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Pan lover grows T&T culture in Houston
Leon F Simeon is a Trinidad-born graphic designer, teacher, digital artist and photographer with an affinity for pan. Residing in America for the past 34 years, he returned home on July 14 to see his 94-year-old mother, and to stage an exhibition of his works in Port-of-Spain. Since migrating this is only his third visit to his homeland.
Though born in Arima, Simeon grew in “deep South” from the age of two.
“I am a true South and Benedict’s boy. I went to school with guys like Warren Archibald, Bede Wells and Jan Steadman. Those were the days of coach Wooter and Dom Basil Matthews. Although I can’t play the instrument, I have been very much a pan enthusiast. I’ve always liked the instrument and my favourite steelband was Fonclaire,” said Simeon.
Prior to migrating he worked with Neal & Massy in Port-of-Spain and, in 1979, got an art scholarship to attend Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Canada. He eventually travelled South, ending up in Detroit but not staying there too long. “I landed in Detroit but moved on to Houston, Texas, after four days as there was warmer,” said Simeon.
“I began teaching art at the Art Institute of Houston, the largest art school in America. I taught there for 21 years and also completed my master’s degree in 2005. After completing my master’s at Lamar University, I worked at Westwood College of Technology for five years.
“I retired but that didn’t last very long as I was called back to work, going to teach at elementary school. I am currently at the special school Pro-Vision Academy. It’s a school for special children and it’s predominantly black. This has been quite an adjustment, coming from university and teaching at the college level.
“Most of the challenges are because of the students’ learning disabilities and behavioural problems. Most of these kids are from the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the very poor and dispossessed.
“These kids are the rejects that the system has discarded. They are stubborn when it comes to education as their focus is on something else, on hip hop and gang culture. Being a foreigner with an alien accent made the job even more challenging.
“When I went to the academy the school had no art or photography programmes. I actually went there to teach business information management (computers), but the administration invited me to start new programmes and today every student has their own personal laptop and camera.”
So, why Simeon’s preoccupation with pan?
“When I was doing my thesis at Lamar I chose pan. But, the professors were bemused and asked ‘what is pan?’ At first they rejected my suggestion saying that they didn’t know what pan was and would be unable to adjudicate on such a topic. I then did my thesis on ‘printing’, from Gutenburg to the digital era. I did nine pieces for my thesis. I showed one of the professors the history and technology behind the pan and they accepted them as photographic pieces but not as thesis material.
“I coined the phrase ‘Panology’. Panology I call ‘simeonistic expressionism’, my personal artistic concept. I am the first person to do this and it is how I express our national instrument. I am thinking of writing a book which I intend titling The Revolutionary Birth and Technological Growth of the Pan.”
Admitting to having a penchant to Witco Desperadoes, Simeon revealed that his wife, Kathleen, who played pan here, is an in-law of the late Rudolph Charles. He said: “I have always kept in touch with my roots while in the States. I am a member of When Steel Talks and my work is displayed on its Web site.”
Simeon was the president of Republic of T&T Association of Texas and served for many years as its PRO. Every year the association has a gala and awards scholarships to deserving students. “Each year we invite a prominent T&T artiste to be our guest performer and we’ve had Black Stalin, Chalkdust, Denyse Plummer, Singing Francine and Renegades,” revealed Simeon.
He added: “T&T culture has grown tremendously in Houston. We now have our own Carnival, complete with J’Ouvert. Lots of Trinidadian artistes perform and teach up there. There is also the San Jacinto College where pan is being taught. While the pan teachers are Trinidadians, 90 per cent of its musicians are white Americans.”
Simeon will mount his Panology exhibition at the Nalis Building, on Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain on July 28. The exhibition, which runs until July 31, has the blessings of Pan Trinbago and a number of iconic steelband musicians and technicians are expected to attend.