A Legacy of Great Artists
As a film medium, documentaries can inspire as well as surprise and incite – but above all they inform their audiences about marginalized stories. It’s a powerful form of film that in the right hands becomes a work of art able to transform the very spirit of its viewers.
Such is the medium used by the American filmmaking duo Karen Arthur and Thomas Neuwirth who have set out to share the inspiring stories of Bahamian artists. Through their first 2008 documentary, “Artists of The Bahamas”, and following films “Brent Malone: Father of Bahamian Art”, released in 2010, and most recently “Amos Ferguson: Match Me If You Can” – which just earned the Bahamas International Film Festival’s “First Look” award – the pair have been paying tribute to the master artists who have shaped the foundation of Bahamian art history.
“We just totally fell madly in the love with The Bahamas and we were just at a time in our lives when we were kind of semi-retired and we were looking for a new challenge,” says Arthur. “We decided we would do documentaries, for it’s an area where the two of us with our expertise combined could do this together.”
Indeed the couple are no strangers to film. They’ve been in the industry for 40 years, and ever since they met in the early 1980s, they’ve been filming dramatic movies and miniseries under Arthur Productions, Inc. with Arthur as director and Neuwirth as the director of photography.
It wasn’t until they moved to The Bahamas six years ago that they came across Bahamian art at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas and decided to share it with the world. Though the heavily contemporary exhibition they viewed inspired them, they searched extensively for artwork by “master” artists. Finding little more than a single book on the founding fathers of Bahamian art, they decided their documentary would focus on uncovering and featuring these artists.
“We wanted the seminal artists for that particular picture – the artists who set this whole thing in motion,” explains Neuwirth.
“We were reaching for the masters,” adds Arthur. “Who is the Picasso, the Michelangelo, who are those Bahamian counterparts?”
After consulting with the late Bahamian art collector Vincent D’Aguilar about who he considered to be master artists of The Bahamas, the pair set out to earn the trust of 12 local artists for their documentary. Forming Island Films, they released “Artists of The Bahamas” in 2008 which explored the lives and work of Amos Ferguson, Kendal Hanna, Max Taylor, Brent Malone, Dave Smith, Eddie Minnis, Stan Burnside, Jackson Burnside, Antonius Roberts, John Beadle and John Cox.
The film was a major achievement in the local visual art world, creating a buzz locally and abroad as it traveled. The pair did face criticism, however, for showcasing only the male artists. When Arthur noticed D’Aguilar had only selected men, she – being a feminist and the first woman in America to get a female director’s card – fought him, but he wouldn’t budge.
“We would be insane to think we could walk into a country and know who’s a great artist, and that’s why we went to Vincent. The only thing I fought was for the women,” says Arthur. “It’s fair criticism. There were none of the level of these men, especially in the very early days, not working on that scale or with that consistency or with the level of skill these men had day after day after day.”
“What I say to women is you have a template in our film here, so follow the template and make a film about female Bahamian artists.”
Despite this, the pair continued on, for they had only begun to uncover the surface of the stories and work by these individuals. With grants from the Cable Cares Foundation, they set out to make a series of documentaries that take a deeper look at each featured artist in their original film.
They began with Brent Malone, the only artist who, at the time of “Artists of The Bahamas”, had already passed. Thanks to efforts by his daughter Marysa Malone, they were able to pay tribute to the artist named “Father of Bahamian Art”.
“We felt we had missed the great adventure of getting to know Brent Malone,” says Arthur. “We thought, how can we do him a service now because he’s not around to speak for himself?”
“A father means not that you started everything but that you took care of everything. He was selfless in that way. He gave artists a forum when nobody had a forum. In that sense, he fathered Bahamian art and that’s why he garnered that title.”
The film “Brent Malone: Father of Bahamian Art” was a gorgeous achievement, weaving together his life story and the memories of those whose lives he touched with his breathtaking paintings.
Soon thereafter, with another grant from Cable Cares and with significant help from Ferguson’s family and niece, Loraine Bastian, they embarked on a documentary about Amos Ferguson. Though he had passed, the pair got to know him during the making of their original documentary.
“We had numberous meetings with him where we just sat and talked and watched him paint so that he would feel comfortable with our presence – no camera involved, just the three of us,” says Neuwirth.
The resulting documentary, “Amos Ferguson: Match Me If You Can” was another breathtaking production that followed the life and artistic practice of the intuitive artist who became a worldwide phenomenon through the spirit of his paintings.
“Amos had a purity and a quality of color. I responded to his childlike application to the Bahamian folklore. I learned something about The Bahamas every time in Amos’s paintings,” says Arthur.
The film premiered at the “Master Artists of The Bahamas” exhibition in Waterloo, Iowa, and then again at the 2011 Bahamas International Film Festival, where it earned their First Look Award.
It’s certainly not over – in fact, their toughest challenge lies in their next documentary which will feature the life and work of Jackson Burnside who unexpectedly passed away earlier this year. Both Jackson and his wife Pam had been major supporters of Island Films, and it was Jackson who coaxed an interview for the pair out of Amos Ferguson, so they had formed close professional and personal relationships over their time in Nassau.
“Jackson Burnside is going to be a great challenge to us because of all the films we’ve made. Jackson was a very dear friend,” says Arthur. “Jackson was so eclectic, and he was such a renaissance man. His tribute is going to be so much more diversified because that’s who he was.”
No matter the film, however, the goal remains the same: to introduce local and international audiences to the ways these artists lived their lives and lived for their art, what inspired them to pick up their brushes and how their legacies live on through the artists they taught and communities they touched. With Arthur’s vision and Neuwirth’s eye, they capture and weave the threads of their stories through those who knew and loved them and the stories they told through their work.
“What we try to do every time is try to find a different way of using visual filmic elements of nature and finding ways to connect it to paintings themselves,” explains Arthur. “I knew from day one we were going to open Amos’ film in the clouds with his angel paintings and with the choir, and I knew we were going to end that way. I knew we were going to address his relationship with God because it was a seminal part of him.”
“I knew Brent gave Junkanoo its voice in art so that’s why we started with that, and with Jackson we think we’ll address his tangents in his storytelling,” she continues. “Each artist helps you because you understand kind of where they’re coming from, and then you begin to dream for the film structure prior to the film shooting.”
It’s certainly a change of pace for the pair who worked with huge crews and budgets in major Hollywood productions, but with their combined experience and close relationship, they’re able to produce equally breathtaking films.
“It’s very very tedious work when you’re trying to find the silver bullets in everything your interviewees say and being able to coordinate that with other people on the same related subject,” says Neuwirth. “It’s more tedious than a scripted movie.”
It’s also quite an achievement, points out Neuwirth, because the pair came completely from the outside to a particularly enclosed and tight-knit community of creative people. It took several months to create the right contacts and convince local artists that they were not trying to take advantage of them – that they were in fact serious professionals who were so inspired by local work that they wanted to elevate it through their own artistic craft.
Indeed, the pair has done a great service for Bahamian art, recording its very important and auspicious beginnings in fascinating documentaries that have reached global audiences.
“We’re trying to put this thing on the planet that can be sent all over the world, that is representative of the great important art being made in The Bahamas. That is important to me,” says Arthur. “We can do our tiny drop in a bucket to help put them on a planet that they so deserve. That was the original instigation with ‘Artists of The Bahamas’ and it continues to be.”
The effects have been tremendous and far reaching. In fact, their inaugural documentary has recently inspired a historical first – “Master Artists of The Bahamas”, a visual art exhibition dedicated to these 11 local artists at the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa, which opened earlier this year. Through that, a student from Iowa, inspired by sculptures by Antonius Roberts, traveled to The Bahamas to engage in a short artist’s residency, promoting cultural exchange. Indeed, further major effects emerging from the impact of these films that could significantly raise the profile of Bahamian art may still lie in waiting.
Locally, too, the filmmakers have a goal – to educate and inspire Bahamians with their own cultural history. To that effect, they continue to struggle to get these three films into schools and to be shown on local cable channels, for their aim is to provide this education for free. It’s the only way the legacies by these master artists can live on – inspiration and creativity are powerful tools to build up communities, and that’s what the pair hopes to accomplish as they continue on the new filmmaking chapter of their lives.
“I think it’s important when a child is exposed to art. When they watch this and see that somebody coming from very little can achieve their dream, no matter what it may be, it’s hope,” explains Neuwirth. “That’s what makes me happy about these three films. There’s so much need for hope in this country.”
“So much of this history needs to be passed on,” agrees Arthur. “Bahamians need Bahamian heroes. That’s why whether you’re an artist or an aviator, whoever you are as a hero, you elevate. It can’t just be taught through Junkanoo – it can’t be the be-all and end-all. Humans beings achieve in so many other ways.”
The Nassau Guardian
Arts & Culture
Published: December 27, 2011