Atlanta-based artist reclaims Trini identity

Artist Wendell R Smith. Photos courtesy Wendell R Smith. - Photos courtesy Cedric Bacon
Artist Wendell R Smith. Photos courtesy Wendell R Smith. - Photos courtesy Cedric Bacon

Although based in Atlanta, Georgia, artist Wendell R Smith wants to be known as a TT artist.

So, for his first solo exhibition in over a decade, he has returned home to present Reclamation.

Reclamation has about 30 mixed media pieces which includes sculptural work, paintings and drawings. He worked in pastel, oil, acrylic and water paints, as well as charcoal and canvas.

He said having his first solo exhibition in over ten years in TT is emotional for him because the world has changed a lot since he moved to the US in 1997. But, he believes everyone has a responsibility to the place from which they came.

Artist Wendell R Smith working on the mixed-media sculpture Mother of Mercy in his studio in Atlanta. -

“I feel like I am coming home so that I can give my little contribution for the larger good of the nation. There is a sense of humility, sharing my vision for TT.”

“I never thought I’d ever migrate so it caught me off-guard. I feel like a castaway. I get jealous when I see people back home creating, doing work and showing. I finally just said to myself, ‘From here on I’m going to have an exhibit at least every two years in Trinidad.’ It has always been my dream.”

He said his last show in TT was in 1997 before he left for graduate school in the US. Smith said exhibiting outside of the Caribbean was not the same. He wants to see what happens when people within his own culture see his work. He wants to hear the responses of the people whose stories he is telling.

Mystical Thought by Wendell R Smith. -

“I’m bringing my experiences ‘back to the village,’ coming with a different perspective in terms of the space I left, the experiences I’ve had, and the way I was able to look at my culture, traditions and society from a distance.”

He said not living in TT made him an observer which changed the way he saw the culture. He stopped taking it for granted and further connected with it.

Smith told Sunday Newsday the exhibition is “a story of becoming” – the journey in attempting to understand his own experiences as an artist, as a Trinidadian, as a Caribbean person, and as a citizen of the world.

The work is based in history, as he believes it is only when people realise where they began that they could move forward and make something of themselves. The exhibit is also an opportunity to return to TT and give its people hope.

“We’ve been through so much trauma recently that if we could just sit down and create beauty and art, that would be great. I think this is when our society really needs art and creative expression.

“And with everything that is going on right now with crime, I just feel this is the moment, more than anything else, for us to go into the past. Because it was in the past that people understood community, that people had a sense of taking care of each other. So I find my comfort in the past...Of course, not the traumatic past.”

Agony in the Garden by Wendell R Smith. -

He said many of the pieces has human figures which he tried to give personalities to give a sense of realism and individualism. They mirror a larger cultural and historical framework with some images being characters taken from folklore, the Christian narrative, or ancestral images.

For example, some pieces allude to the First Peoples, colonisation, slavery, pre-independence and the migration of the Indians and Chinese. They show how all kinds of people occupy the small space of TT, creating “an interesting dynamic.”

Though steeped in the past, the pieces also have personal meaning to him.

“There is something that brings all of that together in my work, and it’s Carnival. Carnival is really the expression of everything for me. Because, growing up, I didn’t go to museums. When I saw visual representations, it was Carnival. I saw colour on the streets.

“So much of my work is about that reference to Carnival, about the performance, about movement, about the drama of colour. It’s about the way in which Carnival expresses the unity and the complexity of TT culture and, by extension, the Caribbean culture.”

Originally from San Juan, Smith began drawing at a young age and his parents encouraged his skills. When they realised he had potential, they sent him to art workshops and camps.

Initially, he did not do art for O-Levels but, when he went to do his A-Levels in what was then Barataria Senior Comprehensive School, now called Barataria South Secondary School, he met art teacher Norris Iton, who made him think seriously about art. So he decided to do both his O- and A-Levels in art simultaneously. He challenged himself and began to develop his own voice.

“A-Levels taught me that art was in context and there were all of these histories associated with it, all the different techniques and styles. I began to really learn the language of art and understand it in an academic way.”

At UWI, St Augustine he majored in literature and creative arts because, at the time, while there were many art courses, there was no visual arts degree. However, the programme was in the process of being developed and every year the number of art courses increased. He said by the time he got to his third year, he had done so many studio courses it was like he also majored in art.

“Ken Crichlow became my mentor and, for the next three years, I worked closely with him. That was when the idea of being an artist really crystallised and I began to think of what I was going to do with this – a hobby or a profession where I could make a significant contribution.”

By the time he completed his degree, he had a substantial portfolio of work. He was proud to be trained by Caribbean artists, and that the work he studied supported thought and ideas from the Caribbean perspective when most artists at the time had to go abroad to study at the tertiary level.

After gaining his degree, he taught art and literature at St Joseph’s Convent, San Fernando. He then applied for and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to pursue studies in studio arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. In 1999 he graduated with an MFA in painting.

“I credit UWI and the evolution of that arts programme with providing me with sound training to move forward and compete at an international level.”

He got married after graduate school but returned to TT to complete a two-year residency and taught critical thinking at UWI. He again returned to Savannah College to teach and work as an artist based in Atlanta.

Since then he had his daughter Anaya Smith, 20, who is now studying art at university, has gotten divorced, applied for and got the O-1 or “genius visa,” and worked as an artist in the US.

There, he did a number of residency programmes, exhibitions, travelled and wrote for grants, many of which he received.

“It was quite challenging. There are opportunities but you have to look for those opportunities. It takes a tremendous amount of work and effort because in America the competition is fierce. But I made it work for me through grants, residencies and fellowships, and of course other funding to host exhibits.”

Mother and Child by Wendell R Smith. -

He returned to school and, in 2014, he received a doctorate in education from Walden University in Minnesota. There he focussed on research into the design of curriculum for Caribbean higher education in the arts to meet the needs of the global art market as he wanted to know how tertiary education could further the culture industry including music, theatre, film and various types of art in order to further economic development.

“I’ve always been interested in how the creativity and culture, including Carnival, in TT could translate to economic wealth. I was interested in how Caribbean artists could become a part of this curiosity the world had for art.”

Reclamation, the exhibit, is currently running at ThinkArtworkTT Studio, Cipriani Boulevard, Port of Spain.


"Atlanta-based artist reclaims Trini identity"

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