A provocative gesture: putting Caribbean artists into the spotlight
Aragorn Dick-Read and the Caribbean islands have a longstanding partnership, each giving generously to the other. It began in his homeland of Tortola where, like most busy kids, he spent time digging clay in the backyard, drawing and making stuff. Encouraged by parents and teachers who recognized an exceptional talent, art became a world he pursued. At England’s University of East Anglia, he studied a rich combination of history, tribal art and English country pottery techniques. Whenever possible, he traveled to find and meet indigenous craftsmen. One trip to Haiti during those impressionable years stimulated an interest in working with sheet metal, a medium Aragorn found accepting of larger images, a perfect way to expand his intricate drawings.
After graduation he returned to Tortola’s Beef Island. “I decided to make my living in art.” he said. “I got a commission to do metal pieces for new rooms at Long Bay. I got old fridges and cars, cut them up. That’s what I used before I had enough money to buy copper.” For eight years he lived in the bush growing food, making art and a living by selling t-shirts and screened prints to bareboaters and local stores. Business and his dream grew into a tiny studio building on the beach, a monumental step that turned out to be phase one. In 2001, it expanded into what is now Aragorn’s Studio and the Local Arts Centre.
Walking through the area that houses the Local Arts Centre is like peeking into Alice’s looking glass or stepping into Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Colorful, zany signs point the way, while sculpted giants keep a lookout. “We’ve created a little bubble here,” Aragorn explained. “It’s attractive to folks coming in from regimented society who are looking for the myth of a laid back lie-in-the-hammock lifestyle. People who come through say they love the inspiration, junk and trash.” Looking around at the myriad of creations, he added, “We’re lucky we can do what we want esthetically.”
After he built a Carib Indian canoe, Gli Gli, and first sailed her from Dominica through the Caribbean in 1997, Aragorn decided to bring a collection of down-island art and artists to his studio from St. Vincent, Trinidad, Dominica, Bequia, and Antigua. “The Gli Gli trip was really the foundation of linking everyone together,” he explained.
That collection of Caribbean artisans not only breathed life into the centre, it was also the fortuitous beginning for Aragorn’s current zeal, the Caribbean Craft Festival. The annual event stretches through a week in March, attracting several thousand patrons and, last year, 55 artisans. It is, according to Aragorn, a “Big mash up of people. It started six years ago by me just inviting friends up.” This past year the BVI Tourist Board got onboard.
The Moorings, one of the most important and generous sponsors, lends several catamarans that are used as lodging for visiting craftspeople, tied stern-to the beach. People flow betwixt and between the boats creating what Aragorn describes as, “a festival feeling.”
Indigenous crafts and their makers are key to Aragorn. “Cra, from the word craft, means power,” he explained. “Crafts people used to yield power by making all the instruments.” At the centre you can watch them creating baskets, pottery, jewelry and other tangible memories visitors take with them. “People have to see it being made, especially in a tourist economy. It’s about story telling.” He held up a carved bowl adding, “They want to say, ‘I met the person who made this.’ ”
Speaking with pride about the centre’s artisans he said, “It’s a provocative gesture to put people who’ve been out of sight into the spotlight, saying they’re important.” Certainly they are, especially when you consider that, “The fewer craft people in the world, the more valuable their wares.”
A list of Aragorn Dick-Read’s talent and skill with all things art easily fills pages. Add his ability to organize such whopping projects as Gli Gli, and you‘ll be running to grab more paper. Then there are the Trellis Bay Fireball Full Moon Parties to include, enchantingly illuminated by Aragorn’s signature steel sculptures. The ever-expanding Local Art Centre is a story in itself, and if you register all his efforts for the Caribbean Arts and Crafts Festival, you’ll end up with a hefty volume of achievements by one modest, down-to-earth artist.
To talk with Aragorn, one might get the idea that he’s just starting out and, if he has anything to do with it, he is. “These days, I’m liking the three-D stuff, the fireballs and large sculptures.” Along with that, he has the lines for a 40-foot Tortola sloop and a head full of plans for building it on the beach. No doubt, he will.
Jan Hein divides her time between Washington State and a small wooden boat in the Caribbean.