It was not that the pain and devastation felt by many during the pandemic did not affect artist Donald “Jackie” Hinkson. It was more so that the unprecedented event did little to throw him out of his element.
At 80 years old, Hinkson is a distinguished Trinidad and Tobago artist who has kept the company of Caribbean art luminaries like Derek Walcott, Peter Minshall and Pat Bishop. The lockdowns with its lack of noise and traffic that tossed most people into a tailspin and forced many into self-introspection during the last two years, were not alien to Hinkson who has spent a lifetime communing with and contemplating nature, Trinidad and Tobago society...and himself.
Through lucid memories and insights, the artist recently offered Sunday Guardian a window into his journey and lifestyle.
“Because of the nature of my profession and vocation which is to produce art, the pandemic in a sense hasn't really taught me anything. This is going to sound surprising...it has reminded me about the fragility of life and how much in the execution of my work, how much I am not dependent on a lot of everyday things like traffic and the opening of this store etc. I can still function fully as an artist, isolated. I was still surrounded by forms, shapes, colours, tones, paints even in a severe lockdown which I suspect was not the same for everyone else,” Hinkson said.
As an artist, his main concern is “capturing the light”; harnessing those almost indescribable qualities that give T&T's places, people and issues their energy, vibrancy and essence...qualities that excite the viewer. One's technique in capturing the light is the true mark of a great artist, not one's surface subject matter or message, he insists.
“Back in Times” by Jackie Hinkson can be considered a modern-day, local crucifixion.
“The question is what is good art, and my point is that level of communication through surface images, that kind of message content is not enough to make good art. That imagery has to work together with the manipulation of visual symbols like colour, rhythm, tones, juxtapositions, and compositions. And it's only when those two come together successfully–to use a vague word–that it becomes good art,” he said.
Expanding his media over the years from watercolour to ink, pencil, conte crayon, figurative wood sculptures, and iPad digital art Hinkson moved from more subtle to “direct” commentary on T&T's historical past, architecture, scenery, society and politics. His development never ends, he said. In fact, rather than seeing himself as improving, he sees himself as constantly evolving.
“I live with a constant conviction that I have not done well enough, that I could have done better,” he explained.
From his primary school days of drawing cowboys and horses from comic books in Cobo Town, Port-of-Spain, and absorbing the coconut tree-lined landscapes of Manzanilla, Mayaro and Guayagyayare in the East, and Erin, Cedros and Icacos in the Southwest on trips with his travelling officer father and brothers, Hinkson nurtured a love for art. Apart from landscapes, gingerbread architecture like the gable roof and latticework of the house he shared with his parents and five siblings also captured his fancy.
Exploring art books at the Central Library as a 14-year-old QRC student deepened Hinkson's connection with art and he started painting with oils. He found that fellow student Peter Minshall, who was one Form class ahead of him also shared his interest and the two would frequently embark on trips to the Queen's Park Savannah, Sealots, Hinkson's yard at Richmond Street and Minshall's yard at Dundonald Street to paint. Minshall's father, Wilson, an accomplished artist, would give them pointers and the two youths cherished dreams of developing their craft abroad.
Through the Art Society, Hinkson was also exposed to the works of local artists like Carlisle Chang, Sybil Atteck, MP Alladin, Boscoe Holder, the Stollmeyers and the Salvatoris. Encouraged by Atteck and Alladin, in 1961, in a move which would have been seen as bold for their time, Hinkson who was in Form Six at that point, joined up with Minshall, who was already out of school, a young Pat Bishop and a few other artists to exhibit their work at the Woodbrook Market Place, a centre for the Arts Society back then.
A scholarship to the Académie Julien in Paris in 1963 would launch Hinkson's dreams of becoming an artist, and Minshall, too, would pursue his art education overseas. They set off from Trinidad on the same French boat, with Minshall being dropped off at a Port in England. Hinkson would begin a Fine Arts degree at the University of Alberta, Canada, two years later.
“On my return to Trinidad in 1970, the light, the heat and the humidity I found here were so strong, this is when I said: Yes, I have to go out there, and I have to paint in watercolours,” the artist recalled.
“Feast in the Recreation Club” is Jackie Hinkson's local take on the Last Supper.
Hinkson's work over the decades spans landscapes and seascapes throughout T&T, a place where the relationship between light and shadows, tone and mood change rapidly and where one hour can mean the difference between warm, vibrant reds, oranges and yellows in the Queen's Park Savannah or heavy greys and dingy blues brought by passing clouds. Watercolour brilliantly conveys a particular quality of light at a particular time of day, but there is little room for error, Hinkson explained.
He has painted scenes in Laventille and visited panyards where he could easily pull out a pen and paper and capture the rapid movements of panmen in their natural environment, as well as the reactions of spectators. Among his thousands of paintings and drawings are historical buildings magnificently captured in pen, conte crayon and pencil.
An honorary graduate of the UWI for his notable contribution to art, Hinkson's most recent public showing was “Masquerade” a 110-foot mural tracing aspects of T&T's history, and simultaneously the artist's creative evolution. It was mounted in 2019 on the front wall of UWI's Alma Jordon Library. In it, traditional Carnival characters like midnight robbers, their hats imprinted with Columbus' three ships and a Burrokeet danced by Queen Isabella of Spain in murky, ominous tones speak of the exploitation of this country's colonial past. He renders pan round d' neck players in action in front of old-time parlours from his childhood with livelier tones, giving way further on to more blatant images of political and social tension like protesters in front of the Red House and the Royal Jail.
Next year, Hinkson plans to collaborate with a technician to bring to life and display abstract sculptures, the drawings which he has kept since his university days some 60 years ago.
Making his dreams materialise no matter how long it takes has always been part of Hinkson's nature. Although he aspired to become a full-time artist, he held on as an Art teacher at his alma mater for 14 years to ensure that he and his wife Caryl could provide for their children, Sean, David and Deborah.
Jackie Hinkson painting outdoors in the early 1960s.
Hinkson “slowly” built up a reputation exhibiting his paintings whenever he could and though unsure of how he would earn a substantial income, he made the break to follow his true passion in 1986.
“You have to understand that you have to take risks, make sacrifices. You have to have the conviction of what you want to do.”
He recognises such sacrifice, support and dedication in his wife of 55 years, and in his children whom he would pack up during school holidays for month-long trips to Mayaro to fulfil his yearning to paint. For Caryl, driving back west to St Augustine to her job during those times and dealing with a husband who spent countless hours outdoors painting could not have been easy, he felt. Still, he was proud of the legacy of art knowledge and prowess passed on to his children.
Hinkson who still maintains contact with his friend Minshall was grateful to Pat Bishop as “an invaluable and generous contributor” to his career and artist Sundiata who shared Hinkson's perspectives on art and with whom he has often collaborated and exhibited since the 1980s.
Young artists, Hinkson said, must be prepared to work for a lifetime; there's no beginning or end or peak, just evolution. He hopes to see greater public education about Visual Arts and unity in the art community and would be happy if his work lives on. He simply wants to be remembered for having tried.
Jackie Hinkson in a lively discussion with Peter Minshall, left, Hinkson's son and biographer Prof Arnold Rampersad, right.
Q&A with Jackie Hinkson
1. Mr Hinkson, you grew up in the 1940s and 50s, and along with your brothers, you accompanied your father on trips throughout the country while he worked as a travelling officer. What sort of places did you all visit and how did your art develop as a result?
My father was, as you say, a travelling officer. He worked with the Customs and his job had to do with copra and price control; copra being a product of coconuts. And I suppose, him being a countryman himself–he grew up in Central Trinidad in Brasso and so on–he probably relished the job of travelling into the country areas and at school holiday time when I was about eight, nine, ten, 11, 12, he would take the boys, my two older brothers and me and maybe my younger brother, with him.
The interesting thing is the car he had was a 1932 Model A Forde that had a rumble seat in the back; that is a curved back that just pulled open and became a seat. And we sat in the back there exposed to the elements– something like a convertible–with a piece of tarpaulin in case rain came. And it meant that we were always looking out; I certainly was always looking out at the landscape and I suspect that those experiences left a permanent kind of impression and perhaps predisposed me to want to work outdoors and do plein air landscape painting.
A 2018 panyard sketch by Jackie Hinkson.
2. You became interested in going to the public library, admiring the work of post-impressionists like Cézanne and watercolourists. How exactly did watercolour become your signature medium?
It was the Central Library that was situated on Queen's Park East and that is where I went as a teenager. I realised I was interested in art, I went looking for books. Of course, we had no television, we had no iPad, and no YouTube, so you go looking for books and it was there that I discovered books on international art, Western art and so on. There were no books on local art. It was there that I saw these works of impressionist painters who painted outdoors in the light and I guess, that is what attracted me; the idea that these fellas went outdoors and painted the light that was in front of them, they dealt with the everyday outdoor life.
In addition, I came across one or two on English watercolourists and what really hit me hard was the luminosity that I saw in these images. Watercolour is a transparent medium. It's not like oil paint which is an opaque medium where if you wanted to make a blue into light blue, you mix white and paint it on physically. It's a medium where the white of the paper functions as white, so when you want some light colour or tone, you use less pigment, and more water and you let the white of the paper come through the wash. And that is what gives watercolour its luminosity and transparency. That left a deep impression on me, and also the fact that these books were about landscapes, so when it was time to tackle our landscape and so on, I instinctively went towards watercolour.
3. You seemed to have taken on the role of social commentator more and more. How have you developed your technical style and subject matter over the years?
As a teenager living in the security of a home with my parents, I would paint as I see them in the house; pots, chairs, interiors, but what I want to be careful about is that even when I was drawing traditional architecture and so on– because I did a lot of that up in areas like Laventille and John John in the 60s and 70s, the question of what art is a such a complex one, one that I cannot claim to fully understand, that when you ask about my move towards social commentary, I think that even when I painted or drew a building, an old house, an estate house or anything, in there, there is some kind of commentary, some kind of message...the kind of mood that I brought into the paintings, through colours, tonal juxtapositions, types of clouds in the sky, all of that could hint that I making some kind of commentary about life. I'm showing you how subtle it could be.
A watercolour painting of Mayaro, 1980s by Jackie Hinkson.
But you're quite right, at some point, I began a greater focus, at least on the surface, on social commentary. In my imagery for example, what I showed was not houses or trees or sea or sky. It was people, some might be police, some might be victims, some might be hinting at violence, and some might be talking about political battles. So the reference to social commentary was more obvious and direct.
4. Please talk about your transition/expansion from watercolour to ink sketches, conte crayon to figurative wood sculptures.
I find that a certain medium suits a certain kind of subject. If I'm drawing some big old building that is mainly wood and galvanise, the conte crayon is a reddish brown colour and I find that it suits the capturing of the quality of wood and galvanise admirably. But if I'm outdoors in a place like Mayaro with the reflected light of sky and sea and sand and so on, I would go for the washes of watercolour, and also to capture that quality of light quickly before it changes. For a mural, I would go for a paint that I can work with on a large scale, like acrylic or oil.
At university, in my second or third year, I was introduced to sculpture and I found I had a feel for it. I liked the idea of conceiving in three dimensions but at the time the dominant international move was abstract with minimal sculpture. When I returned home in 1970 and wanted to continue to work in 3D, I didn't have the equipment, the space, or the money so I took a summer course to learn the basics of wood carving.
5. You have exchanged thoughts on art with artistic legends like Peter Minshall and Derek Walcott, do you recall any memorable moments or words of wisdom shared with either?
Derek made a comment I will never forget. He said artists are known for their light, not for their causes. He was trying to say it's the quality of light in the artist's work that determines how powerful it is and not the message that often attracts attention.
6. Do you think people's attitudes in T&T towards art and artists have changed over the years? How so?
Jackie Hinkson with his wife, Caryl and children.
It turned out that in subsequent years I survived; sometimes well, sometimes not so well. Eventually, I got good support and commissions, and people began to buy my work. What really helped was the successive oil booms, but back in the 1950s and so on, the wealth was not there.
But as the oil booms came and people began to travel and become more sophisticated and see museums and corporate bodies became more aware of responsibilities, things blossomed more and here we are today. Who knows where the future is heading? Government has also poured more money into creative areas, galleries have blossomed, so generally, there is increased sensitivity and awareness and sophistication.
When I was a teenager, the art critic here was Derek Walcott. He studied art, he knew about the history of art and when Derek wrote about an exhibition, he wrote with knowledge and skill. To me, the biggest tragedy is that what I found somewhere in the 70s going into the 80s, is that there was less presence of knowledgeable critiquing. There was a lessening commitment from the media to identify and make sure that exhibitions were reviewed in a consistent, knowledgeable way. The public is not being educated and also what developed in the 80s, groups of artists were returning home and you began to get cliques forming–we are for this kind of art, you are not this kind of art. I meet people who will not go to a gallery because they don't like the curator and then there are issues like political connections in the media; which group has support or connections in the media, to the point where the art community has become much bigger but fragmented to my mind.