ANTOINETTE Campbell always knew she was creative, but she just could not find the right outlet.
She tried singing, but couldn't hold a note to save a life; she did a short stint in ballet, but her heart just was not into it. She knew visual arts was out of the question, because even her stick figures were questionably formed when she drew them. So she did the practical thing for a girl whose father is a lawyer and mother a nurse — she packed away her creativity and decided to study communication.
“Obviously the arts were not supposed to be my thing. So my natural answer was going to be law school. I thought I would study law and be a lawyer, and maybe eventually go into business like he (her dad) did,” Campbell shared with All Woman, as she stirred her vanilla chai tea at Cannonball Café in Barbican Centre, St Andrew, last week.
But like the protagonist in a good romance novel, Campbell found her way back to her love for the arts — in a way she did not imagine.
She fell in love with creating spaces and connections for creatives. At 39 years old, Campbell is the founder and planning chair of She Speaks Jamaica, managing director of Firefly Productions, and executive producer of Speak Easy, the Blue Shade Art and Music festival, and the Barefoot in the Park Film series.
After leaving Vaz Preparatory and Wolmer's High School for Girls, Campbell was unsure of the path to take. She didn't have a passion for law, but could not find her calling. She opted to study communication and sociology at Florida International University.
“In university I had a brief moment when I considered going into interior design, but that was about 20 years ago, and at that time it wasn't something that you could easily envisage for yourself — becoming someone in the creative space,” she recounted.
After completing her first degree, Campbell was not sure whether she wanted to pursue her masters or enrol in law school. Her father encouraged her to work in the family business until she got all her ducks in a row.
“I moved from working in sales and marketing in my dad's business before Tommy Cowan called me in and said he needed me in the office for three months [at Nutri Fresh Limited]. What should have been three months turned into almost a year, and that's how I ended up working on 'Fun in the Son',” she remembered. “I was his production assistant and it was amazing watching it come together, piece by piece. It's like watching a sped up version of scaffolding when they're doing a building.”
That was in 2007, and while it was not the type of creative energy that she imagined she possessed as a child, Campbell was ecstatic to experience the event coming together — from the booking of the first act to setting up the stage for the show. She was good at it too. Cowan called on her year after year to help with the annual gospel concert, and she never failed to deliver.
“Tommy taught me that you must visualise the impact you are trying to have on a space or an audience, and create the event to facilitate that goal or experience. I took that lesson to heart and into every project I've worked on since.
“But I never had a dream of doing something that big,” she said, remembering how she zoned in on her niche. “I considered producing the kind of events that I loved to go to. When I was in college abroad, I loved poetry and I went to poetry evenings, but when I came back home there was none of that.”
She continued: “The first Speak Easy I did was in my parents' back-yard. Thankfully, they were supportive and people came out. It eventually grew into a series, and grew a following,” an excited Campbell said, as she detailed how the successive events outgrew her parents' backyard to large green spaces in the Corporate Area.
Her most recently executed event, She Speaks, came about shortly after Campbell had once again strayed from her innate creativity to pursue what seemed practical — a nine-to-five as an academic manager in a private school. However, she yearned to return to the creative scene.
“I like contextualising spaces for people,” she said. “I decided to leave the school last year, and I had the luxury of being able to just sit and think of what I wanted the next phase of my life to be, and it kept coming back to refocusing on Firefly and doing more creative things.”
One day after a power lunch with a girlfriend, then drinks with a group of girlfriends that same evening, Campbell considered starting the She Speaks discussion series.
“My intention was never to enter the women empowerment scene per se because I am neither a sage nor prophet. It was just the recognition and celebration of the phenomenal people that surrounded me,” she told All Woman. “For so many of us women, we take it for granted that we are allowed to celebrate that close-knit experience with our girlfriends. We know what it is like to pick up the phone and just start bawling and your girlfriend is like, 'I'm coming over'. We love those connections.”
The connection was definitely felt in the JAMPRO auditorium last month, where the first chapter of the She Speaks discussion series was held. Seven powerful women spoke on issues ranging from mental health to climate change, and everything in-between, in an environment that was cosy and friendly enough that an audience member could interject and ask questions. She said the response to the first session was overwhelmingly good, and spoke to the need for more events that allow people to feel connected.
“As human beings we seek connection,” she reasoned. “We crawl out of the womb looking to connect, and we seek that connection through stories. It's why I read so much as a child; we seek to connect with each other, and the easiest way to do that is to sit down and have a conversation.”
Looking to her 40th birthday in September, Campbell said these last few months have been filled with reflection on the narrative she has so far written for herself, and the direction she wants the plot to take.
“I had to look at where I am relative to where the world thinks I should be and whether I'm comfortable in this skin. Forty kind of feels like a good place to check in to see where I am now, and I am pretty happy with it. I want to be even more comfortable now; I really don't have the time to be doing things that I don't want to do,” the political news junkie said.
On the list of things that Campbell wants to do are travelling, spending time with the people who mean the most to her, and curbing bad habits that sometimes inhibit her productivity as a planner and freelance writer.
Campbell, who has been reading with her mom since she could grasp a book, enjoys spoiling her two-year-old niece, Sage, who is already showing a healthy interest in books and creating her own stories.
And while Campbell pens the chapters of her own life story, she wants to write one of kindness, decency, and change.
“I want to be known as someone who is kind, someone who is decent, and someone who has left some sort of positive impact. I can't say what that impact necessarily [is], but to not have just left the place as I found it,” a smiling Campbell said.