In Bunty O’Connor’s last show, “Between Worlds,” there was an eye-catching piece entitled Homage to Hands. A pair of giant hands open and outstretched. Much larger than life, they reminded me of Rodin’s sculptures. I liked the piece tremendously but I loved the story that Bunty told me about the hands. When sculpting them, she envisioned them open, palms to the heavens. Rory, her husband, preferred them entwined. So every time he passed them in the workshop, he would join the fingers and leave them, literally, holding hands.
Bunty and Rory O’Connor are an extraordinary couple. Bunty is the artist behind a long legacy of clay work that re-invents itself with every show. When the O’Connors moved to Chickland over two decades ago, they left “town” behind and quickly adjusted to the rural rhythms of country life. The house with its rambling garden has lovely views over Trinidad’s beautiful central plain and it was here that Bunty set up a small, successful business producing clay art that was whimsical and completely home-grown. She pioneered a distinctive style of pottery in Trinidad that began with her ajoupa houses in the 1980’s. These small ajoupas (simple thatched Caribbean houses) were the beginning of an exciting business venture, Ajoupa Pottery that was born in 1987. The operation produced wildly popular thrown, press moulded and handmade terracotta wares and ornaments. These pieces were hand painted and fired at earthenware temperature.
In recent years, Bunty began moving towards more sculptural pieces and experimenting with commercial sculptor’s clay and a paper clay body made with locally dug material. The paper clay provides large surfaces for the painting of landscapes using body stains and oxides, relief and textures. These are often embellished with a soda glaze.
The desire to explore more creative options led Bunty to close Ajoupa Pottery and begin the work that she felt needed to be expressed. Much of her inspiration comes from her surroundings. Her fascination with Trinidad’s rich folklore traditions and her love of the forest and trees provide extensive raw material. The work as it emerges defies easy labelling as each piece is unique and often expresses a particular period or experience in her life. Owning a piece from a collection where every piece has a different genesis provides real satisfaction. Each piece is unique and bears its own history. This is perhaps the fundamental difference between commercial art and art that is driven from creative impulse.
In her last show, “Between Worlds,’’ Bunty was in transition, aching for the past while exploring and experimenting. With the decision to close Ajoupa’s doors came unexpected freedom to express her creativity but it was also filled with significant grief. In her artist’s statement she says: “Letting go of Ajoupa Pottery has been the hardest thing to deal with—like a death.” She worked steadily on the collection over a period of 16 months beginning with the title work Between Worlds.
There is a sense of magical playfulness in the pieces. Many are whimsical with a nod to local folklore traditions but there is also a sense that Bunty is pushing herself to go below the surface to allow the subconscious to bubble up. It is impossible not to notice the strong botanical themes and the pieces that portray the deep forest of Trinidad’s northern range are beautiful tributes to the island’s beautiful forest-scapes. Some are dark and interesting, like Gargoyles of which Bunty says: “I made them all as they occurred to me and so they document my feelings and experiences during the time of making, some funny, and some full of fear like the Gargoyles (Dengue Nightmare). I made this piece while Rory was ill with dengue fever in September—it was a cathartic pouring out of all those fearful beasts.” Others like Amerindian Doggie are tender and playful and some pay tribute to the indigenous flora.
Leaves, trees, and fantastical organic forms carry through the feeling of deep, unexplored territory and this emerges in the turn of a leaf or the shape of a tree. In the piece Ground Provisions the coiled leaf of the dasheen unfurls to reveal an undoubtedly elderly sprite while the subterranean dasheen below is a fat, lovely, earth baby—a truly lovely image of the life-cycle portrayed in the most basic of edible Caribbean staples. In Coming Out of Her Shell, the girl/snail captures the essence of the “kiss-me-nah?” attitude, with her puckered lips and teasing face. For all her brazenness, she is achingly beautiful in her vulnerability as she comes out of her shell.
Place and landscape are integral to the work and the artist. While hiking in the forest, Bunty and Rory visited and camped overnight at the plane crash site of legendary pilot Mikey Cipriani. In the 1930’s, the small light aircraft piloted by Cipriani and a friend crashed in the northern range while en route to Tobago. The death of this charismatic, handsome young pilot captured the nation’s attention. Bunty describes the site as a place of serene beauty. The Place Where Mikey Cipriani Crashed His Plane is part memorial, part tribute to this as yet un-commemorated spot.
When she is not working with clay, Bunty is working with trees. She is a keen propagator of indigenous trees and her garden is full of exciting hidden corners that hold seedlings with impeccable local pedigrees. It is a noble task identifying and reproducing the trees of the forest, many of which are unknown to most people. On most days she can be found, close to the land, in her lovely garden that overlooks the central plain. M
Writer Sharon Millar
Photographer James O’Connor