bottom, sides and top. Hold it over the tempering drum. Forget the drips on the floor. A test of coordination?

The tempering machine has become one of the chocolatier's dearest friends. For old time's sake, she says wistfully, she might still temper a batch of the Cocobel single estate dark chocolate by hand.

Chocolate coats the apprentice's hands, drips on the floor, and hardens. It's a start.
Cocobel ginger bark

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Prayer for grace

Dance! they said, my older cousins, the uncle who was pleased to teach me ballroom dance steps, aunts who were content to watch the teenagers win'ing, disco-ing, filling the family dance floor with frenetic moves and so much laughter. There will come a time when you will sit many out, they warned. After one time is two time... simple but ominous words to the young. At 18 or 27, you never imagine that you could let good music go to waste. But listening is not wasting. And in the twinkling of a lifetime, you have become your older relatives.

Gone are the long days - and nights - devoted to achievement, to reaching the target. So many nights spent beside a dusty carnival stage, hoping for the next costume or band to stop your heart and send you home fulfilled. So many stages for steel bands and their mesmerizing music. Gone in a heartbeat, alive only in the dim reaches of memory and the pages of an old style magazine made without the benefit of computerized typesetting. Wax and glue, paste up and flats (cardboard templates on which columns of texts were lined up with a keen eye and a sharp scalpel) - now replaced with publishing programs on computers. Gone the zeal for newness and personal accomplishment.

The young - oh how precious is the air of their invulnerability - are always wanting more, new territory, higher achievements. It is the time in life to go where no one has gone before, to push the limits, good and bad. Remember those impulses - going further, faster, higher, grabbing and getting more, being what no one thought you would be - even as they are being replaced by steadier calmer pulses.

Now that one time was then, two time now, we struggle to maintain equilibrium in societies that continue to be in adoration of the young. We desire more flexibility as we age, healthy bodies to keep our minds agile. Perhaps there's wistfulness for the shapes that we will never be in again. But no one should want to remain young. It is our destiny to be in the Age of Aquarius as people with experience and generous hearts. Let us always wish to be in touch with the young - in ourselves, in others and especially in the youth  - but let us open to the grace of being old. Let us grow gentler, more thoughtful, always encouraging. Give us comfort in being slow, deliberate as the heartbeat of trees.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Throwaway world

Today, I am trying to sort out the paper - bills, bank statements, what can I throw away? - clogging up the drawers that are getting harder to close, overwhelming all but the littlest passageway in my study. As I shred and wander off into daydreams, inertia sets in - to keep or not to keep, to shred, perhaps to burn...

We grew up in a household, and an era, in which you didn't throw out anything. Every container, glass bottle and its lid, plastic ice cream boxes, grocery bags, even paper bags had another use. Soft drink and beer bottles, out of glass, could be returned. We kept rum and wine bottles to store Christmas beverages like sorrel, ginger beer or ponche a crema; jars for homemade pepper sauce and pickles. My parents were teenagers in the last world war, and patterns of scarcity and rationing led to lifestyles that were conservative, and hoarding was a common practice. As long as she lived, my mother always had a store of canned food. As long as he lived, my father was always saving and re-using - even styrofoam containers - his philosophy, why throw it out if it's not broken.

Paper is always a problem. You bring so much home without even thinking. Newspapers pile up. We give stacks of old paper to the vet. Use some of it to keep bush from overwhelming young trees. But more comes in than goes out and there's always a pile. It's good for composting, but use the compost to grow food only if you are sure that the newspaper uses soy-based inks!

The phenomenal rise of plastic is worth its own study. But what do you do with it in your own home? How many storage containers could you keep? Plastic bottles are best recycled and if there's a collection point in your school or office, it's not so hard to take your garbage to work!

In less than one generation we have evolved into a throwaway society. We go through barely a season with  clothes. Our food purchases produce more inorganic than organic waste - and even our dogs are fat! And if you don't let the paper in your study overwhelm you, you can be sure it is overflowing somewhere else.

While most solutions require collective commitment, each of us must find the way to live the individual life that is conservative, contained, low impact and reduces waste. Here's an ideology that runs counter to the way we grow up in democratic capitalist societies. For while we are taught that "the meek should inherit the earth" our DNA is to survive, intimidate and conquer. Our civilizations are destined to rise and fall - Caesars amassing territory are not much different from executives paying themselves millions of dollars, or Wall Street magnates growing their financial empires.

And so, back to my personal inventory. I have what I need. Everything else should be sorted and given away!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Taking back the wild

Look, where I living used to be a quarry. So they say. But to see it now, you wouldn't know that until you get down to the soil itself, loose limestone and uneven shale-y pits and cracks where the cobos still like to hang out. On first exploration, it seemed to be a dry gorge; but as time passed, we realized that no river ever carved these boulders and rocks left so haphazardly. The birds of course should have been a giveaway. Why would cobos seek out almost impenetrable underbrush to roost. It seems reasonable to conclude that the birds used to hang out here when it was bare rock - as they do on top the active quarry on the other side of this same hill - and continued to do this even as the trees in the gorge were growing. Now most of them are over 50 feet tall. These days, the cobos fly into the gorge crashing through small branches. We hear the purposeful beat of their wide wings, their squabbles. Who knows what else takes refuge down there? This flank of the northern range sees agouti and iguana, manicou, frogs, tarantulas (lots of spiders) and thousands of insects.

In the five years since we discovered the old quarry gorge, the fast growing bois canot and bois flot have completely masked the ground. Some of these trees must be over 60 feet tall, growing straight up. A couple other trees may be over 100 feet, their spreading branches sheltering other birds, epiphytes, vines and "spirits taking back the land."

So there's hope for all our quarried places yet. And there's hope for change in human hearts. It doesn't take long for land to be reclaimed by forest. All we have to do is get out of the way.

To see how others are working to re-forest exhausted mines and desert landscapes, google Eden Projects or go to

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Wildness and the wild

Not long after you enter the Blanchisseuse valley from the east-west corridor, as you begin the ascent of this ancient river course, you come upon a monument to progress, shaped by the architects of nation's future.

Sculptor's tools, earth-moving machines zig-zag random hairpin bends to carve another piece of the mountain. Red earth and loosened boulders gather momentum. An abrupt thud and scatter, a cloud of dust. Another machine, and an adjacent mountain rising of pebble perfect gravel. Trucks arrive in convoy to be loaded, then make their way on roads dry as rivers of sand. Etched pale grey limestone, veins of red clay, slabs of shale and layers laid down over millennia, the heart of the mountain laid bare. Strange beauty, this incursion in a pristine valley of the northern range. Perfection in death!

Others who would reshape nature whittle away in different ways. The farmer who has cleared trees and bush and covered the hillslopes with wire trellises so his little vines can run to bear a fruit that only man can eat. Questionable profit! Yet another dealer in death. Where will they hide, agouti, ocelot, armadillo, lizard, frog, manicou, bird, bachac, spiders, snake and a million creatures bringing life to the soil? Red dirt devalued to be re-injected with chemical fertility.

In big and small ways, we all reject the wild, with fences, air-conditioned high rises, cities on the sea coast, billions to feed, miles to go before we sleep, paving paradise, putting down parking lots! As a species, we almost cannot help it. We have "dominion over the earth" imprinted in our genes, and I defy anyone to disprove this. We are the wild, gone virally wild!

Higher up the same valley, the road is a contour line that clings between hill and drop. Tall trees brood. The forest closes in with hums and small sounds, vibrations skittering and repeated. If you go quietly, you will feel the trees pushing pure oxygen into your lungs. You will feel something else too. Is it pathos, a silent song? Covered in epiphytes and vines, withstanding wind, rain or nesting birds, they exude patience and fortitude. But even here, men with axes have been at work, cutting a stand to dead stumps, and starting subsidence along the edge of the fragile road.
Some trees are communities too!
Where the forest grows densest, you enter the Asa Wright nature centre. A tunnel of trees and underbrush converges over the path. The sound of water somewhere behind bamboo quiets the nervousness of the ride up, anxious expectation of a big truck round each bend. The city peels away. On the verandah you look down the valley. Toucans and parrots still roost in the far trees. Bananquits are jostling and jumping on the feeding racks. A jade green honeycreeper pecks on the edge. Agoutis amble on the paths. Few hummingbirds though: maybe they have gone somewhere else for the season. Just five minutes from the big house, you re-enter the rainforest.

The conservation of some 1000 acres of old plantations as a wildlife reserve seems just. In 44 years - the nature centre was officially opened on November 5 1967 - humans have allowed the wild to reclaim its own, with minimal interventions of stone paths, guide rails and rest stops. Over the decades, many continue to witness an amazing area of contestation and "nature". Inexorable life abounds. Vines and roots move rocks. Water moves earth. Termites and bachacs diligently create their indoor gardens with profuse tender foliage. And all support the animals and hundreds of bird species that bring the "serious birders" back year after year.
Diligent ants dismantle forest trees

Dinner time conversation turns to tales of tarantulas. Yes, they have toxins, but not deadly. Toads and frogs too, we know dogs that get high on a lick of toad! Adventure into bat caves created in vacant rooms of unused buildings. Go in the dark and feel wing beats and sonar pulses. Walk the trails at night and consider your good fortune to step back from a snake - macajuel or mapapire? The rainforest at dawn or dark is an amazing place - a necessary initiation for all humankind, now running past seven billion.
Somewhere quiet and safe to sit

A small group of earnest ordinary folk gathers in this setting. It is an annual rite: To re-commit to the vision, to re-dedicate and renew this purpose of conservation. To continue to believe that diversity is precious; that humans are both of the wild and of their own intellect; that there is balance to be strived for and reached that will preserve all beings and human beings in a necessary harmony. That there is a role for each of us in earth balancing - that dynamic tension that at every instant is already being maintained by forces outside our ken or control.

And so, finite beings with finite lives - environmentalist, financier, journalist, tour operator, forester, diplomat, lawyer, administrator, politician - we deliberate and assign duties. We will re-enter the world of our making, to find funds. Look for projects that will engage communities. Teach the children.

Looking south towards the Central Range.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fear of failing

I spent most of my early school life excelling academically. But in my family, there was not a lot of pressure to perform. As a child, I genuinely enjoyed math and english. In preparation for the (first ever) common entrance exam in the country, I had a book of math and english exercises that I worked through like they were puzzles. So I entered high school as a reputed "bright spark." You know how these things can go to your head - you start believing that you are good at everything! Cruisin' for a bruising' my friend would say.

In the auditions for the choir, I chose to sing next to a brilliant voice (she happened to be my desk mate) and the effect must have been that I was tone deaf. I refused to sing ever since. I learned to play the piano proficiently to grade two or three but to this day, I am convinced that I am not musical, cannot sing and will not even try. My younger sister on the other hand was a member of the choir! 

Sport too was a field to fail in. Active, outdoors farm life didn't prepare me for what sport is all about - regular practice, mental focus and perseverance. Long legs and a skinny torso do not an athlete make. Plus we didn't have that tradition in our family to be fit for fitness sake. Spare hours were to be spent at work, not play. I would have loved to be in a dance class, but it was one of those extras that I didn't dare ask for.

My first job was almost automatic - teaching at my high school. I didn't have to think too hard about university because a scholarship was offered. Qualifying for it included being recommended by the principal. Being of a particular ethnic group to round out the representative Trini quintet of the day - Afro-, Indo-, chinee, white and a red 'ooman -  was helpful. Grade point average was not a pressing concern, except to ensure that I would complete the degree efficiently in the time allotted, and get back home. My challenges were about writing papers! And if I failed a paper, it was not because I didn't know the material, it was because I wrote it badly.

Still, I wandered into my profession with similar nonchalance. Since I was little, I fancied myself a writer.  Getting into a publishing company was easy enough. Harder still was learning that writing requires readers. It was in this field - my chosen field - that there has been the most pressure. Texts submitted, and critiqued. Manuscripts provided and rejected. You would think it was not a big thing; that being reviewed, edited, having one's writing not liked and subjected to modifications are normal for any writer. It is, but the individual writer has to come to terms with this. I couldn't live - not for long anyway - with the feeling of always being less than, of not being perfect, of failing. There are options of course - go through hard with brave danger until you are accepted just as you are; change and try other tactics; never write again, at least not anything that you would show the world. 

Attitude change is always the hardest. This is entirely you and yourself alone in your own deep dark corner. Why are you doing this? Who are you hurting if you fail? Of what importance are you to the universe? Do you allow "not being good enough" to shape you? Who and what are "you" anyway? Can you forgive yourself enough to go on, to allow yourself to be loved for who you are rather than what you do. These are hard lessons but worthwhile. 

I learned to say "thank you" to every criticism, every re-write requested, every rejection, every review; and to seek to understand what is being taught, the lesson for me. I learned that every writer needs a good editor; sometimes I am writer, sometimes editor. It becomes easier as the years go by. I lose ego, and maybe my writing is clearer. As a writer, I have my part in the world, good, bad or indifferent, a porous membrane, a channel. And I am no longer afraid of being rejected, of failing.