restricted access 9. Barbados: The Potters of Chalky Mount

From: Creole Clay

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217 9 Barbados The Potters of Chalky Mount Clement Devonish had huge hands, and when he wrap them around the clay he make it dance. —Hamilton Wiltshire, potter, Barbados At one hundred and sixty-six square miles and with approximately 290,000 people , the island of Barbados is among the most densely populated countries in the world. As a result of unique geological and historical events, there is also a greater density of potters, and likely more functional pots made per square mile, than in any other country in the Caribbean. In the early twenty-first century there are dozens of pottery studios scattered across the eleven parishes, including Hamilton’s Pottery and Earthworks Pottery in St. Thomas, Highland Pottery in St. Andrew, and Red Clay Pottery near the capital of Bridgetown in St. Michael. The beginnings of this productive environment can be found in the mid-seventeenth century with the arrival of two English potters who came to Barbados as indentured laborers to make industrial ceramics on the recently established and wildly lucrative sugar plantations. They brought with them the wheelthrowing and kiln-firing technologies of the English countryside, and these specific ceramic methods continued in use in family-based potteries run by former slaves and their descendants in the post-emancipation village of Chalky Mount, St. Andrew, right up to the 1980s. Over the past fifty years, the local ceramic industry in Barbados has been consciously reinvented through a series of training programs sponsored by nonprofit and government agencies, the establishment of individual and cooperative pottery business ventures, and aggressive marketing to the thriving tourism sector. Figure 9.1. HamiltonWiltshire operates a studio pottery business from his home in St.Thomas, Barbados, using locally sourced clays to make a wide range of functional and decorative products, including the iconic monkey jar formerly used to cool water in every Barbadian household. Wiltshire learned to throw pots on the wheel from Clement Devonish, one of the last of the traditional potters of Chalky Mount. 218 Creole Clay I first visited Barbados in 1995 to learn more about this unique ceramic history and was immediately directed to Chalky Mount, where a group of potters worked together in a collaborative studio making contemporary glazed tableware thrown on electric wheels and fired in an impressive kerosene-fueled kiln. There were also distinctive unglazed heritage forms with the bright terra cotta color of the local clay: a large lidded pot called a cornaree for cooking stews and salting meats, and the water-cooling “monkey jar,” its shape closely resembling an English teapot with a high arching handle, a close-fitting lid, and a covered pour spout. In response to my questions about the earlier history of these traditional vessels, potter Curtis Moore sent me down to the end of the narrow village road to meet “Big Clyde” Murray and to see the last remaining traditional wheel and kiln in Chalky Mount (fig. 9.2).1 Murray was not a potter himself in the sense that he was not a thrower; he had run a pottery business for decades by providing the equipment, hiring throwers, glazing and firing the wares, and selling the pots at the government -owned Fairchild Market in the capital of Bridgetown. His kiln was a roughly constructed affair of stone, brick, and clay, with a single large firebox dug into the hillside below. The potter’s wheel, housed in a small wooden workshop, was an ingenious contraption engineered to be turned by an assistant using a long stick Map 7. Barbados. Created by William L. Nelson. Barbados: The Potters of Chalky Mount 219 loosely tied to the crooked metal shaft that supported the wheelhead. Mr. Murray walked me around the corner to the steep barren hillsides where he used to dig his clay, and told me stories of long hours spent as a child “jooking” the wheel for potters as they turned out one form after another. It was absolutely fascinating. Clyde Murray has since passed away, and his kiln, wheel, and workshop, the last of their kind in Chalky Mount, have vanished. Thankfully, the legacy of the Chalky Mount potters can clearly be seen in the many clay studios across the island, and the history of ceramic production in Barbados has been carefully and comprehensively captured in both text and image. Barbados was once home to permanent Amerindian settlements, but Spanish slave raids in the sixteenth century caused the indigenous peoples to abandon the island and flee the hundred miles...


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