The road to Antigua’s Fig Tree Studio and Art Gallery is definitely not the beaten path. Craggy and rutted, it twists and turns uphill until finally reaching the rainforest. Planted there, amongst an impressive collection of trees that include royal palms, lemons, silk cottons and sugar apples, is the home and heart of artist Sallie Harker.
Gilded signs beckon visitors to a group of brightly-painted cottages. An arrow, marked “gallery,” points past a foot bridge to a West Indian-style house where Harker displays her many talents. Inside the small space is a big world where tall, sculpted birds perch on tables; painted island boats sail across wooden shingles; bold turtles and striking fish leap from every wall. Between and around her creations hang the zany paintings of Bruce Smith and tropical impressions of Nadine Gonella. Undersea creatures by Janet Harker and banana leaf paintings by Nzimbu Brown fill small nooks, along with the calabash creations of Dominica’s Ezikiel Jno Baptiste and Carriacou’s Georgie Tuson. Other islands are represented, too, through an assortment of the region’s finest hand crafts.
Harker’s history as an artist has taken even more turns than Fig Tree Drive. After graduating from Art College in England she joined a boat for the ARC and met Antigua at the end of the voyage. Two more Atlantic crossings brought her back to the island that would eventually become her adopted home. In 1987 she pulled into English Harbor, as many young sailors before her, poor but ambitious. Using her training and the burgeoning yacht industry, she set to work gold-leafing transoms and trailboards. It was work that filled the table but not her soul so she tried her hand at sculpting. That led to a string of local exhibitions, and further curious experimentation with painting and printmaking launched her career as one of the island’s most versatile, talented artists.
An endless well of inspiration propelled Harker to create her own exhibition space, a place she could control. She and her husband, Antiguan Dasa Spencer, continued to build and renovate their piece of paradise on Fig Tree Drive. Two years ago they opened to the public one of the sweetest galleries in the Caribbean. Gilly Gobinet agreed, listing it in her book, 20 Best Places in Antigua. The gallery has been good for Sallie and the island.
“I can see there’s a demand.” she said. “Last year I sold all my own paintings. It gave me an incentive to paint and sculpt more. The gallery has definitely encouraged the artistic part of me.”
Harker’s list of accomplishments includes commissions for Antigua’s Crossroads Center and several sculptures for Mill Reef clients. But nothing comes close to the incredible honor that was bestowed on her last spring—which began with a phone call she thought was a hoax. A voice invited her for an all expense-paid trip to China to make a sculpture. Who would believe that? Fortunately she patiently listened to the details and learned about the city of Changchun, in the northeast corner of the country, where the world’s largest sculpture park is being constructed. The city’s mayor designated 92 hectares of land, and an army of people are working to bring artists there from every country on the planet. Harker, the voice told her, had been chosen to represent her island.
Work for that project began with her choice of an Antiguan subject, a regal looking goat named “Calypso.” The small clay model Harker created in her studio was transformed into a larger one in China, two meters high, which eventually will be cast in bronze. In China, she was given an interpreter and a team of workers who assisted in building the wire and metal base over which the clay was laid. It was then cast in fiberglass for the summer’s exposition that included artwork from eight other Caribbean islands. The event culminated with a conference of five hundred sculpture experts from around the world.
Visitors to the Fig Tree Studio and Art Gallery often meet Sallie; she lives beside it with Dasa and their two young children. Adventure seekers will check out the nearby Canopy Tour zip-line, take a hike to Wallings Dam and stop for local food at Elaine’s Culture Shop.
Sallie’s many creations can be viewed at www.sallieharker.com
Jan Hein divides her time between Washington State and a small wooden boat in the Caribbean. She records her adventures on the Bahama Breeze Restaurants-sponsored website at www.brucesmithsvoyage.com