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Fired from Jamaica's heart.

As I navigated the roller-coaster road inland from Jamaica's resort town of Ocho Rios, I swerved to miss a falling palm branch that grazed my windshield. I was sensitive about driving, attentive to this verdant yet narrow, snaking route, and thankful to simply creep along it. All the more so as I rounded a bend and found a horse stopped right in the center of the road. I yielded to his bulk and waited until he was well on his way before I resumed mine. Yet 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 appear, capped by hand-painted azure tiles spelling out "Wassi Art." They herald the turn-off to the studio. I have arrived, finally, at the birthplace of what many consider to be the most creative and vibrant ceramics center in the Caribbean.

Wassi Art is owned and operated by Terri Lee, a Jamaican of Chinese descent, who enjoys recalling her studio's inspired beginnings for visitors. It was the late 1980s, and Terri, an account management professional with a lighting firm, was alone one afternoon as she headed home from the office. Suddenly, she says, she heard a voice say to her, "Leave this and work with your hands." She stopped and turned to acknowledge the comment, but no one was there.

Those words replayed in her head that evening. She could not figure out their meaning. She thought that if it meant to undertake something with art, well, she was not an artist, indeed far from it. But mantra-like, the words repeated. Though they were still unclear, she knew that they represented something life changing for her. She knew she must heed their command and take action. The next day when she went to work, she quit her job.

A few days later, site asked her sister to accompany her on a trip to Miami, a place they often visited. But this time her focus was to incorporate the words she heard. She recalled a friend whose hobby was sculpting in clay and remembered how that work looked compelling: it was interesting, seemed fun, and certainly done "with your hands." Was Lids what the words meant?

In Miami, she and her sister went shopping for ceramics supplies: slip molds, clay, glazes, and many books about the art of ceramics--a subject about which they knew nothing. They returned to Jamaica with their supplies and began working.

A few years later, Terri met and married Robert Lee, a successful graphic artist and entrepreneur who owned a manufacturing business in Great Pond. Robert suggested that she consolidate her ceramics business and move it to Great Pond. There site and her sister continued to produce ceramics, establishing as well a steady clientele in the Jamaican hotel industry.

However, Terri continued to study, and her research led her to become very knowledgeable about clay. And it did something more--it convinced her that only Jamaican clay should be used. With Robert, she trekked to various locations near the Blue Mountains in eastern Jamaica to find a local resource. They scouted until the rich clay near Castleton yielded its bounty. But its inaccessible location required labor-intensive work: dig the clay out by hand, bag it on site, and carry it the most efficient way possible out of the mountains--in a basket on the workers' heads. The baskets were then taken across a narrow, swaying footbridge to an awaiting think. More than a decade later the process is only slightly streamlined: the road from the mountains to Great Pond is less bumpy.

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 the work was available, and her business became quietly successful. From three employees in 1990 to over fifty in less than eight years, Wassi Art, was making a name for itself.

In Wassi Art's early years Terri was invited to participate in a local show at Harmony Hall, an art gallery on the North Coast Road not ten minutes from Great Pond, located in a charming old house with gingerbread wood moulding. The exhibition would feature Jamaica's emerging artists and their crafts. She was elated with the opportunity.

While words had became powerful catalysts for Terri, it was not until the Harmony Hall show that she understood just how powerful. When she overheard a tourist criticize her Wassi Art as "homemade" and "not very thrilling or creative," she became angry. But she channeled the anger into action. She vowed to establish a canter to produce the most innovative and colorful ceramics in Jamaica.

I drove further into the Wassi Art compound and entered the cafe adjacent to the building. A refreshing lemonade soothed my arrival. Then I continued into the showroom. Perched in sassy array were ceramics glazed with every color found in the tropics. They vied with each other for attention. There were functional art and home decor pieces in lead free glaze: 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 the myriad colors. The variety is immense. Design motifs are sculpted or painted and range from tropical flowers and fruits, to market scenes and marine life, to musicians and dancers and bold African-influenced carvings.

It all begins in the processing station, where the terra cotta clay is received and washed after being trucked in from the Blue Mountains. The clay is then partially dried in the sun in plaster vats to attain a moist yet pliable state, then given to the artists 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 given 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 are at a temperature of 2000[degrees]F.

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

I breathe in the humidity and coolness that comes with working intensely with clay. There are painted wall murals here as well as artwork. The murals form a backdrop that at most inspires, at the very least surrounds this creative ambiance with additional color. On one wall a religious theme commands the space. Along another I notice a recently painted design, dashed off to confirm an idea. The artist was satisfied, and the design made its way onto a carved vase.

A collector's showroom features the one-of-a-kind Wassi Art pieces that have the appeal of any wonderfully rendered artwork: 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, but choice of design infuses the artists and their work with complete freedom. Each piece is an original of stellar craftsmanship, and the purchaser is issued a certificate of authenticity. Indeed, the word wassi is old Jamaican patois, meaning that something is especially first rate.

While they process, transform, glaze, and fire their work, the artists also laugh, cultivate respect, build teamwork, and appreciate self-supervision. All are company objectives that enhance the artist's ability to reflect and 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.

The art that issues forth from this cadre of self-taught, highly skilled Jamaican artists is grounded in their strong Christian faith. So, a daily break for prayer and devotion was established and became part of the morning's routine, that is, until about five years ago, when the Ocho Rios cruise ship dock opened, and a daily trek of travelers to the studio imposed on that morning ritual. Now devotion time is scheduled seasonally to accommodate cruise-ship shoppers.

Terri explains how site has come to appreciate the work of her artists and to witness their own transformation. One day, she says, an artist came to Wassi Art to see if his skills in the solid medium of wood could be applied to the fluidity of clay. The man, who called himself Stammer because of an erratic speech pattern, was hired immediately and began to produce appealing work as well as respond to and engage in conversations with customers. This alone brought about a decline in his stammering. As these interactions evolved, Stammer's self-esteem and speech vastly improved. Today he no longer stammers, an example, says Terri, of the transforming medium that art truly is.

Helen Kitti Smith is a writer who lives in Texas but spends as much time as possible in Latin America and the Caribbean. She is a former translator with the World Tourism Organization in Madrid, Spain.
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Title Annotation:Gallery Place
Author:Smith, Helen Kitti
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:5JAMA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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