All across the Caribbean region, beautiful handmade products, works of art are envisioned, designed, created, and sold. Some of these Caribbean handmade products I have discovered on social media or via my travels throughout the region. Sadly, this is not the case for most of the 30million stay-over tourists who visit the Caribbean as unlike me, they are not actively looking for these handmade products, and there is limited awareness of the many gorgeous works of art emerging from the creative industries in the Caribbean.
Recognizing this as an opportunity, the Caribbean Export Development Agency funded in part by the European Union set up Design Caribbean a trade event to promote the creative industries in the Caribbean. When first held in 2011, it was the largest contemporary design trade event in the Caribbean with approximately 100 regional exhibitors showcasing more than 1000 products. The mix of contemporary handmade products at this event initially called the Caribbean Gift and Craft Show (CGCS) included aromatherapy and spa products, furniture, home accessories, home textiles, jewelry, and other lifestyle products. These handmade products were seen by over 3,000 consumers and 30 international buyers who placed around 125 initial orders valued in excess of US $250,000.
Building on the success of this first design trade event held in the Dominican Republic has taken Design Caribbean on the road to give the opportunity for Caribbean creatives and designers to participate at regional and international trade shows. Design Caribbean collections have participated at Calabash festival in Jamaica (2014), Autumn Fair in Birmingham, United Kingdom (2015), and as part of CARIFESTA XIII in Barbados (2017). There was also a week-long pop shop in artsy Camden Market, London during the 2016 Christmas season with six contemporary Caribbean handmade design brands.
Ongoing, there are also training workshops to help Caribbean creative business owners get ready to break into regional and international markets like the United States where according to the Association For Creative Industries, the sector is worth over US$43.9billion.
Touch by VLS – Contemporary Ceramics Studio in Jamaica
One Caribbean creative industries business that has been supported by the Caribbean Export Development Agency is Touch By VLS, a contemporary ceramics studio in Jamaica that produces art and artisanal pieces. Touch By VLS was provided marketing and financial support to showcase at the Design Caribbean trade event staged at the 2017 Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA XIII) in Barbados.
The owner Victoria Leigh Silvera (VLS) set up Touch By VLS in 2013 after returning to Jamaica from studying in the United States first at Swarthmore College where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Arts and then at The New School where she received a Master’s Degree in Media Studies. While job hunting, Silvera who has been creative since childhood, started taking art classes to fill the time. Her dad’s cousin who owns the famous EITS (Europe In The Summer) Cafe saw her art class designs which included mugs and placed an order for 25. These 25 mugs were such a hit that most disappeared soon after with guests who visited the EITS Cafe in Irish Town, Jamaica.
Building on the success of that first order, Touch By VLS whose mission is to “produce innovative designs that enrich people’s lives, reflect their past, allude to their future, and capture the global spirit of an age” now creates and sells a range of handmade Jamaican products. Current products from Touch By VLS include ceramic sculptures, adaptable lighting and crockery featuring experimental decorative processes such as 3D slip layering, hand carving, silk-screened decals and multimedia additions, including driftwood and pendant lighting. The collections are “animated, innovative and plucky extending from ground to table to ceiling and creating interactive worlds ripe for exhibition and retail.”
Each of the beautiful and often colorful pieces within her popular Urchin Collection is wheel thrown or slip cast, and hand decorated. There are three different types of decorative urchins in the Touch By VLS collection including spiked, cutwork and carved. These come in about 24 different styles, 16 vibrant colors, and four different sizes. The smaller urchins are typically displayed in groupings of three, five or seven in wooden bowls. Medium and large urchins are often presented with led or tea lights.
Beyond this, Silvera also creates a series of cast sculptures under her Eggungun Collection which is mostly shown at art galleries and exhibitions. According to Silvera, ” the pieces reference the master plaster reproductions of New York-based Art Deco artist Rima. Her decorative sculptures were converted into lamps, and many of them found their way to her grandmother’s Stony Hill Hotel in Jamaica in the late 1950s. These reworked pieces are simple, matte black and postmodern in aesthetic and form. They are a nod to Jamaica’s African heritage and what some scholars term the Intuitive Period.”
Silvera’s memories of Stony Hill Hotel didn’t just inspire her Eggungun Collection, but all her handmade products. She indicates that the hotel was “swanky and filled with giant tiled mosaics, Picasso reproductions, Kapo, kitsche, ceramics by The 2 Todds and figurative lamps nestled against cut stone, antique white, gray and red walls.” Beyond the hotel, Silvera is inspired by what she indicates are “multitudinous trips to the beach, the ocean and her creatures, love of the process, details and its beauty.”
Touch By VLS handmade products ranges in price from US$5 to US1500. For sculpture including Urchins, Eggungun, and Bhoddisatva, prices range from US$5 to US$1,400. For crockery including the Japanese teacups and mugs, prices range from US$5 to US$300. For lighting fixtures including sconces, pendant lights, and table lamps, prices range from US$200 to US$600. These beautiful and colorful handmade products are sold via many Jamaica galleries, boutiques, hotels, and gift shops.
Wanting to expand to the rest of the Caribbean, North America, and Europe, Silvera is currently working on her online shop. She is also presently working on hiring and training two new artisans to increase production. Beyond expanding the business regionally and internationally, Silvera hopes to hold the first gallery exhibition of 101 teapots in Jamaica, have a large-scale sculpture exhibition with the greater Caribbean with other potters, and install Marine Art within the Caribbean in tandem with a North American and local show at the National Gallery of Jamaica.
All very ambitious goals, but all achievable with Silvera’s creative and proactive drive to problem solve and push Touch By VLS forward. She states: “We’re a small company by most standards, but we’re aiming to do big things. We imagine a misery-free world and that starts with our working environment; we stretch on the job, play music in the studio, have a free meal program and pay our staff overtime. Plus we support part-time work and education. It’s not Shangri-La, but at least we’re heading in the right direction.”
Indeed Touch By VLS is heading in the right direction under Silvera’s leadership with her expanding staff and with continued assistance from organizations like the Caribbean Export Development Agency and the Richard Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship where Silvera in 2013 won a pitch competition and was awarded a US$10,000 low-interest loan. In 2014 she also won first place in Industry Materials, the Authentic Jamaica Competition sponsored by the Jamaica Intellectual Properties Office earning JMD$250,000 (approximately US$2,000) which also helped to propel the business forward.
Note: This blog post/article is part of a series featuring Caribbean entrepreneurs and businesses sponsored by the Caribbean Export Development Agency. Working together with the European Union, the Caribbean Export Development Agency supports the sustainable development of Caribbean brands ultimately to increase employment in the region, inclusiveness, particularly for youth, women and indigenous groups, and secure overall poverty reduction.