A few years before she died, I went to visit my Great Grandmother. She was very old and frail by then, which, in a weird kind of way surprised me for while she had always been old to me, this was one of the first and very few times I thought of her as frail. By then she had left the small house on the hill of my childhood, the small house on the hill of my imagination, where she had lived for decades with my Great Grandfather, and was living in one of her daughter’s house a few miles away from the district of Nonsuch, in Cambridge. My Great Grandfather had died a few years before. I had come a long way off, all the way from New York where I now live, to the dark blue mountains of Portland. District of Nonsuch. My maternal and ancestral home. It was a bright yellow day, and she had come off the verandah, my Great Grandmother, and slowly and carefully made her way out into the yard to see who had come calling.
I do not know if she knew that I had been on the island---I always spend a few days in the capital city of Kingston before heading to Portland---but she did not seem in the least bit surprised to see me. Still, she had thought, she said, while holding my hand, that it had been the bread van she heard coming and she wanted to get a nice warm bread. I remember the soft press of her hand, that she was wearing a loose cotton dress, that she said she was so happy to see me again---years later, after her death, I would remember that again over and over again. The sun was hot and bright; not a drop of the rains that have made Portland notorious; flowers were in full bloom and everywhere; everything seemed green and growing; and beyond and all around us were the mountains; the ever-present Portland mountains.
I had taken some things for her, housedresses and such, but she wasn’t much interested in this. I remember how she folded and refolded the dresses; how she looked at the other things I had brought with a certain kind of listlessness, and how she wondered aloud if the dresses would or could fit the granddaughter, Mary, who was caring for her; and how she, my Great Grandmother, joked that perhaps Mary would have to join the dresses together to wear, for Mary was always a large woman on whose shoulders I have always wanted to rest my weary head.
This last time that I was to see my Great Grandmother alive, I was thinking about, as much as one thinks about instead of being compelled by these things, that I wanted to be an artist. And I knew, even then, that my Great Grandmother was an integral part of all the stories I wanted to tell. All the stories I would tell. And so, in an awkward kind of way, that evening I started asking my Great Grandmother questions---started a conversation---though I have since come to know the sting of not asking the real questions nor getting the real answers one will eventually want for all the stories one hopes to tell.
But there it was that in my awkward bumbling sort of way I had started a conversation with my Great Grandmother, a conversation that is on going, a conversation that is represented in these quilts. For I would come to have, after she died, a series of quilts that my Great Grandmother had made during her life. Spectacular quilts. Bold in color, composition and design. A strong indication of who this woman was and what she thought of and how she lived life; what she thought was beautiful. But here and there some of the quilts were in need of repair; and one or two of them unfinished: I was only too happy to complete the quilts that were uncompleted and to repair the ones in need of repair. In so doing I had a strong sense that, again, I was having a conversation with my Great Grandmother; trying as best I could to stick to her aesthetic sense, even as I sought to insist on some of her/our quilts, my own aesthetic sense. I loved the piecing of things together; of trying to make something whole out of pieces; of something old taking on new life; of one thing becoming another; of making so much beauty out of the scraps of life. These quilts of my Great Grandmother’s became The Conversation Series.
By the time I finished working on my Great Grandmother’s quilts I was hooked. This was at a time when I was looking for a way to pay homage to my Great Grandmother and to my troubled but beautiful homeland of Jamaica. And what did I miss more than the flora and fauna of Jamaica---the legendary mountains. Those dark blue mountains. Those purple-blue mountains. Those emerald green mountains. Because I am first and foremost a poet, I wanted to pay tribute to the mountains in the form of poems. Praise poems. Odes. A form that elevates the person, the object, the occasion.
The celebrated poet Eavan Boland states that odes are “full of flatteries, exaggerations and claims for the excellence and high standing of the subject….” This is exactly how I feel and talk about the mountains of my native land. As a child I remember gazing up and taking strength in the mountains of Jamaica. I remember feeling as though the mountains would always and always be there. I remember thinking that I could always turn to the mountains in moments of crisis. Those purple-blue mountains. After her death my Great Grandmother merged and eventually became one with those mountains; buried as she is in the district of Nonsuch, surrounded by the dark blue mountains of Portland. The purple-blue mountains around the district like a protective womb. The many shades of green mountains.
Boland continues, telling us that the Ode “[was] part convention, part mode, and all opportunity. Modern poets,” Boland states, “have taken the spirit of the ode---its address, its decorum---and widened it to include a much more panoramic landscape of reference and celebration.”1 Which, of course, are what the quilts in the series, Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica, are to me: A celebration of the landscape of my homeland even as they are a celebration of the creative life of my Great Grandmother who is now one with the mountains of my troubled but beautiful homeland.
But more: These quilt/odes are an extended conversation---with African Americans and American culture2, a reshaping of myself in the American space; a conversation with the continent of Africa3; a conversation with the unknown textile makers whose work tangibly informs my own creations; a conversation among the different pieces of cloth; and, ultimately, a conversation with myself: With the place where I now live; and with the place and people from whom I come.
1 Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, The Making of a Poem (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, 2000) 240.
2 John Beardsley, et al., Gees Bend: The Women and Their Quilts (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2002).
3 Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit African & Afro American Art & Philosophy (New York: Vintage Books, 1984); John Michael Vlach, By The Work Of Their Hands Studies in Afro-American Folklife (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999).