Full Moon: “Art is at the centre of everything,” says Jamaican artist educator Mortimer McPherson

On a humid Monday morning in late November, I found myself sitting on the verandah of a suburban home on the outskirts of Kingston, eating a most unusual snack, and engaging in conversation with Jamaican fine artist, wood turner, and art educator Mortimer McPherson.

The evening before, McPherson had opened his latest solo exhibition, entitled “Full Moon.” His last one was back in 2017. The front yard at Studio Mortimer was crowded with art lovers of all ages, including a bus-full of young men from Mount Olivet Boys’ Home in Manchester, who through their instructors, are being handed down the trade by the art educator. 

Standing room only at the opening of Mortimer McPherson’s exhibition, “Full Moon.” (Photo: Incite Communication)

From the rural district of Glengoffe in St. Catherine, McPherson has always understood his calling. And he pursued it, collecting funds from a family member to send himself to art school in 1984 while still at Mico University College in Kingston. Mico named him as a recipient of its 185th Commemorative Award for his contribution to education, just last year. He is now a mentor, in many ways an “influencer” in modern parlance. He is one who has imparted his technical skills and knowledge to hundreds of young people, including at The Queen’s School, a girls’ high school in Kingston. He is proud of his students, one of whom, Sana Rose, now heads the Education Department at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, the premier arts institution in the Caribbean, and which Mortimer also attended in the 1980s.  Young portrait artists – Winroy Messam and Richard Smith – are protegées that are also making a name for themselves. 

While conducting regular classes at Studio Mortimer, an art training institute accredited by the National Council on Technical & Vocational Education (NCTVET), McPherson has also worked with  the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission and other entities imparting his knowledge to visual art educators and vulnerable groups. Now, through the Sandals Foundation, he is working at Mount Olivet three days per week to establish an accredited course in all aspects of woodcraft. He showed me some beautiful examples of his work as a master turner; solid, smooth, accurate in every aspect of design. McPherson was one of only two Jamaicans to become members of the American Association of Wood Turners. This not only requires skill, but also limitless patience.

McPherson’s former students, from left to right: Shalet Clarke, Winroy Messam, Sana Rose, and Richard Smith at the exhibition opening. (Photo: Incite Communication)

I asked McPherson about the meaning behind the theme of his exhibition – which ended this week – and learned that it was inspired by his centenarian mother, who is portrayed in two large works on display at his studio home. I can only describe her as soulful, with expressive eyes.

“Full moon represents completion,” noted McPherson; the completion of a cycle, but not the end of the process of life. The moon is traditionally depicted as a woman, illuminating the darkness, taking from the sun’s light and reflecting it. For McPherson, his mother fulfilled that role, guiding his thinking, offering family history, working through things, helping to solve problems. 

One of Mortimer McPherson’s poignant paintings of his beautiful mother, aged 100. (Photo: Incite Communication)

I asked him the obvious question: As an art educator, which comes first, art or education?

“They are inextricably linked,” responded McPherson. The two vocations are on the same continuum. “Inside of me are both.” For him, it is quite simple: an artist is a teacher. In fact, he believes that it is the duty of an artist to leave a legacy behind. Otherwise, what’s the point? You cannot just present your work to the world and leave it at that.

Indeed, you should give your art to others – bequeath it, in a sense, McPherson believes. “What you have in your hand and in your head is not yours… As an artist, an artisan, you are passing through.” The only legacy of any value is what you have given to others through educating and enlightening them. (Perhaps it is not highways and buildings, after all!)

We were getting into deeper waters here, and certainly, McPherson is a spiritual man. We began to talk about compassion, and the empathy an artist/educator must feel (“As an artist, you must not walk on your conscience.”) In his speech at the exhibition launch (which I sadly missed, as I was on a rare day trip out of town), McPherson elaborated on this, quoting from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Artists can teach their own personal experience, too – something that the onlooker may never experience. McPherson noted at the exhibition launch:

In my life, art has often been a way to see the world from a new perspective, a version of climbing inside someone else’s skin…As a black, educated, yet underprivileged Jamaican from rural St. Catherine, I am personally untouched by genocide and war, but all too familiar with extreme poverty, crime, religious bigotry, academic and intellectual discrimination and racism.

Mortimer McPherson

I asked him whether he thought fine art was in decline. Has it been overwhelmed by digital art? McPherson was emphatic: “Art is alive and well.” He pointed to the resurgence of artists’ ateliers globally, where budding artists come under the wing of more established ones in a kind of apprenticeship. He also mentioned the Art Renewal Center in the United States, a non-profit educational institution dedicated to representational art. Jamaicans are doing fine art – and Jamaicans are enjoying it, he said, pointing to the numerous art fairs on the island that draw crowds. 

So then, is art a community occupation? Can art help focus and bring people together, even in fractured neighbourhoods? McPherson believes so, noting that it can be a collaborative force, even in deprived and marginalised communities. While many consider competitive sports (“a must-win activity”) as a useful tool for community healing, art is less aggressive. How about “art for development”? It makes perfect sense. It strikes me that this is one of the motivations behind the Kingston Creative initiative. The community takes ownership, the community benefits.

Anita Chong and her son Kyle discuss one of the paintings. (Photo: Incite Communication)

McPherson had a couple more things he needed to get off his chest. He is deeply concerned about “the lack of guided, focused policy on art.” Jamaica is lagging behind many other countries by about forty years, he asserted, in terms of a consistent and meaningful policy on the arts. Simply put, our lawmakers don’t see the value or relevance of art in society. As far as education is concerned, he pointed out that some school principals are shutting down their art departments, turning studios into storerooms. This is truly sad.

This seems like a great waste. McPherson stresses: “Many youngsters walking with a gun could be taught to create and build instead of destroying. It’s a travesty. We run the risk of losing ourselves.” He has an acute sense of the dark side of society, and what he calls the “ugliness” – the opposite of beauty and harmony.

Art in its many forms lives within all of us, he believes. It is a kind of life blood that is being drained out of us, leaving a “scatalogical” society in its place. We are no longer pursuing that quest for beauty and truth that Francis Bacon spoke about.

“Art lives within us, to create a better society. Art embodies everything. It is everywhere,” says McPherson. It is in the design of a car or a building; it is in Geometry and Physics.

Besides, as John Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” How can we deny it?

Heidi Clarke, Executive Director of the Sandals Foundation, in conversation with Mortimer McPherson, at the exhibition launch. Take a look at Studio Mortimer’s excellent website for more information on the courses they offer. (Photo: Incite Communication)

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