Anguillan-based sculptor Courtney Devonish discusses his love of reggae, the history of Anguilla, and the photographs of American multimedia artist Heather Guess. “If someone were to ask me what I would pinpoint as a pivotal thing about Anguilla, I would say the boat racing.”

Courtney Devonish in Devonish Gallery, Anguilla, BWI

Courtney Devonish in Devonish Gallery, Anguilla, BWI

Interview with Courtney Devonish, Winter 2012

Heather Zises: Thank you for taking the time this morning to speak to me. I wanted to find out some background information on you, growing up in the Caribbean and your thoughts on HG work.

Courtney Devonish: I’m originally from Barbados, I came to Anguilla in 1988 and opened my art gallery in the same year. Before that I had a gallery in Barbados in 1970 and I ran three gift shops. The art in the Barbados was the same art I show at the Anguilla gallery now.

HZ: What brought you to Anguilla?

CD: I used to work for the Canadian government as a consultant—CITAP—that is equivalent to your US Aid, but Canadian. I was a consultant for ceramic development. Not just ceramics but arts and crafts and the whole development. I came here to help the National Council set up training and organization for ceramics.  What I used to do was research materials; research chemicals and I would do the purchasing for them. And I would also train them.

HZ: So your original medium was in ceramics?

CD: Actually, both ceramic and wood. Having grown up in Barbados, if you say the name Devonish there, it is synonymous with pottery. My family was in the pottery business for generations. The village that I grew up in was known for its pottery. When I went to England to a teacher’s college, Burma University, and I was specializing in history and religious education but I got caught up in art while I was there. And that was actually the start of my training in art. One day the headmaster asked me to teach a class for art because the art teacher was sick, and I said to him (as a student teacher at the time) that I didn’t know anything about teaching art. The school I went to in Barbados was an academic school and art was not on the curriculum. But I said that I grew up in a village with pottery, and my family was all potters so if you give me some clay, I’ll do something with the kids. And after that, the headmaster said to me, “why are studying history and religious education? You should be doing art!” And so, I took him up on it. And when I got to college, they did not want to accept me for the art courses because I had no previous qualifications, but I offered to teach 3 subjects (instead of the regular two) and after one year they could decide whether they wanted me or not. And that is how I got into art courses. I did a year, and after that it was fine for me to be there. So I dropped history and did art and religious studies instead.

HZ: Regarding the medium of wood in your practice, when did you begin to incorporate it since you came from a family of pottery?

CD: I started in college. I made my first sculpture as a religious driftwood piece.  I majored in sculpture, not ceramics.  Even though I had a natural flair for pottery I was more drawn to sculpting with wood. After school and before I moved to Anguilla, I returned back to Barbados, and I regenerated the pottery industry over there because it was dying. So I set up a workshop and hired one of the older potters whom I knew from childhood, and he trained young artists. That was the beginning of the resurgence of pottery in Barbados. I spent three years teaching in England, then came back to Barbados and spent one day as a teacher there before I realized if I chose this profession I’d never leave…it was not what I wanted. Also, I had a competitive English salary, which did not go over well in Barbados. They wanted to give me a Barbados salary because I was a native but they would not, so I walked out. From there I found a space to rent and I opened a gallery with a restaurant downstairs. The restaurant helped with the cash flow for the gallery.  I was in the kitchen a lot…I’m very particular about food. I also ran a music shop. I imported reggae from Jamaica and London to also supplement my cash flow. I love reggae.

HZ: Is there a common theme in your sculpture?

CD: Yes, I love shape, form and emotion. All my works are very sensual organic shapes. And the female form is predominant.

HZ: Do you mind talking about the religious education and why you felt that you wanted to study it more thoroughly in school?

CD: Well, I grew up in the church…I was in the church all my life. And I wanted to practice religious education, but I’m not sure I did the right thing because I am from a Fundamentalist background! So when I started to study the Bible, it kind of challenged my faith a little bit because when you are from a Fundamentalist background, and then you study the Bible, it’s a challenge, and it became a problem for me, and I dropped that course eventually too. I was going to make religious studies my major, but I ended up switching and made art my major and religious studies my minor. Which meant that after two years I was able to drop religious studies altogether.

HZ: How would you describe a Fundamentalist background compared to Bible study?

CD: As a fundamentalist you are taught basically that everything in the Bible is literal, that it’s gospel, and the first lecture I went to the lecturer started out with the statement that the Virgin Mary was never a virgin, and that the Garden of Eden never happened! So the teacher said if you cannot handle those subjects, then you will not be able to handle my course!  It was tough…cause when you are told that the story of Jonah was a myth that was radical. And the more I got into this, the more difficult it became.

HZ: This strand of conversation leads to another question I had for you.  I have been conducting light research on the history of Anguilla, and I have been learning that as far as basic amenities go, airplane strips and electricity and telephone lines we really not installed until the second half of the 20th century…

CD: Yes, not until the late ‘60s. The first real electricity came around 1967 or 1968.

HZ: It is rather shocking to think about the mindset, especially since we are all so comfortable with certain basic things like running water and lights.

CD: Even in the Caribbean, we did not know much about Anguilla. The first time that Anguilla really came to the front for me was when I was in England. And it was when Anguillans had their revolution, and I remember a newspaper headline that read “The Mouse that Roared” which was referring to the Anguilla Revolution. The Caribbean was more attached to St Thomas, St Martin, and Puerto Rico and places like that, other than the other Caribbean islands. We didn’t hear much about Anguilla until the revolution in 1967.

HZ: Regarding religion on the island of Anguilla, although for many years there were fewer amenities on the island, there seemed to have been a surplus of religion and churches. I was wondering if you might comment on the two branches that seem to stand out—Methodism and Anglicanism—and their presence on the island.

Heather Guess, St. Andrew's, 2011, Digital print, 18 in x 17 in (45.72 cm x 43.18 cm)

Heather Guess, St. Andrew’s, 2011, Digital print, 18 in x 17 in (45.72 cm x 43.18 cm)

CD: Well, the church is so strong. Sometimes I think it’s hypocritical because like Anglicanism, they have a chapel in the House of Assembly and they begin every session with a prayer.  If you listen to a political meeting, they are quoting the Bible all the time…but I’m not sure how deep it is…but the people hang onto it, and all of them go to church regularly. There is a strong religious attachment in Anglican politics. I was in church yesterday and both opposing political parties were in there praying with each other.

HZ: Which two political parties are you referring to?

CD: The two main political parties (both English) are the UF-United Front and AUM- Anglican United Movement. There used to be three parties but two of them merged into UF. The AUM is what is in power currently. Both have strong religious content in their meetings in the House.

HZ: Would you say there is one religion in particular that permeates the island of Anguilla?

CD: There are several Protestant churches but there is only one Catholic Church on the island, and they are mainly expats. I would say Anglican and Methodist have the strongest presence on the island.

HZ: On a different note, when I was in Anguilla last year I picked up on a spiritual sensibility about the island. It felt very intoxicating to be there, almost like a secret that I was let in on. There seems to be a really wonderful vibe about the island.

CD: There is. And it’s changing a little bit now because of the economic conditions. But when I came here it was one of the most peaceful and relaxing places I have ever been in. I was amazed at the entrepreneurship of the local people, which does not exist in the rest of the Caribbean islands…not to the level that it does in Anguilla. And for me, that was a plus.  It made a lot of sense, and it’s one of the things that attracted me to the island. I don’t like big cities either so the size was right for me. My only concern when I came here was that were no trees! Where was I going to get my wood from??  It’s the first thing I asked the taxi driver—“where are the trees?”  Everything was a shrub. There were a few Tamarind trees, and the white cedars were small…it was amazing to see. It’s changed now, but most of the trees you see in Anguilla are only 30- 40 years old. Because there was no electricity for so long, they would burn coals to cook and that is where the trees ultimately went to make fires.

HZ: I wanted to talk a little bit about the salt ponds. It seems like that was a big point of commerce for the island.

CD: It was the main source of income. The soil was not fertile to grow any crops successfully like sugar or cotton even though Sea Island cotton originated in Anguilla.  The salt industry used to be big here because they used to export the salt to Trinidad. But is a bit of a hardship for Anguillan culture—probably something they would like to forget because it was tied to slavery to some extent. The mining reminded them of colonial days and the concept of a mixed family.  On Anguilla, most families are all white or all black.  The proprietor of the main salt pond was a mixed family and that caused tension amongst the two races. I recommend reading Colville Petty. He is a local historian who has written some nice books on the history of Anguilla. There is also a new video that was recently released by David Carty (main boat builder on the island) called Nuttin Bafflin, which outlines the success of Anguillan boat building and sailing.  There is something innate that links them to seafaring and schoonering. They were not skilled in the trade of navigation or engineering, and did not have access to navigation equipment or radios yet somehow Anguillans were experts on the topic for many generations.  In the 1930s Anguillans built their own boats and would sail annually to Santo Domingo to bring over workers and bring back freshly harvested sugar cane. The trip there was easy and downwind. The trip back was always a challenge involving multiple tacks. Anguillans turned this journey home into a friendly competition, to see which boat could come back to port first.  This annual trip coincided with the first week of August, the time when Anguilla celebrates their emancipation. This is how Race Week came about.  They would also make trips to Barbados as well.  That is why boat building and boat racing has become so popular. That was one of their means of survival. They struggled to buy stuff from other places because the soil could not provide them with crops and groceries. It’s interesting– the history of the boating industry here. The locals also bet heavily on the race week boats.

HZ: One of Heather Guess’ images depicts Race Week…

Heather Guess, Race Week Rivals, 2011, Digital print, 16 in x 24 in (40.64 cm x 61 cm)

Heather Guess, Race Week Rivals, 2011, Digital print, 16 in x 24 in (40.64 cm x 61 cm)

CD: To me, that describes Anguilla. If someone were to ask me what I would pinpoint as a pivotal thing about Anguilla, I would say the boat racing. However, Anguilla is experiencing some challenges right now.  They are having a struggle with the British, and the current government and the British do not get along. So it’s a problem. But the whole world situation is rather a mess right now. It seems like this story is the same wherever you go—the youth are rebelling b/c there is nothing to do and the job market is poor.  The middle class is quickly disappearing and something has to give…

HZ: In reviewing Heather’s upcoming show, she seems to have captured a true snapshot of Anguillan wildlife and topography. I was wondering if any of her images stand out to you. I know we previously talked about the importance of Race Week being integral to Anguillan cultural fabric and also the importance of churches. That said, do you have any further comments on any of her works.

CD: I love the shots she has of the churches, especially the one of the Catholic Church (South Hill 3/aka St Gerard’s) (BTW St Andrew’s chapel is Methodist). Her geckos and the wildlife are very interesting too…the wildlife is one of the things that are specific to Anguilla history—they have species of wildlife and birds here that are unique in the Caribbean. I don’t think the Anguillans have exploited the island in terms of its history and the environment as of yet. I think it is something that is new to them, but I think that will come in time. I think what Heather has done has introduced that appreciation for their own surroundings…I think it’s an interesting look at Anguilla from a different perspective and I hope Anguillans will come out and enjoy the show. My only worry is that I don’t want to get into any political issues.

Heather Guess, South Hill Church 3, 2011, Digital print, 19 in x 36 in (35.56 cm x 91.44cm)

Heather Guess, South Hill Church 3, 2011, Digital print, 19 in x 36 in (35.56 cm x 91.44cm)

Anguilla’s struggle in the past has been to survive, and this exhibition gives them an opportunity to appreciate the quality of the life that is there in terms of the surroundings and wildlife and architecture…the aesthetics of the island, this is a good opportunity for Anguillans to develop an appreciation for that. And that is starting to happen. This is why art is new on the island because their struggle was a struggle to survive so it was hard to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the island when you don’t have any food. Art is becoming very important on the island. I wish the education authority would pay more attention to it but I don’t see the enthusiasm there but the talent is there. The talent is there in terms of art, film and photography. I hope this new generation stays inspired. And I think that is one of the things I’ve done since I moved here. My gallery was the first successful gallery and the longest running gallery on the island. I was the only one for a long time.  Then many more came along and joined me. And this process was achieved over the years though the arts festival. In the early 1990s I used to organize an international arts festival on Anguilla.   It was an international juried show, another effort that was driven by me. The goal was to create Anguilla as an art paradise. We had a lot of expat artists that settled here and helped to promote this notion. This festival ran every two years for four years.  We missed one year due to a hurricane. There was no one in our government with a passion for art and unfortunately I had to fight with them all the time for funding and customs and eventually I got tired! They were successful while they lasted, and happily because of this effort Anguilla became known for its art. A lot of artists traveled here to paint the island. This helped promote Anguilla as well.  We were trying to build a national collection because all the winning paintings were purchased. By the way one of these paintings was just stolen! The sad part is the police act like its not important and it was a 10,000 painting! It was a 1st prize work in the festival, done by a gentleman from St. Barth’s. The first painting to win the festival was done by an African American lady from NYC.

Download full PDF version: Devonish interview transcript