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The Poet Paints Philosophy: An Earl McKenzie Exhibition

Earl McKenzie's exhibition currently at the UWI

Every Sunday morning Earl McKenzie listens to the Mass in B Minor, a symphony composed by the famous Johann Sebastian Bach. The orchestra in four movements is compelling, quietly powerful and steeped in the rich history of a long cultural tradition, much like the work of Dr. McKenzie himself. An exhibition of this work, his paintings and poetry, was recently launched at the Regional Headquarters of the University of the West Indies.

Dr. St. Hope Earl McKenzie is a retired Philosophy lecturer, painter and poet. He is the author of eight books including two short story anthologies and the 2012 multi-genre collection of verbal and visual art entitled A Bluebird Named Poetry – the bluebird, Dr. McKenzie noted, was the thing that started his journey of poetry and painting. His paintings focus on diverse aspects of rural and cultural aesthetics and have been exhibited both locally and internationally.

The launch of Dr. McKenzie’s fourth solo exhibition proceeded at a quick pace, led by Master of Ceremonies and new Public Orator of the UWI, Dr. Michael Bucknor. After a brief welcome, Dr. Bucknor introduced in threes the readers for the evening – all women, a fact which he realized partway, promptly jumping in to read a poem “for the men.” 

The diversity of poems and paintings was only equalled by the diversity of the readers’ backgrounds. McKenzie’s launch featured bank managers, lecturers, educational administrators, former heads of department, writers, and cultural critics.

The readings began with Trudy Schoepko-McKenzie, Earl McKenzie’s wife and muse, who found it difficult to choose a favourite but ultimately settled on a poem that “resonated most totally with my current experience in this part of my life”. The poem, 'Today', is a meditation on living in the present moment. McKenzie’s words artfully capture the escape from worries about the past and future, especially in the last lines that reflect his painting bent ‘Like white and yellow paint / I will use them / to tint the darkness of the years’.

Dr. Jean Small was among the diverse readers of McKenzie's poetry at the launchFollowing Mrs. Schoepko-McKenzie, acclaimed poet Dr. Velma Pollard took to the podium to read one of Earl McKenzie’s most personal poems, 'The Makers' a piece about his parents. Dr. Pollard’s clear ringing voice seemed at odds with the nostalgic mood and easy-going tone of the poem, but it was a piece that resonated very deeply with Dr. McKenzie.

Former Head of Library Studies at the UWI Professor Fay Durrant read 'Sermons in Lilies' from The Almond Leaf (McKenzie’s third volume of poetry). The poem was a thoughtful, almost spiritual contemplation on the beauty of those flowers.

A great portion of McKenzie’s supporters had travelled from Mandeville to be in attendance at his launch. During his response at the end of the evening, he called attention to the former colleagues and students who had made the journey to enjoy his poetry and paintings.

The readings continued with Mrs. Delphine Young, a former student of McKenzie’s from Church Teachers College. Mrs. Young revealed that she was “deeply attached to poetry and the inner strength it gives us.” She said some of Dr. McKenzie’s poems reminded her of the American poet Robert Frost and proceeded to read one of those poems which showcased his mastery of the inanimate object. 'Cups' was a descriptive and emotional poem about a pair of cups, the use they once enjoyed and their final fate of sitting in a cupboard.

Mrs. Audrey Tugwell-Henry and Jean Ramsey both colleagues from McKenzie’s Mandeville days read earthy poems that displayed McKenzie’s vibrant connection to nature and the rural scene. 'Flint', read by Tugwell-Henry appeared in the high school poetry text Bite In III and 'Earth Song' read by Ramsey was in McKenzie’s earlier anthology The Almond Leaf.Earl McKenzie Exhibition

Afterward, Dr. Bucknor read 'Against Linearity' from the eponymous anthology, a shrewd examination of Jamaica and the way Jamaicans bend straight lines “into trees and rivers / into the crookedness of life”.

The poetry readings closed with Dr. Karen Carpenter, former Philosophy student of McKenzie’s and Dr. Jean Small, notable playwright and actress, who both read touching and introspective poems. Dr. Carpenter read 'Peace', whose persona searches for “a silence deep as the serenity before all sound”. However Dr. Small’s rendition of 'A Coconut Alphabet' eclipsed every other reading, both in length and the quality of delivery. Bringing her acting chops to the forefront Dr. Small read – as Dr. McKenzie later noted – with understanding, performing the poem as a dramatic piece rather than simply as words to be read off a page. She breathed fresh life into a poem Dr. McKenzie counts as among his best, one whose lack of recognition baffled him.

Dr. McKenzie expresses his thanks and gratitudeAfter the poetry readings, Dr. Clinton Hutton, cultural critic and lecturer in the Department of Government formally introduced the painting exhibition. Dr Hutton presented a grand (if not lengthy) soliloquy praising McKenzie’s understanding of the folk cultural tradition, what he called McKenzie’s “rural essence, his rural sense”. Hutton treated the diverse themes in the paintings pointing out that McKenzie expresses elements of an informal epistemology that is common among the average Jamaican but oddly lacking among the academics.

“A good painting should work on your emotions first before it works on your intellect,” noted Dr. Hutton, using the painting 'All On One Tree' as an example of this mastery at work. He noted that the three self-portraits “betray Earl’s philosophical training and the way in which he views the world.” Humorously, Dr. Hutton added that he only knows of one other artist who would even consider painting a Jamaican yam hill – Dr. Clinton Hutton. And he noted that the aesthetic beauty of McKenzie’s paintings lies in their simplicity.

Two women pay keen attention to Dr. McKenzie's artistryCalled upon to respond to the evening’s proceedings, Dr. McKenzie had an endless outpouring of gratitude. He mentioned having to be convinced to launch a new exhibition after claiming that the last exhibition would be his last, and having to postpone this launch due to the Presidential visit – what he called “being Obama-ed”. He reflected that this was the first time he had had the honour of a Public Orator being the Master of Ceremonies at one of his launches, and that he was often close to tears during the experience of having his poems hand-picked and read to him.

Ever the poet, he ended the evening with a 'Basket' whose first and final lines have a touch of nostalgic parting. “May your basket never be empty,” he began and went on to conclude “Like a basket never empty / and sometimes full / which I lift daily / to my head.”

Dr. Earl McKenzie’s exhibition consists of 33 paintings, three of which have been donated to the Regional Headquarters of the UWI. The exhibition is open to the public, on display in the lobby of the Headquarters building and will run until May 8, 2015.