Bernard Hoyes: An Interview. Part 1

Annie Paul

Born in 1951 in Kingston, Jamaica, Bernard Hoyes was attracted to art at an early age. Surviving a hard childhood and penurious circumstances in Jamaica, Hoyes migrated to the United States in his teens, gradually finding his feet and developing a thriving art practice in Los Angeles.

Heavily influenced by his early exposure to Revival, Kumina and other Afro-Jamaican religious traditions Hoyes’ work stylizes the harmonies, rhythms and rapture of vernacular Jamaican spirituality. His work has been used on the covers of early books by Kei Miller and his paintings have been collected by noted African-Americans such as Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. Known today as a master printer and sculptor we hope Hoyes’s work will one day be part of the national collection.

Kei miller Anger that Moves

Bernard, as a boy you and your friends would run to the dock to dive for coins. You essentially grew up on the streets of downtown Kingston fending for yourself at a very young age. Can you tell us more about your childhood? How did you become attracted to art?

My Grand Aunt who raised me had died and with no one to continue taking care of me, my Mother had to come claim me. Living in Rae Town with my mom started my real exposure to downtown Kingston. The streets were a playground. My mom took in wash and was a maid at the Myrtle Bank Hotel. 

For the first time at 9 years old I was enrolled at Holy Family Primary School at Law Street and Fleet Street. This was a totally new world from life with Auntie and her daily routine of preparation for weekend services at her yard in St Thomas. Holy Family with its daily ritual of morning Catechism and learning to read and write was another world.

Behind Holy Family was the gully, with a Rasta community that thrived free. Most of the Rastas were fishermen and craftsmen. They repaired their boats and built drums for their ceremonies of worship. There were a few of them who painted and carved. I spent a lot of time down in the Gully watching them work, and ended up learning in the process, roughing out the heads or figures to be sanded and polished. Later, when I was kicked out of Holy Trinity Senior School because I didn’t pass the Entrance examination for higher education I went to apprentice at the cabinet shop where the Rastas would take their carvings to be finished. They were accomplished enough that their art found its way to the Craft market at Victoria Pier. Soon I was doing the same. Occasionally one of my pieces would be selected and sold. 

My mother, Olga, worked every day. During the week she worked as a maid from 6am to 6pm, at the Jamaica Tourist Board, then located on Harbour Street. Myrtle Bank Hotel was a couple of blocks east of the Tourist Board. She was paid extra to have the keys and to be available on the weekends if an official needed to get in. They knew where Olga lived and would come by to get the keys. Saturdays she washed sheets and towels for Myrtle Bank. Sundays all day, my sister and I would help iron and fold those sheets and towels. If we finished up early we would go to watch movies at the Gaiety or Palace movie houses.

Early Sunday mornings my crew was at the seaside. The fishing village behind the icehouse was a stop to get fish, if Moms wanted fish for dinner that evening that was one option. Then there was Hot and Cold on Gold Street. Here the community came out for ‘Spa treatment’ and relaxation.  The Jamaica Public Service electrical turbines’ runoff into the sea came out like a roaring force of water, over 100 degrees in temperature, on to the beach. Almost everybody from the community would find their way down to the sea for the health benefits, acting as if this was a hot water spring. Rarely did people in this part of town enjoy hot water otherwise.

Another option for youngsters was King Street leading to the pier where cruise ships and naval vessels would sometimes dock in the harbour. The cruise ships brought tourists who enjoyed the spectacle of youths climbing all over the anchor chains and doing spectacular dives. They would encourage us by throwing coins into the water and we would dive for them and show off. When we recovered a coin, it would encourage them to throw more.

The Institute of Jamaica

Going through the grounds of the Institute of Jamaica always interested me, it was quiet and when open had lots of exhibits to look at. I remember running into master painter Barry Watson working on his Morant Bay Rebellion mural. Before that my experience of seeing paintings was a small board or canvas by Ras Sarge from the Gully. Sarge was always at work on some small piece, leaning his canvas against a tree down the Gully. This was my introduction to art. Seeing Barry working was an inspiration. From then on I was sneaking not just pillowcases, but also sheets from the Myrtle Bank Hotel’s wash to draw and paint on.

After disrupting Watson more than once he told us about the Junior Art Center across the street and soon we were exploring its garden and grounds. They would run us off for not wearing shoes or shirts. We got no further than the doorway. Above the door was a framed painting of a rider on a horse. I don’t know how many times I went by to look at that piece on the way to King Street waterfront. 

One day accompanied by some of my crew I began critiquing the painting. As I explained how the artist could improve on the piece, (because they hadn’t done the legs right in my opinion) everybody scattered. This was a normal thing when we were being chased away. I turned to run for the door but a white lady held my arm and said, “If you think you can do better, come upstairs.” For the first time I made it to the top of the staircase. There was a class going on with kids my age and older. She told me that they met here every Saturday afternoon and that I should start coming. 

This was my first encounter with uptown kids and I had no idea how I should behave. I ran off feeling like I had escaped without a whipping. I tried going back but none of my crew would go with me. So I would go once in a while. When the lady was there, I stayed. After several sessions I became weary of the schedule, missing my afternoons by the seaside. Later, I found out that the woman who invited me to join the class was the artist who had painted the horse and rider herself. Her name was Edna Manley.

Could you also talk about how you came to be with your grand aunt and what life was like in St Thomas with her?

Hoyes people

My mother, Olga, was the youngest of 12 children. It’s a long story; she pissed off the family by “corrupting” her brilliant first cousin, got pregnant by him at 13, giving birth to a child whom they took from her. The family exiled Olga to Kingston and sent her cousin away to England. 

At my mother’s wake in 1992 I met her oldest brother for the first time. He told me the story and introduced me to my 60-year old sister. He said my Mom had caused shame and scandal in the family by forcing the heir to the family farm to have to flee Jamaica before he was charged with statutory rape. He never returned.

Olga struggled in Kingston trying to make it on her own. Her cousins helped her survive till she met my father and became pregnant with me. My father was a deliveryman for Coca Cola. Then he got an opportunity with the Farmworkers’ Program. He secured a six-month contract to go up to Louisiana to cut sugar cane. My six months-pregnant mother held out waiting for him to return.

My paternal grandmother’s family was her only support. They lived in St Thomas, the country. My father never returned, breaking the contract and fleeing Louisiana, becoming a fugitive for a couple of years. Eventually he ended up in New York and sent word to my mother to take me to his mother if she couldn’t take care of me.

I was two years old, when my mother dropped me off at Granny’s. It was a whole year before I would see her again. Gradually the visits became less and less frequent. I became the ward of my Grand Aunt’s religious yard and menagerie, living on her veranda in a wooden box. As I got older I had permanent chores. So did my older cousins. Taking the goats and donkey out to pasture, feeding the fowls and pigeons and sweeping the meeting ground for weekend services. Later, we helped with setting the Ceremonial Table for whatever ritual was to be conducted that weekend. 

In between the duties, I had a lot of free time by myself. I was not enrolled in school. Granny didn’t trust the formal government schools and couldn’t afford private school. She introduced me to the alphabet and numbers mostly through the Bible. I busied myself with drawing and carving soap. Soap was one of the products of the yard, so there were a lot of large bars around. She counseled the community, gave readings and performed Blessings. She had very strong beliefs. One that had an effect on me in my formative years was not to pay allegiance to Vanity. Whenever I had the opportunity to go inside the house, the few mirrors she had were always veiled. Consequently I was not familiar with how I looked until I went back to live with my mother at nine years old. This was after Granny died and my mother had to come and claim me for the last time.

So you were pretty much running wild in downtown Kingston in your early to mid-teens, and you said had your Dad not sent for you don’t know what would have become of you.

Bernard Hoyes urchin

After graduating to Holy Trinity Senior School the reality of attaining higher education became a challenge for me. At Holy Family Primary I was within walking distance—just a block away. Being inside a classroom was confining and I was constantly getting caned for gazing out the windows. The best part was morning assembly where I got to learn new hymns and marched to class. But as soon as I got used to the routine everything changed. I now had to go to senior school.

Holy Trinity was several bus stops away. My mother was out of the house before 6am leaving me to get up by myself, get dressed and warm up the breakfast she had left on the coal stove. Most of the time I overslept and had to rush out. The warmest thing was coffee so I would have coffee. My love for coffee continues to this day. No bus fare meant that I walked to school. 

There was a shortcut through the gully so I would take that route, but it had many  distractions that made me arrive at school late. There was always “board horseracing” going on in the gully. Most of my crew travelled with a board horse or miniature surfboard that we would carve ourselves. We would line them up behind a line in the gutter, release and race them. The system was based on Caymanas horse racing with handicapping and claiming stake. Men and boys played together. The water flow was best in the mornings and late evenings and that’s when the racing happened. Having a winning board horse could keep you in pocket change. The board horses were named after the great thoroughbreds of the day. 

Then there was mango season and stoning the trees. Some of the best bearing trees grew alongside the gully. I was used to bird hunting from when I lived at Granny’s yard in St Thomas. So I was always making slingshots and hunting birds. As I got older I became good at making them so the older boys would take them from me. At school they would take them away from me too, so I would just build another one. 

With all this, most mornings I was late for school. I would be ceremoniously rounded up with the other latecomers and get caned in front of the assembled student body.

Some mornings if I was going to be late, I would turn back and find the first entrance to the gully that was at East Queen Street. Because of this, I missed lots of school days. Fridays, however, were special because I got to attend art class so I made a special effort to get there on time. One of the highlights that I looked forward to was lunch. A three corner patty with a coco bread was worth the morning drama. I had a great relationship with my art teacher even though I would see her only once a week. Painting in oils like Van Gogh was her passion. I thought the thick impasto style was a waste of paint. I wanted to conserve paints. I never knew when I was going to get more paint. I am still stingy with my paints. Somehow, over the years it dictated the surface texture of my paintings.

My mental break with school came one day while reciting a poem in class as homework. I had a good memory for recitation because I did enough of it at my Granny’s yard. The teacher for the first time noticed me and complimented me. I was stunned that I was being asked to stand up. Till then I was always a phantom in school doing just enough to pass on to the next level, but not speaking much or mingling. My crew from South (Raetown) did not make it to Holy Trinity, they didn’t last long before dropping out. My nickname was “Spooky”. I would always leave unannounced or arrive unannounced.  A classmate played a trick on me that involved getting me to sit down on a pen-knife that cut my bottom. Thinking I was playing the fool the teacher caned me and I was expelled for the rest of the week for fighting involving a knife. My mother received a notice from school and I got another whipping. I lost the motivation to attend school and failed my entrance examination to go on to college. I was relieved that I did at least pass the art section. 

Gang life

I began hanging out at the corner of Tower Street and Foster Lane. By that time I was introduced to my older cousins and became a formal gang member as they got me my first ratchet knife. We would walk the streets on weekends looking to see where a dance was happening. Fights broke out often and we would have to run home or run from the police. I got an offer to apprentice at a cabinet shop. I was weary of the gang drama, afraid that I was going to cut or kill someone if they didn’t get me first.

By this time my mother was worn out with worry. One day the police brought a young guy by the yard. He was shot up and they wanted my mother to identify him. Yes, that’s my son Allen, she said. Benny that’s your no good brother and you are going to end up just like this. Long story short, Allen lived to come and visit with me. I had known him as a senior gang member on the corner but didn’t know he was my brother. He got me a bicycle and taught me to ride. He also made sure I took that apprentice offer at the cabinet shop.

The cabinet shop was now my world. I would get up and ride from Rae Town to Law Street and Rosemary Lane. The shop was behind a whorehouse and bar on Rosemary Lane. That cross street entertained a bar on each corner. Got to know all of them well. At the end of the week to get paid, we, the apprentices including his son our age, had to go find ”Mr. Brown” the boss man. He would be at any of these four places. When we did find him, we would have to have a “Whites” with him and give him a rundown of what all we did that week. I ended up having an appreciation for white rum, straight. 

Around this time I got introduced to different carvers coming in to use the shop.

My mother would take my paintings to Victoria Craft market and leave them on consignment. I even got some of my carvings into Hills Gallery on Harbour Street,  sometimes even selling to the tourists that came into Tourist Board where my mother worked. Our entertainment was going to the movies, especially Wednesday night triple bill at Gaiety Theatre on East Queen Street. The pressures of street life kind of passed me up. My cousins were always getting into trouble and my brother would send me home whenever he found me hanging out on the corner. One morning on the way to the shop on my bike, the gang from West Kingston raided Tel Aviv, the corner where we would  hang out at Foster Lane and Tower Street. They rode right by me, shot and wounded a few friends, including one of my cousins. 

I realized that things had changed and for the first time wondered about a future.

Around that time my mother got word from my father to begin getting my papers in order. Birth certificate, pictures and passport. I had no idea what was in store. My mother told me that it would be a visit to “Foreign”. 

I won an all-island art competition around this time. The sponsor was the St George Church. My prize for winning was a King James Bible. This was a total disappointment and I was depressed. For months I didn’t hear anymore about travelling. Just when I had given up on the idea and bought some new tires for my ladies wheel bicycle, and new shoes that I wanted, I was told to pack and be at Norman Manley Airport in a week. Giving my bicycle away to my play brother was difficult. 

 At the same time the crew at the cabinet shop gave me a send off, I had to have a drink with everybody. I rode home for the last time on the bicycle, drunk and worried that my mother was going to find out. The next day I was on a plane to New York.

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