Who isn’t asking anyone to send me back
From where I was born to where I wish to have been born.
Italia, my Africa, I study your painters and your language,
Content to save my cents for the pensione vacation
After the glimpse of the Giottos
To return home, with no regrets.
- From A Painter’s Philosophy, Gloria Escoffery, c1973
The painter, art critic, poet and journalist Gloria Escoffery was born on December 22, 1923 in Gayle, St Mary. It was during her formative years at St Hilda’s High School that she met Rhoda Jackson, who at that time taught art at the school and introduced her to the subject. Rhoda Jackson was a painter and designer who worked mainly for the tourist industry, among others producing murals for the Tower Isle Hotel, but she was a pioneering and influential female Jamaican artist whose contributions deserve more attention than they have thus far received – she will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.
Gloria Escoffery was further educated at the McGill University in Canada, the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus and the Slade School of Fine Arts in London. After London, she spent a year in Barbados teaching, then returned home to continue her teaching career at Knox College. She subsequently moved on to teach English and English Literature at Brown’s Town Community College in Brown’s Town, St. Ann. In fact, she made her home in the community of Brown’s Town, continuing to live and work there until the end of her life. She was a regular writer and journalist, and contributed to Jamaica Journal as well as the Gleaner newspaper. She is considered as one of Jamaica’s most insightful, and idiosyncratic, art critics, who brought a highly personal but well-read perspective to her writings. She also wrote poetry and published an anthology, Loggerhead, in 1988.
Escoffery began exhibiting as a fine artist around the mid-1940s alongside other important artists of her generation such as Ralph Campbell, Albert Huie and Carl Abrahams, maintaining an active presence on the Jamaican art scene until shortly before her death. Her early work consisted of landscapes and genre paintings, many of which were inspired by themes of community life in Brown’s Town, for example as depicted in the Old Woman (1955). From the 1960s onwards, she also produced paintings that have been described as ‘surrealist’. This is interesting, since the early nineteenth century movement of Surrealism was primarily a literary one in which writers sought creative and artistic freedom in their works via explorations of the sub-conscious mind. In fact it was her involvement in literature and art history that fueled her conceptual development as an artist. In describing her relationship with writing and painting, she stated:
… in order to do that, I’d better borrow T.S. Elliot’s ideas about the composition of a poem…One starts with certain strong ‘floating feelings’ which are then expressed by sifting the images to which they spontaneously attach themselves…although craft and media are different, I myself…start from the same basic feeling and the images, the visual ones, are the same too.
The scene depicted in the triptych Gateway (1965) qualifies as genre, in terms of the activities of the characters depicted. However, the otherworldly glow of the yellow sky adds an element of surrealism or rather magic realism to the entire scene. Many of her later works were abstracted, such as the epic, five-panel paintings like Mirage (1987), with its rippling layered patterns and floating abstract shapes, imply a conscious attempt at constructing visual context as an almost dream-like scenario in which fragments of thoughts can be ordered and identified. The concept of the ‘dream’ is further illustrated and narrated through iconography historically attached to Judaic social and religious history, which was part of Escoffery’s heritage.
Gloria Escoffery has received many accolades for her contribution to the development of fine arts in Jamaica. She was made Officer of the Order of Distinction in 1977 for services in the field of Art by the Jamaican Government and later in 1985, she received the Silver Musgrave from the Institute of Jamaica. She was also inducted into the Caribbean Hall of Fame in 2001. Escoffery passed away at her home in Brown’s Town in 2002.
This post was compiled by Monique Barnett-Davidson, Curatorial Assistant, NGJ
Artist’s file – Gloria Escoffery, Education Department, National Gallery of Jamaica
Boxer, David and Veerle Poupeye, Modern Jamaican Art, Kingston: Ian Randle. 1998
Escoffery, Gloria, Loggerhead, Kingston: Sandberry Press, 1988
Jamaica Journal: Vol. 5, Issue 1 , 1974