Shaping the Lives That Shape the World
Helping Emerging Artists in the Dominican Republic
I rang the bell madly, for as the sun grew hotter my patience grew shorter. I had been searching for new digs as I was ready to trade in the safe confines of my hotel for new accommodations that would offer a more non-touristic experience of La Republica Dominicana. Quickly the door is answered by a smooth Haitian man named Enold Deshommes. I stepped inside and was immediately stung by the architectural charm and beauty of the lobby, which poured into a jungle of foliage and fountains in the courtyard. Once recovered I blew these words at him, "I was here the other day inquiring of vacancies in this building."
Before he could digest the question a dark haired woman with a beaming smile standing next to him blurted excitedly, "Are you American"? As I gathered a response she added, "I'm British, yet I've been living in the Bahamas and have just recently relocated to the Dominican Republic." I nodded yes and she continued, "It's so nice to meet someone who speaks English as I don't speak a word of Spanish." I smiled and introduced myself saying, "Hi my name is Franklin West." The lady answered, "I'm Pauline Barker. Do you live here?" I explained, "I live in New York and have returned to The DR to continue writing a cycle of plays." She then chimes in, "That's fantastic, I love art, I do backdrops, costumes and make-up for theatrical productions."
I quizzed myself: what are the chances of this happening? I don't know the odds and am not a betting man, yet I could not help feeling that someone had secretly entered me in a lottery and the winning number had just been read and there I was holding that ticket.
Enold the Assistant Manager signaled to me that he was now able to show me the rentals that were available. Pauline and I exchanged contact information and on the spot decided to set a firm date to formally meet and chat. After viewing a few of the digs I thanked Enold for the tour and made haste as I had promised to return the following day. Like a boomerang I returned to meet Pauline. Enold greeted me and buzzed Pauline to announce my arrival and personally delivered me to the door as if I were an important package or post. Pauline received me with a most gracious spirit and charming manner. I sat at one end of the couch and she sat at the other after a very brief weigh in of pleasantries we both took neutral corners.
Mz. B, as she is affectionately called by her students and friends, dressed in a pair of sleek pants with a top to match and a beautiful scarf with complimenting jewelry, was representing her brainchild, The Caribbean College of Art which is a program that prepares dedicated students for formal studies and a professional career in Art. I, on the other hand, was dressed in sneakers, shorts and t shirt with a just-finished-the-gym confidence all about me and representing my own brainchild, Redbone Entertainment and Development, an American, New York-based Entertainment Production Company attempting to produce the first Broadway-bound musical developed in the Caribbean, namely The Dominican Republic.
We then moved in close with an eye to eye intensity so nothing would be lost in translation, and with atomic precision and speed began a verbal spar with jabs, hooks, crosses, uppercuts and feigns about the history and accomplishments of our respective projects. Finally we were happily exhausted while mutually impressed and inspired by the other's loyalty to and passion for the artistic process. At that point we decided to join forces so that both projects may enjoy greater support in achieving fruition and with that we concluded by having a hearty laugh, which has become our trademark.
I have been blessed beyond belief to work among the greatest artists and stage technicians in the world yet something told me at first glance, this Artist Warrior Queen Mz. B would challenge everything I thought I knew about art and entertainment while bringing positive change and extraordinary growth. As curious as the cat, I met again with Mz. B in record time as I can always sniff out a good story close at hand and I had a gnawing suspicion that hers was an absolute keeper. After a rather brief greeting ritual she looks at me with an inviting yet devilish grin and says flatly, "Well then let's get right to it." And with that she preceded to spin an interesting tale complete with fire and music, which graduated into a journey of work that hurdled five decades and counting.
She opened with a declaration of her love of art even as a child and how she worked very hard to win an assisted place scholarship at one of London's premiere Art School, St. Martin's School of Art. Here she would meet and develop alongside another extraordinary talent who would become one of the greatest actors on the planet, John Hurt, who was also on the painting course and Mz. B's colleague as well.
"St. Martin's brought the world of art into view. It was one of the most exciting times in my life," Mz. B admits with exhilaration. Then suddenly as her facial expression continues blossoming to that of heightened enjoyment she adds, "But from 1961 to 1968 I began to see art in a whole new way through the eyes of my students."
In the following years Mz. B succeeds in sending over a hundred students to Art Colleges and among these were Gemma Jackson (see photo, left), the Art Director for Game of Thrones and John Adams, The Miniseries for which she won Emmys and Finding Neverland for which she received an Oscar Nod. Jonathan Pike of The Royal Academy is presently regarded as one of the finest architectural watercolorists of this generation. And Bijan Sheibani, the Artistic Director of London's ATC Theatre, recipient of the Lawrence Olivier Award for his production, "The Royal Court's Gone Too Soon." Mz. B pauses and then with the pride of a lioness announced:
"In 1974 I was spirited away to the beautiful islands of the Bahamas and instantly enchanted by the people their culture and a natural artistic rhythm that is its trademark." Mz. B then sighs deeply and continued, "Yet as I began teaching I was immediately shocked and saddened by the lack of artistic opportunities and proper preparation that existed for this wonderfully talented population. I therefore set about creating and developing curriculum both in and beyond the classroom. Respectful of the international world of art with emphasis on how students would represent themselves from interview to work ethic. We took on many community projects which enhanced our team spirit, while teaching the joy of achievement and empowerment gained by being a finisher." I added, my mentor Benjamin Matthews, a star of The Metropolitan Opera and the foremost interpreter of the American Negro Spirituals says, "Great artists are made from great human beings. We must take the time to grow the person for that is where the art and the artist come from."
1978 was the year her first Bahamian student received a scholarship made possible by his own hard work and a caring spirit that reaches far above and way beyond the classroom. Mz. B spearheaded a fundraising campaign by way of producing a student talent show in Le Cabaret Theater with Nassau's own Al Collie and the VIP's. This will be only the first of many Bahamian students to travel through her classroom into the wide world of art by courtesy of scholarship wings. In 2005, Mz. B created a professional workshop within her residence for graduate and post graduate students. Nearly a hundred seniors participated in this free workshop over the next six years. The workshop assisted qualified students in the development of portfolios for college application and community projects. Tragically, in 2011 Mz. B's home burned to the ground with all possessions inside including all of the students' work and portfolios. You'd think that would naturally be the end of the story. Well think again. This is Mz. B we're talking about, an educator and rebel to the end. If you say, "Tragedy" she'll say "Triumph." Enough said.
In 2012 she founds The Caribbean College of Art, a free online Art Program offered to students throughout the Caribbean. This program has been instrumental in developing some of the most amazing visual artists I've ever had the pleasure to work with. Amongst this talent pool are Rakeem Dames, Dejanee Russell and Jermaine North. Jermaine (See photo) is presently working alongside Mz. B on a fourteen-foot hand painted costume/backdrop for our production under development in the Dominican Republic, entitled, Just One Bite...The Presence of Evil.
This project serves as a unique opportunity for young and emerging artists throughout the Caribbean, The United States and France as premieres are scheduled for all countries. Offering young and emerging artists immediate access to the excellent resources and expertise of a highly skilled entertainment production team, headed by Franklin L. West executive producer/writer of "A Salute To Black Broadway" in 2000 and Just One Bite...The Presence of Evil 2012; the multi-talented writer, Broadway director and Grammy award-winning lyricist, Micki Grant, who has been offered the stage direction and whose work and productions have garnered 11 Tony nominations; artist extraordinaire and two-time Tony Award-winner Geoffrey Holder, who has been offered the creative direction; famed musical director of Broadway and The Apollo Theater, Frank Owens, who has been offered music direction; former company member of Chicago's Deeply Rooted Dance Company, Minka, who has been offered assistant of choreography and staging.
While head of faculty at the Berniece Johnson School of Dance, he nurtured such talents and careers as Michael Peters who choreographed Dreamgirls on Broadway and Thriller/Beat It for Michael Jackson, and for Ashanti, Prodigy, Candi Alexander (CSI) Frances Morgan and Gary Chapman two of Broadway's greatest is the choreographic genius, Lee "Aco" Thompson, has been offered choreographic and staging direction.
In addition to these great talents is Kevin Iega Jeff the founder and Artistic Director of Deeply Rooted, one of America's most extraordinary dance companies, who met with Mz. B and I while he was in the Dominican Republic to discuss the possibility of the junior company taking part in the premiere in The Dominican Republic. (See top photo.)
Well I guess it is safe to say we are all in sync with Mz. B, as we also share in the hope that our works and achievements will be used as tools and instruments, to help young and emerging artists to find their own voice, manner and style. Thereby laying the road for their creative journey to proudly march into its future.
Therefore, it is with a combined sense of duty and privilege that we must continue to use our respective gifts and talents, to serve the human process, which feeds the artistic process, in shaping the lives that shape the WORLD!