Jamaican artist Judy Ann MacMillan concludes her autobiography with these forceful words:
We spend so much of our lives making the best of the consequences of earlier choices, doubting often whether those choices were the right ones (…) At this stage of my life, I am still painting not because I'm in the trap of habit but simply for the love of it. I know that one day the paintbrush will drop out of my hand but if I had never sold a painting, I would still have done it because it helped me to appreciate the extraordinary gift of life and life’s beauty.
We spend a lot of time in our lives making the best of the consequences of the decisions we made in the past, and we often doubt whether those decisions were the right ones (…) At this stage of my life, I still do not paint because it is part of of my routine but simply because I love it. I know that someday I will drop the brush, but if I had never sold a painting, I would still have done so because it helped me appreciate the extraordinary gift of life and its beauty.
Her contemplative, practical and ironic self-portrait is called “Born Ya: The life and loves of a Jamaican painter”. “Born Ya” is the title of a popular song that means “Here I was born”.
MacMillan, who was born in Kingston in 1945, is famous for her insightful portraits, extensive but intimate landscapes, and vast still-life paintings that she created mostly with oils. Her mentor, the famous Jamaican artist Albert Huie, invited her to paint with him when she was a child.
He received his training at the Jordanstone Duncan School of Art and Design in Dundee, Scotland, and at 22 he organized his first exhibition in Jamaica. Since then, he has held exhibitions on many occasions in his country and abroad. In 2007, he was inducted into the Caribbean Foundation for Art Hall of Fame for his extraordinary contribution in the field of fine arts. Currently, he divides his time between Kingston and his country house in Rockfield, Santa Ana Bay, Jamaica.
MacMillan grew up in a prosperous home as the daughter of a successful merchant and a mother of strong convictions from rural Jamaica. Unlike most middle-class Jamaican women of the time, she was not interested in settling down and becoming a wife and mother, instead forging her own path.
In his memoirs, MacMillan provides subtle and often humorous observations about Jamaican society, particularly its social class structure and the relationships between men and women. This is portrayed in his various sensitive portraits of Jamaicans, including homeless people, Rastafarians, rural women, farmers, and domestic servants.
Although she lived abroad and has traveled the world, her greatest love is the island that saw her born –painting its landscapes and its inhabitants– something that is clearly evident in two of her books, “Still Painting” (I keep painting) and “My Jamaica”.
I conducted a virtual interview (via email and WhatsApp) with MacMillan about her autobiography, her life as a painter, and the complexities and contradictions of Jamaican society and social class structure.
Emma Lewis (EL): Let's start from the beginning. How would you summarize your childhood?
Judy Ann MacMillan (JAM): Innocent and happy. Even though I was terrified of my parents' wrath, I felt completely loved, and that security was a good preparation for adulthood.
Judy Ann MacMillan (JAM): Innocent and happy. Although I was terrified of my parents' anger, I felt totally loved and that security was a good preparation for adult life.
EL: Jamaica is your home, the place where you were born. What do you consider to be the unique qualities of the island?
JAM: Jamaica’s physical beauty is its own reason for being. Its culture as climate to a unique degree, because the island is a sensual experience. Few places feel as good on one’s skin as Jamaica. The sea is the temperature of your body, you can stay in it for hours. The combination of temperature and the visual beauty of nature create (s) a seductive harmony that is hard to beat.
JAM: Jamaica's physical beauty is itself the reason for its existence. Its culture as well as its environment is of a unique degree because the island is a sensual experience. Few places feel as good as the skin itself, as is the case in Jamaica. The sea is your body temperature, you can stay there for hours. The combination of the temperature and the visual beauty of nature creates a seductive harmony that is incomparable.
EL: Your observations on the customs of the Jamaican middle class are accurate and ingenious. Do you think society has changed in any fundamental way in the course of the last 10 or 20 years?
JAM: Yes, the class structure has changed enormously. In my youth, the staff in elegant resort villas lowered their voices when guests entered the house. Now they raise them. My insights are from the inside, and that’s where you see that Jamaica’s vision of itself is quite different to the way we are seen by outsiders. For example, Jamaica does not see itself as a poor country, and just as our poor people do not see themselves as poor, our middle class modeled themselves on the English upper class and had no idea that they were middle class. These attitudes are very puzzling to outsiders, and compounded by the insider language of the island – as in the title ‘Born Ya’ – are the source of a great deal of Jamaica’s identity crises, which is puzzling, surprising and very amusing.
JAMYes, the structure of social classes has changed enormously. In my youth, the staff of the elegant villas in the resorts spoke in low voices when the visitors entered the house. Now they raise their voices. My observations come from what I experienced firsthand, and that's where you realize that Jamaica's view of itself is quite different from how outsiders perceive us. For example, Jamaica does not consider itself a poor country, and just as our poor people do not consider themselves poor, our middle class imitates the English upper class without having any idea that they belonged to the middle class. These attitudes are very puzzling to outsiders and, combined with the island's internal language – as in the song title 'Born Ya' – they are the origin of a large part of Jamaica's identity crisis, which is puzzling, surprising and great fun.
EL: Would you describe yourself as a feminist? Is the macho culture still in Jamaica?
JAM: I would not have described myself as a feminist when I was young because although I respect them intellectually, I considered the lack of a man to take care of me to be a profound failure. But the fact that I was able to take care of myself made me a feminist. The macho culture is very much alive and well, aided by the complicity of the women.
JAM: In my youth I would not have described myself as a feminist because, although I respect them on an intellectual level, I considered that not having a man to take care of me was a profound failure. But the fact that I was able to take care of myself made me a feminist. The macho culture still endures, supported by the complicity of women.
EL: What is your favorite painting and why?
JAM: It’s impossible to choose one painting out of all my favorites. One of my most admired contemporary painters is Lucian Freud.The humanity in his nudes and portraits has reduced me to tears on occasion.
JAM: It is impossible to choose a painting from all my favorites. One of the contemporary painters I admire the most is Lucian Freud. Humanity in her nudes and portraits has occasionally made me cry.
EL: If you hadn't discovered Rockfield (your country house), what – or where – would your inspiration have been?
JAM: The museums, the temples of the great paintings of the past are still my inspiration for my work. Finding Rockfield was a result of my ongoing appreciation of nature. That appreciation could have happened anywhere.
JAM: The museums, the temples of the great paintings of antiquity continue to be my source of inspiration for my work. Discovering Rockfield was the result of my constant admiration for nature. That admiration could have happened anywhere.
EL: In your book, you call yourself “eccentric” several times. Do you think creative people are eccentric in nature?
JAM: And it is.
EL: You indifferently treat the world of “national art” in Jamaica. How do you think the Jamaican art community could evolve in a more inclusive way?
JAM: I give short shrift to the universal art world of which Jamaica is just a small imitative part. The art world has changed so much from the one of my youth as to be unrecognizable and I don't have or want a place in it. I wanted to be a painter, not a marketeer – but the art of marketing to the mass market has replaced the art of painting. In these new skills I am at a disadvantage, because I have no idea how to create a brand of myself on the commercial market. Taping a banana to a wall, as happened at last year’s Art Basel, with a price tag of many hundreds of thousands of dollars is where these marketing stunts have led contemporary art.
JAM: I treat the world of universal art in a nonchalant way, of which Jamaica is a simple imitation. The art world changed too much from what I knew in my youth and became unrecognizable, therefore, I do not have or do not want to have a place there. I wanted to be a painter, not a mercantilist, but the art of marketing aimed at the mass market replaced the art of painting. With these new skills I am at a disadvantage, because I have no idea how to create a personal brand in the commercial market. Sticking a banana on the wall, as was the case at the Art Basel (contemporary art fair) exhibition in 2019, valued at several hundred thousand dollars, is where these commercial tricks led contemporary art.
EL: What is the future of fine arts in Jamaica?
JAM: Fine art itself is under intense challenge in Jamaica, as it is elsewhere. The tenets of what used to be known as fine art are in conflict with social improvement, political messages and democratic ideas. Marketing a commercial product has displaced the artist in his garret.
JAM: The fine arts are experiencing intense challenge in Jamaica, as in other parts of the world. The principles of what was known as fine arts are not compatible with social improvement, political messages, and democratic ideas. Promoting a commercial product has displaced the artist in his loft.
EL: How would you describe the physical act of painting?
JAM: Painting is like dancing on a tightrope. It’s a balancing act of tone, color, drawing, heart, hand and brain. Keeping all these elements balanced creates a tension that feels impossible while it is going on. But sometimes when the search to put the experience in paint is over, there is an elation that is for me addictive.
JAM: Painting is like dancing on a tightrope. It is an act in which you must find a balance of tone, color, drawing, heart, hand and brain. Keeping all these elements in harmony creates a tension that feels impossible while it is taking place. But sometimes when that search to capture the painting experience ends, a euphoria arises that for me is addictive.
EL: What is the only place where you feel like you really “belong”?
JAM: Jamaica, of course.
JAM: Jamaica, of course.