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The Queen of Calabash Georgie Tuson

 
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The artist is so comfortably at home in her seaside studio that one might think she's been there all along. The two-room wooden structure, perched on a low bluff, overlooks Windward and the reef-spattered waters that stretch away to Petite Martinique, Petite St Vincent, Union and the islets of the Grenadines. Snippets of the view are interrupted by Crayola-colored cottages and small boats bobbing offshore, creating a scene straight from a storybook.

For Georgie Tuson, the route to her slice of heaven was anything but direct and certainly not simple. Raised in England by seafaring parents, she set sail at a tender age to deliver a few boats and see the world. She and the skipper eventually purchased a small steel vessel, complete with an assortment of charts, sailing from Portugal to England, France and up the canals to Paris. The charts guided their dreams and voyages, to Turkey, Greece, all through the Med.

After three years of cruising they made an unlikely sail to tumultuous Lebanon where, in 1989, they found no other yachts in a climate of unrest. "We hauled the boat there," Georgie said. "The yard guy told us that if things got bad on shore, they'd axe the boat loose." Not daunted by trouble, their next daring voyage was to Israel.

Travels continued to Gibraltar, the Canaries and on to Africa, navigating up the Gambia River after a stop in Dakar. Along the way, Georgie was constantly creating, using her hands and color, making much from little. It was during that river sojourn that art teamed with profit and she first showed her work at an unlikely gallery above a hair salon. Earnings from fabric creations were supplemented with massage and teaching English. A metamorphosis happened there because, she explained, "When you travel, you meet all sorts of characters. You can re-invent yourself."

Africa left a lasting influence of inspiration derived from big, bold markets, wild animals and primitive craft. It deepened on the next voyage, still further off the beaten path, to Bissagos Islands off Guinea Bissau. Again the only yacht, in a place ignored by time, they painstakingly navigated through areas of strong currents where sand banks constantly changed the bottom. Onshore, a National Geographic story unfolded of tribespeople and exotic animals. "We traded with them a bit but eventually our stores onboard began to run low so we crossed the Atlantic." Twenty-two days later the Brazilian city of Salvador rose from the horizon. "The buildings were so tall; it was an amazing sight after years in Africa."

Brazil joined Georgie's palette. "A lot of my travels have gone into what I do," she said. "The city was lovely; carnival and the little islands, so much color." She collected more hues and images in Trinidad and Tobago along with what has become her trademark. "One Christmas, I wanted to buy presents but we had no money for it. I went to the market, bought some calabash bowels and painted them. Everyone said they were so great that people wanted to buy them."

So she began working on a bench under the boat, on the hard, painting in earnest. The first batch sold swiftly, launching an art career that soon outgrew the boat. Vessel number two, also steel, had a workbench and, with more room to paint, the horizon of galleries expanded from the Virgin Islands through the Leewards, the Windwards, down the chain to Trinidad.

On Georgie's first visit to Carriacou, a tight connection was formed. She set up shop onshore, in the back of a sail loft, hired an assistant and again, as orders increased, she outgrew the space.

Like Goldilocks, Georgie has finally found a place that is just right, a perfect piece of Paradise. There are several local fellows who help gather the gourds and a few others who cut and clean them. And Wendy, her very first employee, works beside her, priming, varnishing, labeling, packing, doing whatever is needed to keep things on the move.

The ample room and extra help have been great for Georgie's creativity. Last year she enjoyed her first exhibition at Antigua's Harmony Hall, featuring paintings on canvas and wood of fanciful island people and places; brightly clad women, babies and chickens, priests and mermaids, each with a story to tell.

The wood she paints on has its own story, combed from the beach or gathered as off-cuts from the local boats under construction. "I find some pieces on the tracks of the old plantation routes," she said. Other found objects – glass, seeds, bits that wash ashore – find their way into a Georgie Tuson image.

Georgie's latest masterpiece is a new daughter, an addition to a busy brood of children who blow in and out like the winds that sweep her workbench. Contact her at Ggdesigns2003@hotmail.com

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