Trinidad and Tobago’s sole Master Artist LeRoy Clarke is the consummate artist: an accomplished painter, poet, and elder in his homeland’s Orisha community. Every utterance of Clarke, also referred to as Chief Ifa Oje Won Abiodun, possesses a certain aura and gravitas that begs you to explore and unearth myriad hidden metaphors.
Clarke’s art began, around 1968, with a simple impetus, “I will set out an inquiry on love”; for ultimately it is evident that Clarke has approached the creation of his art, with the diligence, devotion, and dedication that could not be perceived as anything else except amorous. Clarke, in a recent interview, told me that he “would be in a very lonely place” without his art; and indeed, for this 76-year-old artist the fruits of his labour now occupy a significant space in his life.
It is therefore fitting that the current residence of LeRoy Clarke, called Legacy House, located in 13 Wellsprings Cascade in north-west Trinidad be envisioned with the same love that this artist has channelled towards his art over almost 50 years. Clarke is a deeply spiritual person; and to successfully mesh with this artist, you must treat his abode with the same reverence that you would any other house of worship.
You enter the house through a steep, narrow staircase, akin to the biblical needle’s eye. Entrance into Legacy House is intended to be a spiritual experience. Whether or not you share in Clarke’s metaphysical beliefs, the climb up to the main entrance is undoubtedly some rite of passage, an allusion to a spiritual ascension. As you incrementally scale up the steps, your view is obstructed by an overhanging balcony. Soon, you clear this impediment and your vision is greeted with the massive three-storey facade that is Legacy House.
Although the structure is painted predominantly in a dark ochre, several blue mouldings punctuate each level of Clarke’s home, and the exterior wall of the main entrance on the lowest floor is a deep azure: a reference to his affinity to the Orisha deity Yemonja, the goddess of the ocean.
Entry into the interior of Legacy acquaints the guest with the sheer quantity of Clarke’s artwork. Every conceivable space is inundated with work by our master artist, with sizes ranging from diminutive pieces that measure only a few inches in height and width, to massive murals such as El Tucuche (1983) and Apotheosis of El Tucuche (1988) whose dimensions are better dealt with in yards rather than feet.
El Tucuche, the second highest mountain of Trinidad, is the central focus of the aforementioned paintings. This land mass is profoundly significant to the artist. Clarke recalled a conversation he had with the late folk dancing icon Beryl McBurnie. The dialogue was centred upon the relationship between El Tucuche and the summit of Trinidad, Cierro Del Aripo. Clarke remembers her saying, in a flash of epiphany, “Oh my God! The Man (El Tucuche) is rising and Aripo (Cierro Del Aripo) is really the Woman. He’s moving back into her; he’s ascending through her, he’s going up to the Godhead which mounts above her.”
The area of Aripo which represents the approximate vicinity in Northern Trinidad where both of these mountains are situated was once the physical and spiritual nexus for Clarke prior to the completion of Legacy House in 2011. Clarke had, for personal reasons, retreated to the bush in the early 1980s, and wanted to get physically closer to his muse: the mountain of El Tucuche. This peak also epitomised Clarke’s movement out of his malaise which he called his state of “Douendom’’ or being trapped in the form of a douen, a character of local folklore represented as a child with its feet turned backwards.
In his 1975 art exhibition entitled “Douens,’’ Clarke claimed to have indicted himself as this folkloric entity. The douen is infantile, faceless, has no spiritual locus and is always moving backwards, regardless of which direction it chooses to go. Coupled with the preceding exhibition entited “Fragments of a Spiritual’’ (1972), “Douens’’ formed the foundation upon which the artist would climb out of his self-doubt. He often said to me that, “I began my ascent of El Tucuche and with Fragments on one foot and Douens on the other.”
Through this self-indictment and introspection, Clarke also felt empowered to castigate his fellow Trinidadians. He felt that there was a serious spiritual vacuum taking place in his homeland. In 1981, the artist wrote, “We have to make that honest assessment, and like El Tucuche, burst out of the dirty clouds around that keep us in its soggy down. Our society has become despondent, a resignation to decadence, where everyone owes everyone else a favour it seems.”
In addition to the spiritual dimension that Clarke is addressing through his words and images, the topic of vertical progress is also encapsulated in the body of art contained in Legacy House, which now almost spans a half century. As a person moves through the slender corridors, which seem to echo the labyrinthine intricacies of Clarke’s drawings and paintings, the entry into expansive, gallery-like spaces seems revelatory.
Equally uplifting is the fact that all the bedrooms, working areas and dining spaces contain high ceilings and are flanked at multiple angles by bay windows, giving the whole interior a delicately balanced fusion of airy expansiveness that is, at the same time, not vacuous and hollow.
Through his relentless artistic pursuits this artist has moved from a working-class family of Eastern Port of Spain to one of the most exclusive suburbs on the periphery of the capital. However, it is important to stress that as an individual, Clarke has not abandoned his roots, neither the firm principles upon which he was raised. Above all, this artist has transferred his temperament and the essence of his spiritual locus, Aripo, to Cascade.
Clarke through his assertive and authoritarian nature transformed Cascade to suit him; Cascade did not manipulate Clarke.
Nothing in Legacy House is singular. As you snake your way through the maze-like passages and spiral staircases of this dwelling, you will not find just one kitchen, or dining area, for example. There are at least two rooms capable of facilitating cooking and at least four studios where work can be done. This is another way that Clarke’s abode reflects the architectonic nature of his art: Legacy House is perpetually pluralistic, with multiple layers of purpose.
The house is a true reflection of its owner: intricately complex yet somehow unified. In addition to the previous emphasis of spiritual ascension, Legacy House is also a testament to the socio-economic rise that Clarke has attained through his perseverance and lifelong dedication to his art. Clarke grew up in Gonzales, East Port of Spain, which is considered to be one of the more depressed areas of Trinidad and Tobago’s capital city. His mother, Ellen Aberdeen Clarke was unmarried and only 18 at the time that LeRoy was born in 1938. Therefore, apart from the negative connotations associated with Gonzales, the young Clarke also had to grow up with the stigma of being a “bastard child.”
The artist, even on his casual days still dons his African garb to do his daily work and greet visitors or mentor students. In the simplest of terms. Legacy House is Clarke’s legacy, to his family, to those he mentors and to the art aficionados of Trinidad and Tobago and beyond.
Equally important, however, is the artwork contained within the house’s walls. The art remains integrally bonded with the house. It is therefore difficult to classify this structure as a mere house. Legacy House is, in many ways, another work of art that Clarke has envisioned and, like many of his preceding monumental works of art, dreamt into reality. That being said, at the time of this writing, Clarke is putting the final touches on his upcoming exhibition “Hayti Eye…Cries,’’ scheduled to launch at the National Museum at the end of January, 2015.
Every time I have the opportunity to write about Clarke and his art, I continue to insist that all of Clarke’s work, inclusive of Legacy House, needs to be experienced as a continuous narrative, a never-ending string of affirmations. The voluminous collections of images and texts created by Clarke all had a simple genesis.
This master artist, Orisha elder and cultural icon wanted to claim his space in the world. In 1970 he made the audacious declaration that he would dedicate the rest of his life to, “Painting Man…Man the Poet!” In the early 1970s Clarke also posed the questions, “Who will re-chart the ruin?” and “Who will utter the cipher?” His bold response to these was, “A new poet.”
Of course, even at 76, Clarke still sees himself as the new poet, still willing to accept anyone who wishes to accompany him on his lifelong process of re-charting and making profound utterances.M