Caribbean Beat Magazine

Gloria Escoffery — Miss G

Polly Patullo meets one of Jamaica’s best and least celebrated artists

  • Escoffery with her beloved carvings. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Mirage 5. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Mirage 4. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Mirage 3. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Ms G relaxing among her plants. Photograph by Fabian Escoffery
  • Mirage 2. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Mirage 1. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Untitled. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Church Street. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
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  • Old woman. Photograph by Franz Marzouca
  • Gloria Escoffery. Photograph by Fabian Escoffery

Gloria Escoffery calls herself “a crazy old lady” and a “country bumpkin.” Nothing could be further from the truth. She is not only one of Jamaica’s most distinguished artists, but also a poet, a longtime teacher and sometime journalist. And more than half a century after she began to paint and write, she continues to produce intellectually challenging work, both literary and visual, full of satire, symbolism and mythology. Above all, her work is firmly rooted, so she says, in celebration of “the rural rootsmen of my beloved rockstone country, Jamaica.”

Escoffery’s latest work is just that. It’s a series of illustrated poems, Rootsman Adam Reincarnates for the Millennium (a typical Escoffery title), inspired by her remarkable collection of wood carvings by Everald Brown, an intuitive artist and self-ordained minister of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and his son Joseph. Escoffery has always admired the intuition of Jamaicans, whose work she says is full of self-confidence and élan. She borrows from them and lovingly takes them into her own work and her own vision.

The Browns’ carvings adorn Escoffery’s home and become characters in her art and poetry. The cast of Rootsman Adam Reincarnates for the Millennium includes Adam and Eve, Machito and his lady, Big Momma, Mr Back-to-front Anansi, sundry reptiles such as Spitz the voyager and mischief-maker, plus a wonderful array of animals and birds with names such as Yukki-the-rhinoceros and Twingtwing. All these characters appear to have walked off Escoffery’s shelves and onto the page of a tragi-comic yarn, illustrated with Escoffery’s own sure, clean, expressive lines.

Escoffery says that every time she dusts, she creates a new drama from her “loyal entourage”. She describes Rootsman as “a fun book with a metaphysical/social message and a strong West Indian flavour.”

While many of Escoffery’s characters spring from the Browns’ carvings, one of them, Suss the protector, was carved by her father. He too was a creator, building gardens and stone walls in the countryside of Jamaica, though he was a doctor by profession.

Gloria Escoffery was born in 1923 in the banana parish of St Mary. Her paternal family were descendants of white Haitians who fled the revolution at the end of the 18th century; on her maternal side were both English and Jewish Jamaicans. When she was nine, the family moved to Brown’s Town, a hilly market town inland from the north coast. Gloria went as a boarder to the local girls’ school, St Hilda’s. She loved school and had a happy home life, full of music and dancing, aided and abetted by her mother, a professional violinist.

Like her father and uncle, Escoffery won the coveted Jamaica scholarship and left for McGill University in Canada. On her return to Jamaica, she spent two years as literary editor of Norman Manley’s People’s National Party weekly newspaper, Public Opinion. At the same time, she was filling her sketch books with the people of Kingston. Then it was off to the Slade School of Art in London before returning to Jamaica. By then, Escoffery had become a close friend of Manley’s wife, Edna, the pioneer of Jamaican art. When Edna Manley saw Escoffery’s studio, she said, “I have to hand it to you. You really are an artist, not just a journalist.”

Escoffery, an energetic, single-minded woman, maintains that she never forged a career as an artist, writer or teacher, but simply managed to “enjoy every minute of life.” In the 1950s she lived in Kingston. In the 1960s she adopted her son Fabian, now a businessman, and lived in Rio Bueno where she had an art gallery and taught school. In the early 1970s she returned, as she said, “with the instinct of a lemming” to Brown’s Town. There she taught English literature at the local community college, continued to paint, enjoyed a long stint as art critic for the Jamaica Journal, and wrote a weekly community column for The Gleaner.

Her earlier paintings, such as Banana Plantation Workers or The Old Woman (1953), both fine classical compositions evoking Cézanne, are fixed in realism, but they also suggest a literary and symbolist engagement. Now, her paintings are more experimental. She has always worked outside the art circles of Kingston; she has never belonged to any school, and this may perhaps be a reason for her neglect.

Yet, in paying homage to Escoffery in 1988, the director of the Jamaica National Gallery, David Boxer, described her as a “designer of paintings in the tradition of Poussin and, before him, of Michelangelo”. Boxer talks of Escoffery’s major work of the 1980s, the five-panelled Mirage: it was meant as a tribute to her Jewish grandmother and as a comment on how love for land, in this case the desert landscape of the Middle East, became a battle-ground for cultural dominance. Mirage includes one of Escoffery’s typical trademarks, a complex border pattern containing the main image. Typically, it is full of symbolism.

As her work has evolved over the decades, Escoffery says “it is hard to recognise the identity of the self who created it”. Yet she notes “an undeniable consistency of being” which is perhaps best expressed by the primacy of design and sense of order.

Like her painting, Escoffery’s poetry is eclectic. References to classical mythology mix with African imagery; themes are often domestic, but never banal. In both Rootsman A and Mother Jackson Murders the Moon (1998), her mind is always accessible, passionate, self-effacing and amused. The poem, Our Mads, for example, celebrates the crazed people of Brown’s Town, a place Escoffery describes as “an oasis of good humoured stoicism”. The poem ends with the lines:

My dear fellow aliens,

let us drink to our solidarity.

To the business people of the town I too am a crackpot.

Characteristically, Escoffery initiated a collection of signatures in support of a human rights protest movement known as Jamaicans for Justice. She explains: “I have to do something to deserve my honoured role as the crazy old white lady who talks to everyone on the street.”

These days “Miss G” rarely leaves Brown’s Town. She gets up whenever she wants, cooks for her dogs and goes to the studio “to put in my best hours of work” while it is cool and quiet. And if she sometimes feels intellectually isolated in her home town, she is relieved to live far from the tensions of Kingston, a city she both loves and hates. Apart from her ideas for the development of Brown’s Town, perhaps closest to her heart is a plan to set up an art research library (with 900 or so of her art books) in the grounds of her home.

In Mother Jackson Murders the Moon, there is a tribute to John Dunkley, the Jamaican intuitive. Escoffery writes of Dunkley’s skills:

Two draymen, tiny and ordinary as sunlight, take their responsibility

for the casks, and the uprearing of the fractious beasts – seriously.

And then I realised that these same draymen feature in the Gloria Escoffery painting I own. Within its border frieze, among images that include a classical chariot bearing an intuitive carving, is another Dunkley’s drayman in a donkey-drawn cart — again that homage to Jamaica’s intuitives.

David Boxer of the Jamaica National Gallery plans to hold a retrospective for Escoffery when she is 80. An earlier collection of poems, Loggerhead (1988), is dedicated to (among others) Boxer and Edna Manley. “These were friends who perceived that I was waving, not drowning, and waved back,” she wrote.

May her friends continue to wave back to this very Jamaican, and very universal, rootswoman.