A Man of Many LettersSunday, November 29, 2020
If only one adage could be used to describe local typography artist Cleark “Nurse” James Sr , it would be “often imitated, never duplicated”.
Words have power, and how they are visually presented can intensify or minimise their impact. Want a call to action? Bold red lettering does the trick. Want to convey confidence and have readers feel assured? A san serif font in blue is a favourite choice of graphic designers. Typefaces determine how people perceive and process information — they can “affect the way people read, comprehend, and view information.”
For the last 30 years, Nurse has been honing his craft, eventually becoming the typeface king of Jamaica. He has been the go-to sign designer for dancehall and reggae event adverts. His style has been equally copied as it has been sought after. However, studying his style, you'll notice what sets him apart. Its subtle unique flourishes, like those that distinguish Arial and Helvetica.
In 1957, a new typeface called Neue Haas Grotesk was released and immediately took the design world by storm. It became the go-to font for “company logos and transport hubs, making it one of the most widespread designs of all time”. By 1968 it was “everywhere in America” and has continued ruling typography design for over 60 years. You've seen the font. You've used it. You know it. But may not recognise its birth name, because now it's called Helvetica.
In 2018, IBM decided to ditch Helvetica, not because they became tired with it, but instead became tired of paying US$1m in annual licensing fees. Typography is a big business. And Nurse, with the assistance of entrepreneur, music producer and writer Matt Goias, is finally getting his share of the global market.
“Nuh him a my boss, man!,” says Nurse when asked about his working relationship with Goias. The two met when Goias was on the island attending a Rockhouse Foundation benefit. SO2 must highlight that both Rockhouse and Skylark hotels in Negril proudly display Nurse's work. Goias saw that not only was Nurse on top of his game, but his creations were world-class. By managing his Instagram page and creating an e-commerce microsite, Goias has brought Nurse's work into the mainstream. This spotlight has resulted in Nurse's pieces being shipped to collectors from Japan to LA.
More recently musician John Legend commissioned Nurse to create the lettering for the cover of his album Bigger Love. Another instance of Jamaica to the world! “I have lots of work for John here,” says Nurse in an exclusive with SO2. As he removed the padlock off his studio door, our eyes bulged. There's a veritable gallery exhibit just sitting there. He takes a sheet of calico off carefully positioned pieces and reveals his first draft of Bigger Love's tracklist. This has never been released to the media before.
Walking through the collection of masterpieces in his studio one wonders if these valuable archives will only be seen by those who make the trip to the Negril transport park where Nurse is located. There are orders that have not been collected and multiple drafts of promotional signage. It's sad to see such a treasure trove languishing behind closed doors. However, Nurse is a pragmatic, optimistic and smart businessman. When asked about the leftover pieces, he quickly replies, “This doesn't depress me; it exposes me! When people come to visit, they buy and post them online and tag me. Then I get more orders.”
Goias has also turned Nurse's work into merchandise. It must be said that Nurse is delighted with the financial arrangement and Goias's fair commission. This income that Nurse earns supplements his other revenue streams — a route taxi and autobody painting — and supports his family. His daughter Shannon James runs a bar in the front of the studio, and his young son Cleark James Jr, is always by his father's side.
As we stand in the evening sun speaking about local politics, it's clear that Nurse is, too, a community leader and activist. His primary personal goal is to get the Negril football field open again as “the kids have nowhere to play, and during a pandemic, they should be spending more time outside exercising and getting sunshine”. No lies there. He's not done fighting and has used his creativity to paint an eye-catching call to action on the wall surrounding the field.
Everyone waves and “hails up” Nurse as they pass. You can see that he's well-respected and loved. He's touched so many lives here and abroad and hasn't even really begun to lean into his greatness yet. As we say our goodbyes, a neighbour's small child runs towards him, happy to see him. And we too were glad to have met and spent time with a living Jamaican artistic legend. A man of many letters called Nurse.