Jamaica – Wassi Arts’ Kiln-Baked Soul

Published on October 2004 in Americas Magazine – Magazine of the Organization of American States, Washington, D.C.


As I navigated the roller-coaster road inland from Jamaica’s resort town of Ocho Rios, I swerved as a palm branch grazed my windshield. Attentive to this narrow, snaking route plus driving on the opposite side of the road, I was intent to simply creep along. Good that I did for so for as I rounded a bend a horse looked at me right from his stance mid-road. I yielded to his bulk until he was well on his way before I resumed mine.

None of these rural mishaps would interfere with my mission: I was on the potter’s path, determined to locate the Wassi Art Studio in Great Pond, Jamaica.

Shortly, two saffron walls capped by hand-painted azure tiles spelled out Wassi Art to herald the studio’s turn-off. I entered the road to what is considered the Caribbean’s most creative ceramics studio.

Owner Terri Lee, a Chinese-Jamaican, was an account management professional with a lighting firm then, in the late 1980s, when she headed home alone that afternoon. From somewhere, a voice rang out and stated, “Leave this and work with your hands.” She stopped and turned to acknowledge the comment. But no one was there. The words came to her again. Astonished, she pondered what they meant.

They replayed in her head consistently.  No one had voiced them as no one was there.  If they meant to undertake something with art, well, she was not an artist.  Indeed far from it. But mantra-like, the anonymous voice repeated the words in her head.

She understood instinctively that this represented something life-changing.   She knew she must heed the command – and take action. She quit her job the next day.

Fast forward a few days and Terri asked her sister to accompany her to Miami, a place they knew well. This time, however, her focus was to incorporate the words into action. She recalled a friend whose hobby was sculpting in clay. She had remarked how that was compelling: it was playful, creative, vibrant, seemed fun, and was certainly done “with your hands.” Could this be the meaning?

In Miami, the sisters went to a ceramics store and shopped for supplies: slip molds, clay, glazes, and books on a topic about which they knew nothing. They returned with their supplies and began creating.

A few years later, Terri met Robert Lee, a successful graphic artist and entrepreneur who owned a manufacturing concern in Great Pond. Before he and Terri married, Robert suggested that she consolidate and move her ceramics business there. From these beginnings,  she and her sister produced ceramic products that sold fairly well throughout Jamaica’s hotel industry.

Terri studied the art assiduously. The research not only brought her knowledge about clay, but also, she realized that only pure Jamaican clay should be used. With Robert, she trekked to various locations near southeastern Jamaica’s Blue Mountains and scouted for a local resource. Finally, the rich clay near Castleton yielded its bounty.

But its inaccessible location required labor-intensive work: dig the clay by hand, bag it on site, bring it down atop workers’ basket-laden heads, carry it across a ridiculously narrow footbridge that swayed to an awaiting truck.  The geography permitted only this method. Now, only slightly more streamlined is the road itself from the mountains to Great Pond.

With clay an abundant resource, Terri began to produce ceramics using the slip molds. She found they lent themselves to a uniform – albeit unremarkable – product. A local market for ceramic utensils and decorative items became available. Her business became quietly successful. From three employees in 1990 to over fifty in less than eight years, Wassi Art began making a name for itself.

In Wassi Art’s early years Terri was invited to participate in the Harmony Hall Art Gallery Show, on the North Coast Road not ten minutes from Great Pond. Elated with the opportunity, the show would feature Jamaica’s emerging artists and their crafts.

Words were powerful catalysts for Terri. Yet, it was not until the Harmony Hall Show that she understood precisely how significant. When she overheard Wassi Art assessed as “homemade” and “not very thrilling or creative,” it angered her. Terri, always the positive one, channeled the anger into action, wisely. She vowed to establish a center to produce the most innovative ceramics in Jamaica.

 

AT WASSI

I drove into the Wassi Art compound and entered the adjacent café. Refreshing lemonade soothed my arrival. Into the showroom and perched in sassy array, I saw ceramics glazed with every color found in the tropics. Functional art and home décor pieces in lead-free glaze vied for attention: cups and saucers, teapots and tumblers, pitchers and plates, vases and vessels, bowls and jugs.

But color is not the only appeal of a Wassi Art ceramic. Shapes that range from everyday to abstract provide as much intrigue as do their myriad colors. The variety is immense. Design motifs are sculpted or painted, many are three-dimensional pieces. They range from tropical flowers and fruits,  market scenes and marine life to musicians and dancers.  Bold Afro-Caribbean carvings are well-represented.

It all begins in the processing station, where the Blue Mountain terra cotta clay is received and washed after being trucked in. The clay is partially dried in the sun in plaster vats to attain a moist yet pliable state. Once achieved, it heads to the artist’s hands, to be sculpted or thrown on the potter’s wheel. This brings it to the greenware state, when it is left to air dry and is inspected for any imperfections. Lastly, it is returned to the artists for applied artwork and color glaze.

The decorated form is fired once, cooled for twenty-four hours, and then coated with a liquid glass glaze to be fired again. Both firings require a temperature of 2000 degrees F.

In the design workshop several artists pause to chat about their work. Most of them are self-taught, residents of near-by communities. A structural system of apprenticeship at Wassi insures quality and provides mentoring for the newer and younger artists. Employment at the studio is sought not only for its job stability and prestige, but also for its reputation in developing self-reliance and encouraging artistic expression.

I breathe in the humidity and coolness that come with working intensely with clay. Painted wall murals reside here as easily as the artwork itself. The murals form a backdrop that at most inspires, at the very least imbues the studio with more spirit.

 

A collector’s showroom features one-of-a-kind Wassi Art pieces: idealized female forms seem to spring to life they are so real and appealing. Seascapes beckon the viewer to come swim in their waves. Caribbean themes appear often, of course, as well as those of African heritage. Complete freedom in design infuses the artists and their work.

Each piece is an original comprised of stellar craftsmanship and authenticated with its certificate. Indeed, the word Wassi is old Jamaican patoîs, meaning that something is especially first rate.

While they process, transform, glaze, and fire their work, the artists seem very contented. They interact with a sense of appreciated teamwork. One tells me how much he values the self-supervision. All are company goals that enhance the artist’s ability to fabricate a joyful product. To that end, creativity and productivity reign in a balanced relationship. Creating joy, in fact, is a stated goal of Wassi Art.

One day, an artist came to Wassi and brought what Terri realized were extraordinary examples of sculptures from the solidity of wood.  She knew his skill could be applied to the fluidity of clay – which is what the artist sought to verify. He introduced himself as Stammer, a life-long nickname given his speech impediment. She hired him on the spot.

His appealing work sold well. His responses to questions and interactions with customers began to reveal a more confident man.  His stammering declined.

His self-esteem and speech vastly improved, and today he does not stammer.  Terri believes it is “working with your hands” and the power of art that brought about Stammer’s transformation.