The Arts: A magnificent maker of things

We see Stanley Greaves as a painter and a poet; he sees himself as a maker of things. That sentence merely scratches the surface. There is much more to be considered than what may be captured there, and when all factors are taken into consideration, we have to describe Greaves as an artist several times over.

Greaves is one of Guyana’s finest, most celebrated and most accomplished painters; he is an excellent draughtsman, a sculptor, a critic and a prize-winning poet. He has been an art teacher; he has had a career as a university lecturer, an academic and administrator. Overarching all these beings and activities, is his existence as a visionary, which is indivisible from his role as an artist and as one of Guyana’s most respected intellectuals – a lively, stimulating, if unconventional, intellectual.

Although Greaves now lives in Barbados, where his career has progressed for many years, his presence in Guyana remains strong through his frequent visits, activities, artistic and spiritual connections. Greaves has close links with the National Gallery and its curator Elfrieda Bissember, and has continually exhibited his work there. The Gallery has had retrospective exhibitions, but has always been able to keep up-to-date and consistently show his newest works. His most recent activity in Guyana was in September 2007 at the invitation of another of his closest links – Rupert Roopnaraine, critic and foremost authority on his art. Greaves lectured to the students of the Crichlow Labour College on art; Guyanese art from a working class perspective, which involved the viewing of relevant work selected and mounted at the Gallery.

Unfortunately, that was not a public event, but Greaves took advantage of the visit to read from his latest collection of poems. The book, which will be his second, is yet unpublished, and we do not know the title, but it has already been sent off to Peepal Tree in England where his first volume was published in 2002. These poems were obviously written at different times over a long period, inspired by a variety of different events, thoughts and associations over an even longer span of time. But they have one unifying focus : Martin Carter. It is a book of poems collected in honour of, inspired by and dedicated to Carter, Guyana’s greatest poet to date, with whom Greaves was associated as friend, fellow intellectual and spiritual correspondent, “liming” partner, academic colleague at the University of Guyana, artistic associate and poet.

Greaves’s reading of the poems, his introductions and explanations of them and their backgrounds, often had links to Carter. These were sometimes casual or general, sometimes deeply biographical, personal or spiritual, but always they engaged a wide range of associations, real and academic. Some of them were actual incidents, words and thoughts uttered by Carter, while many others did not involve him at all and came from quite separate experiences. However, quite often they were related by other common things shared by the family of poets and sometimes went even further, into the common experience of humanity. Greaves’s interaction with his audience at this reading ended up being very reminiscent, either about Greaves or about Georgetown society and persons. The most valuable extract from those were the several priceless principles that came out, governing the art of Stanley Greaves.

We know this man as a painter, poet, draughtsman and intellectual. He is among the nation’s most established artists, whose career has also established itself in Barbados where he has won major prizes and put together some of his most acclaimed exhibitions. He has also exhibited in London where his work has been studied in academic courses conducted by another of the leading authorities on his work, Anne Walmsley. Anne introduced Greaves’ art into the curriculum at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), a famous College of the University of London. His art is also featured in a Caribbean text by Veerle Poupeye at the Edna Manley School in Jamaica.

Although his poems had been appearing in anthologies for decades, his first published collection, Horizons (Peepal Tree Press, UK) came out only in 2002 when it promptly won the Guyana Prize for the Best First Book of Poetry. He later completed the second collection, from which he read at Cara Lodge, formerly Woodbine House, in Georgetown in September.

As an academic, Greaves was responsible for developing the Division of Creative Arts at the University of Guyana and served as its head for a number of years. He expanded it from its single programme in the Fine Arts, introducing Drama and Creative Writing. It was there that Carter also served first as Poet in Residence, then as Lecturer in Creative Writing and Senior Research Fellow. Greaves’s interest in the performing arts drove him to promote them among the students. He played the guitar in at least two bands specializing in folk music. The name of one of them, in Guyana, was testimony to his wry sense of humour and ironic approach; he called it Every Man for Himself (and the devil take the hindmost). The second, he took a bit more seriously. In Barbados he became very much involved in an annual Storytelling Festival led by his friend Ken Corsbie and played his guitar in the resident band of musicians, singers and dancers focusing on Caribbean traditional music.

Greaves, however, describes himself as “a maker of things”. This might be out of a sense of humility, but more likely it is because he recognizes himself as multi-talented and explains this gift from the perspective of his approach and attitude to art and creativity. This involves his belief in and his autobiographical association with improvisation and the necessity to create with slim resources. But it also has to do with his visionary approach and his rustic pretensions.

In this respect he may be associated with another visionary artist and spiritualist, Philip Moore. Moore explains his talent as a gift from the almighty. His art began when he accepted the gift of a tool from divine hands, the gift of a tool which he was thereafter committed to use in the carving of wood after the exact fashion of his African forebears whose work he had never seen.

Greaves’s explanation is more logical and not quite as mystical, but he has the same spiritual sympathies and metaphysical dimensions, all of which are reflected in his art as it is in his poetry. His artistry developed from the simple act of making things and he sees the writing of poems that come to him in the same light.

In this approach there is also some kinship with Carter to whom his new book of poems is dedicated. It is a proletarian approach consistent with Greaves’s rustic humility, with his anti-academic, anti-intellectual stance. On the spiritual side, he sees himself as a mere medium in the creative process. While he makes the poems or the paintings, they come to him from a nether source and he is obliged to produce them, not unlike the divine inspiration that Moore believes in.

While this particular theory in the making of poems will be further developed below, this association of Greaves with spiritualist artists is worth pursuing here.

He had an exhibition in London called The Elders, in which his work was shown together with that of Everald Brown of Jamaica. Brown is a spiritualist and an elder in his traditional revivalist church to which his art is closely allied. He is an intuitive artist. Showing him along with Greaves in an exhibition of that title was not merely accidental, as in many other ways they share the same space. They are both veterans in their line of work, both linked stylistically and ideologically. Greaves’s style and inclination lean toward the intuitive, which has been a preoccupation of his for decades. The same goes for his proletarian subjects of study. Such paintings as The Wayside Preacher could well be a portrait of Brown, or even Moore the Jordanite. Others like The String Band, and The Big Bread which was connected t
o his father’s death, are in the same tradition. He still continued in that tradition several years later in one of his most important exhibitions, There is A Meeting Here Tonight.

That title is taken straight from the spiritualist revivalist religions, coming from the words of a song belonging to the Jamaican Pochomania. It is also sung by wayside preachers to attract a crowd to their street-corner services.

There is a meeting here tonight

There is a meeting here tonight

Come one and all and gather round

There is a meeting here tonight.

Greaves in this exhibition, however, relates it to a political meeting. The suite of paintings, which uses dogs as their central motif, is about contemporary Caribbean politics and politicians. It is littered with city streets overrun by dogs. Some of the paintings in this group distinctly reflect the style used in such paintings as Wayside Preacher.

Greaves continually returns to his roots in many ways. His several biographical references during the poetry reading encouraged the audience to reminisce during question time and, when one could sift away the indulgent nostalgia, many important and relevant references remained. Greaves is very proud of his early training in art at the feet of E R Burrowes and in the Working People’s Art Class. That influence was deep, as was his intuitive kind of development as a maker of things, added to his humble upbringings and the working class alliances, which never left him. Yet, in spite of this self-made character, he was very highly trained; receiving formal education at bourgeois institutions like Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and an MFA at Howard. He never took university training or academic work lightly and even spoke strongly of the close link and correlation between ability in art and academic ability. He sees art as, whatever else, a work of the intellect.

Greaves moves so easily between intellectualism and intuition that their connection is seamless in his hands and there is no hint of any tension. Between the readings of poems in the Woodbine Room at Cara Lodge, he spoke freely about the role of the muse. It is an intellectual / philosophical type of theory shared by a wide cross-section of poets, who consider themselves to be mere vehicles in the creation of poems. They depend on the muse who visits whenever it pleases her, brining hundreds of poems. Greaves related such productive periods when ideas for poems flowed, keeping him busy day and night, when he would write continuously. There were times when this inspiration suddenly stopped to be replaced by periods of drought, described by some as ‘writers’ block’. Interestingly, while some would treat this in a highly spiritual fashion, Greaves takes it as a natural creative process determined by inspiration from the muse.

Yet the muse is a very classical concept admitted into their thinking and arising from their classical education that neither Greaves nor Carter rejects, despite the working class sensibility. Carter spoke of inspiration in the same way, while firmly believing in reading and intellectual expansion as ingredients for poetic creation.

Never less than any of those, however, it was of experience that Greaves spoke in explaining the background to the poems in his new, yet unpublished book. While many of the anecdotes had to do with dialogue with Carter, more were from adventures in interior locations of Guyana. Here his association with his former student Bobby Fernandes was important. Fernandes is a very serious, thorough, artistic photographer and a popular poet and short story writer who has documented and published the Guyanese landscape and biodiversity. Many of the poems came out of excursions into the forests with Fernandes. Many others were from similar excursions when Greaves, as a teacher, took secondary school boys on field trips for ten years before deciding that, after ten good years of camps with no accidents, no incidents, he should not push his luck and that it was a good time to stop.

The experience and the poems that they evoked, however, never stopped. They still play a great role in what he writes, as does his association with Carter and other writers. This also relates to Greaves’s involvement in art. He has been asked in the past to produce illustrations for Carter’s poems and he has done several drawings, including those in Poems of Affinity and Selected Poems. Greaves stresses, however, that they are not illustrations. He cannot relate to illustrating poems or stories and the drawings that he produces are responses to the pieces, often independent works of art in themselves. He declared that he is not an illustrator, having the same difficulty with illustration that he has with calligraphy.

Instead, Greaves has engaged in intertextual relations with writers as he did in his latest major exhibition, Shadows Move Among Them. In this collection he responds to Edgar Mittelholzer from whom he takes the title. Mittelholzer’s haunting problematic preoccupations from out of ancient New Amsterdam still resound in the contemporary social threats which Greaves deals with in the exhibition. Parallel to the use of the dogs in his political satire, the central image in the later suite is the shadow. Shadows fall across the paintings in various positions and suggestions without any direct view of the people or substance that cast them. In some cases they are marked out on the streets and silhouetted along with what could be blood stains as in a crime scene following some violence.

Even beyond these intertextual engagements with other writers, artist and poet Stanley Greaves interrogates himself. His range of experiences is panoramic as reflected in both painting and poetry. Carter is often described as primarily an urban poet. Greaves reflects a mixture of the urban with the regional; he has paintings of traffic lights in the jungle and his poems cover the range. These works, as is Carter’s poetry, are very metaphysical.

For a man tutored in a Working People’s Art Class, preoccupied with the intuitive tradition, who prefers to be a “maker of things” with the suggestions of the artisan that that carries, Greaves is very comfortable with intellectual theories and academic conceptualisation. He has produced a book of poems thoroughly rooted in the range of experiences and, like the work of Martin Carter for whom it is meant, it reflects the sound ideology of the literary humanist.

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