“… firesticks … knife … stone carvings … they are what a woman needs to ‘carve a life for herself’”—Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with Wolves
With fire, carving knives, big and small, and with the objects available on a small island in the Caribbean—calabash, iridescent beetle wings and a diversity of stones—Barbara Jardine has been carving out a life.
The hand-crafted jewelry, vases, precious objects she makes, tell the story of a woman artist who has to find the missing pieces of herself, pieces misplaced when her creative self is overshadowed by, among other things, her other roles of wife and mother; how it can be a painstaking task to perform the alchemy that will make her whole again and what is possible when she commits to the task of rebuilding anyway.
“My work speaks for me,” says Jardine, “but it isn’t self-conscious.”
Telling Jardine’s story in words has partly been the work of others, who have broken into the artist’s solitude and have been astute enough to ask the right questions.
In 2006, Judy Raymond (currently T&T Guardian editor-in-chief) wrote the book Barbara Jardine: Goldsmith, which attempted to make conscious the psychic processes that underlie Jardine’s work. It also showcased Jardine’s extraordinary craft in the full-colour photography of Michele Jorsling.
In 2010, Mariel Brown filmed The Solitary Alchemist, a documentary about Jardine which also captures her in process—grieving the past, creating the work that will heal her, timidly sharing that work and herself with the world.
Both the book and the film, which Jardine credits with helping realise how special her work is and giving her the courage to become a more public person, recount Jardine’s early childhood in “the rarefied enclave” of the oil-field beach-camps in south Trinidad, which moulded the mind of the artist—gave her the room to climb trees and explore the living landscape that signature her work—beetles, dragonflies, snakes and orchids. There is her father too, “a brilliant storyteller,” who read fairytales illustrated by British “Golden Age” illustrator Arthur Rackham, to Jardine and her two sisters—something that led Jardine to first believe that she would be a illustrative graphic artist.
The carefree days of life in Trinidad come to an end when Jardine is sent off to a British boarding school at the age of ten, and only visits home once every three years. Although she describes herself as “always artistic,” Jardine realised that being unusual in any way would make her a target for bullies, and says that at school she was “regular —not particularly academic, good at sport and art and popular.”
“Always going to be an artist” and “most comfortable with a paintbrush,” Jardine followed the usual trajectory for those wanting to be artists in England in the late 1960s. A foundation art school in Guildford, Surrey followed her secondary education, and it was here that Jardine discovered the jeweller inside herself.
Taking refuge from student protests that marked the period, Jardine, who only wanted to focus on her work, stumbled across an adult evening class in jewelry-making, about a mile away from the school. She invited herself in.
“I did my little copper earrings and enamel dust and that sort of thing. I liked very much working with the metal on a small scale,” she says. “Having discovered that I loved that, I geared my portfolio to that, but it was like a kind of mock-up of tinfoil, fur and stuff like that, ‘cause you don’t get the skills to build real jewelry. Anyway the art colleges were looking for ideas rather than finished pieces.”
Although denigratory of her early pieces, her ideas must have given a glimpse of the artist-jeweller she could become, because Jardine was accepted into what is now London’s Central St Martins, University of the Arts, “one of the few places that could qualify you back then as a jeweller,” the same place where the Sex Pistols first performed in 1975 and has among its alumni James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan and fashion designer John Galliano.
Central St Martins was followed by the Royal College of Art and, says Jardine, “when you get there you know you are in an elite group.” It was the height of a vibrant London artistic scene, where the Beatles were a backdrop to an experimental world of self-exploration through drugs, music and Eastern religion. Jardine spent her early adulthood in the thick of it, living in places in west London like Westborne Grove, Ladbroke Grove across from the Island Records recording studio, and a small apartment just off the Portobello Road, in Notting Hill Gate, which remains the home of famous musicians, actors and artists.
“It was brilliant to be young back then. It was just so exciting within that bubble.
“But I came back home during the summer holidays and fell in love with a Trinidadian.”
A Trinidadian with whom she had a summer romance some years before, and who her parents had tried to keep her away from because of his reputation as a “bad boy.”
It was a pivotal point in Jardine’s story: it was the first time since she had begun to pursue her craft in earnest that something seemed more important. She condensed her three-year masters degree at the RCA into two years, desperate to get back to the man she would marry. Her urgency, however, did not stop her from winning the Artist of the Year award, at graduation; and one of her final pieces, the Warrior, which became part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s permanent collection in 1982, was showcased in Vogue magazine.
None of it stopped her from leaving the UK.
Asked about the decision which completely altered the direction of her career, which seemed poised for certain success, Jardine says, “I held myself in absolutely no worth whatsoever, I meant nothing to me …My whole focus became him.”
The delicate crafting necessary to create the Warrior was obliterated by the necessity to make ends meet. She became a mother, and while she was enduring what would become years of “upping and downing” and all sorts of “grief and humiliation,” Jardine’s art became a shadow of its former self. She still used local materials like recycled turtle shell, but to make items like haircombs and bracelets, things that would sell quickly and easily.
The journey back to the work she had started when a student only began when her 15-year marriage ended, with her husband leaving her for a younger woman.
Making sense of her loss and grief in a tortured creativity produces pieces like Metamorphosis (1987), a necklace with a woman emerging from a cocoon, made out of black coral, ibex horn, beetle carapace and precious stones; In Memoriam (1994) a pin made of black coral, recycled turtle shell, gold and silver, which juxtaposes a skull against the deep red of an anthurium; and Heigh-Ho, My Heart, a jewelry box shown in Scotland, crowned by the naked body of a woman crouched in the foetal position, made out of a tagua nut, above an egg of amber.
“It was such an emotional piece,” says Jardine about Heigh-Ho, My Heart, “terribly vulnerable.”
Jardine describes her work as an “organic expression, very honest.” Rather than focus on her pain, she allowed her work to absorb her, “protect her from intense vulnerability and from thinking too much.” The result was that her inner processes were externalised in pieces she created.
The exhibition in Scotland, the preparation for which, Brown follows Jardine in the documentary The Solitary Alchemist was another turning point. “I was selected as the dinosaur,” says Jardine of the exhibition, which mainly showcased artists using modern production techniques.
“I am an antithesis of modern production techniques.”
Heigh-Ho My Heart, was mounted away from the main exhibition, in a corner by itself. It seemed to represent the isolation that Jardine works in and the distance she occupies from her European peers.
“It was like dismissing me. I felt completely lost, I was a stranger.”
But it was also cathartic. It was almost as though she realised that the contemporary UK art scene wasn’t where she was supposed to be. Jardine’s past became all part of her journey, no longer something she regrets. The Jardine who is seen weeping for a lost past in The Solitary Alchemist, now says, “If I thought about the things I didn’t do, I would slit my wrists.” She was finally able to move on.
Last year, she finished a two-year commission which paid her a stipend and gave her the creative freedom to create whatever she wanted. She created 14 calabash vases, each completely different, which “astonished” her with their “complexity and beauty.”
She is currently working with sea-urchins to craft a collection of rings that she says will “be over the top,” in their size, and the use of bright colours and gold foils. “What I am doing is now is kind of experimental, having fun, I’m making [the sea urchins] less vulnerable.”
Stronger herself, Jardine has also turned her attention to the legacy she will leave as an artist.
“It is about sharing. Art is only validated when it resonates.”
She speaks of wanting to remembered as a Caribbean woman artist and believes that as a Trinidadian middle-class white woman, she has transcended some of the labels that confined her work to a small audience. She would love her work now to be shown in a public forum, but acknowledges the risk that would need to be assumed by exhibitors, because of its monetary value.
Acknowledging that through the support of people like Mariel Brown however, many of her career ambitions have been realised, Jardine says "something always comes along.” Happier than she has ever been, she is content for now to “love the challenge and give people joy.”