Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Wild Women Dancing
This is what I look at every day, when I'm not staring at my computer screen. It's the painting that occupies the far wall of my office, and when my attention drifts from the work at hand -- as it so very often does -- this is where it lands.
A few months back, my wife and I were on St. Kitts, just wandering around the streets of Basseterre with no particular destination in mind, when we chanced upon a gallery that featured the luminous work of Kate Spencer, a London native who has lived and painted on St. Kitts for the past 20-some-odd years.
“If you have the time, you really should visit her studio in Mt. Pleasant,” the gallery manager told us. “It’s quite a magical place.”
So we rented a car and headed north, arriving at the lovingly restored plantation estate Spencer shares with her husband, Philip Walwyn, who was engaged in an artistic endeavor of his own — putting the finishing touches on a 12-meter classic racing yacht that he had built from the keel up. Spencer, lovely and petite with smile lines etching her face, was working on a watercolor in her studio, but took a break to show us around.
“Just make yourself at home,” Spencer said, returning to her painting.
A Brahms violin concerto played on the stereo. A cool breeze wafted through the wide-open windows. The view from the hilltop estate looked out on a stretch of stately palms that lined the north tip of St. Kitts, along the channel separating the island from neighboring St. Eustatia. I turned and, on the wall behind me, spotted a painting of those same palm trees, with St. Eustatia in the background. Entitled “Dance of the Jumbies,” it showed three women in long white skirts dancing beneath the palm trees by the light of the moon.
Jumbies are what island folk call the ghosts who walk among us, the souls of the recent dead. In Jamaica and other islands, they are also called duppies. I've come across all kinds of jumbie lore in my travels to the Caribbean. Once, visiting Montserrat, just weeks before the Soufrierre Hills volcano blew the lid off the island, I sat down at the Bird's Nest, a bar in the capital of Plymouth (now under several feet of volcanic ash.) My table was by the window and a glass sat on the windowsill with a finger or so of rum in it. Thinking I was helping the bartender tidy up, I dumped the rum out the window.
The bartender let out a shriek.
"Oh, mon, what you do that for?" he said, a look of real terror in his eyes. He came over with a bottle of rum, poured some in the glass and put it back on the windowsill. "Dat's the duppy glass, mon. Duppy get pissed off we not leave dem somethin' to drink. Duppy come here and burn my place down."
And that's how I learned about duppies and jumbies.
In any event, my wife and I bought "Dance of the Jumbies" and installed it in my office. It looks much better than the image up top. It hangs in a place where the afternoon light streams in and it seems to change colors throughout the day.
And when I come up short in the writing and don't know where to go, I go there. To dance with the jumbies...