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Barry's Brew - Master painter speaks on plans and Jamaica at 50

By Richard Johnson

Sunday, March 11, 2012    

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JAMAICAN master artist Barrington Watson has a ritual. On Mondays and Thursdays, he drives into Kingston from his St Thomas home to meet with clients at Gallery Barrington along Old Hope Road in St Andrew. He then segues into coffee and lively discussion with friends.

When the Sunday Observer visited the talented octogenarian recently, he was engaged in an interview for a documentary on great Jamaicans for the Jamaica 50 independence celebrations.

As we waited, the first of Watson's coffee guests arrives, Dr Archie Hudson-Phillips. Soon he emerges from the inner halls of the gallery and the warm, rich, scent of coffee being brewed wafts throughout space; the walls of which are tastefully dotted with Watson's works. His wife, Doreen, appears with the Clonmel Potters' blue, monogrammed coffee pot and demi-tasses and begins pouring the brew for Watson and his guest.

The conversation in the gallery's foyer is wide-ranging. It covers his Watson's attendance at the funeral service for Ambassador Dudley Thompson and how he cried when young Joshua Lewis belted Wind Beneath My Wings.

"I couldn't believe that voice could come for a youngster of that size," Watson tells his guests.

In-between sips, the lively conversation continues with discussions about the weather pattern, art and life in general.

Once he finishes his first cup, Watson gestures and we move into the larger exhibition space of Gallery Barrington.

From January 8 until April 14, the National Gallery is running a retrospective of the work of this Jamaican national treasure, so we use this as a point of departure for our conversation.

His facial expression indicates that there is obvious pride in the collection on exhibit, long before he begins to comment.

"I am pleased that it has happened before I die," he chuckles. "Some of the works I did not even remember. Some are not so bad, others are just as I remembered them... all in all, it's a very good exhibition," Watson offers.

And what is this retrospective on the work of Barrington Watson saying?, the Sunday Observer asks.

"This collection of a life's work is saying several different things. But primarily, it highlights the fact that Jamaica is truly multi-racial/cultural and we can draw on anything -- be it the European and academic and represent it legitimately, or draw on African culture and represent that side of us very well. It is a well-rounded exhibition," he says.

Watson is also pleased with the layout of the retrospective at the National Gallery, as engineered by chief curator Dr David Boxer, noting that he much prefers the themed groupings as opposed to a chronological presentation.

This brought the conversation to the state of art in Jamaica, a topic on which Watson has some very strong views.

"Jamaican art went through a period of stagnation brought on by the rise of the intuitive artists. This resulted in an unwillingness to develop and a lack of growth. When one speaks of the intuitive or self-taught, it usually tells of a culture of untrained, uneducated people, very rarely does it speak to the clever and smart, who used their God-given talents for a greater good," he argues.

Watson says art is often seen as an indicator of the standard of living of a people and therefore, Jamaican art must move with the times and reflect what is happening in society today -- a sort of history book.

"Through art, we have come to understand the life and times of ancient Egyptians as well as other African civilisations as well as Europe. We have a responsibility to tell the world what is happening in Jamaican society through our art."

Watson is, therefore, passionate that the local school of art must become the centre of learning for our artists to grow and develop their craft.

Pitting the local art movement against the backdrop of Jamaica's 50th anniversary of independence, Watson says, "We have not really matured, after all, it has only been 50 years. But the perpetual struggle continues to lift local art from sidewalks to the boardrooms and living rooms of Jamaicans."

He identifies local artists such as Albert Huie, Ralph Campbell and Christopher Gonzalez as being at the forefront of this struggle.

With more than 60 years of painting under his canvas, this painter says he is yet to paint his masterpiece.

"For me a masterpiece involves a happy accident when facts, information and technique collide -- you never know when all these will come together," he says

And what about favourites? Watson shies away from naming that one piece, noting that there are a number of pieces which have sentimental value including the portrait of his mother, as well as one of his most renowned works, Mother and Child (1958).

So what's next for this artist and national treasure?

Watson has bequeathed Orange Park in St Thomas to the people of Jamaica but wishes to construct a museum to house his work.

"I have always given myself a project and this museum is what occupies my time currently. I think if you want to know about a particular artist you should visit his country of origin and the museum would serve this purpose."

He explains that a board of trustees has already been established, an architect selected and the design being worked on.

"All we are looking for is donors to fund the construction of the building," he says.

With the interview done, Watson rejoins his wife and friends who are still enjoying their coffee with long-time friend, Herbert Bradford now joining the group.

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