By Larry Smith
Did you know humans can levitate?
It’s true. Monty Knowles did it in my office the other day - rising from his chair in a crossed-leg, feet-on-thighs, mid-air lotus position. Awestruck, and knowing he also had an interest in the martial arts, I asked if he was a black belt yoga expert.
“I would get crucified with a reference like that about yoga,” he laughed from above my chair. “But I have been visiting and practicing yoga at the retreat on Paradise Island since my mid-teens.”
Now 48, Monty is going through a mid-life crisis - the kind we would all like to go through. And he wasn’t in my office to meditate. He was there to show me a book. A thick, slick, 223-page, gorgeously illustrated, coffee table hardcover titled “Monty Knowles’ Painted Nymphes”.
Monty is an architect by trade and a photographer by preference. His father is the noted Bahamian naturalist, Dennis Knowles, who I knew when we both lived on Retirement Road in the 1960s.
“As a boy, dad had me searching for orchids in swamps, catching land crabs, spearfishing, feeding his snakes, spiders, birds and other extraordinary pets, extracting honey from his beehives and exploring the islands.”
After graduating from the University of Miami in 1990, Monty took a job with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines as a dive instructor, before setting up Monarch Architects in 1997 on East Bay Street. It became one of the largest practices in the country. His clients included the Fountain Bay Resort on Cat Island, the Royal Island Resort off Spanish Wells (in conjunction with foreign architects), the Tiamo Resort on Andros and the Lyford Financial Centre.
“I also prepared master plans for the government for the Montagu foreshore, Junkanoo Beach and the Western Esplanade and for Royal Caribbean’s private island off the Haitian coast,” he told me. “But the peak of my architectural career was working with Sarkis Izmirlian to design the commercial village at Baha Mar, with 200,000 square feet of shops, offices and banks in the area where the police station is now.”
That project was never cancelled, he told me. “It just kind of fell by the wayside and got whittled down over time. It died a slow death. And the impact of the financial crisis put the whole development in limbo until the Chinese agreed to finance it in 2009.”
But Monty walked away from the business of architecture in 2010 to pursue travel, photography, art and personal happiness. “I was 42, an ardent photographer, a compulsive traveller and had enough financial cushion to do it,” he said. “So I decided to switch my focus to photography and art. I still do architecture, but I don’t want to have to take on projects just to fuel a practice.”
So far, he has logged more than a million miles and collected lasting memories with many new friends and acquaintances around the globe. Two full passports later, he has a deeper appreciation of the world and of the fleeting wonder of life itself.
“I met Kristin (my second baby mama) about four years ago at the Yoga Retreat here. She is Norwegian and dabbled in face painting. We thought about full body painting and found some friends who were willing to act as canvasses. Because of my photography, it was not difficult to find women who were comfortable around us without clothes. It ballooned from there. I did it once, twice, then more times. On a visit to Norway I painted a woman in a Junkanoo theme, and I had the idea of doing this to promote the Bahamas. So I came up with the concept of the Junkanoo Nymphe.”
In Greek mythology, a nymphe was a female nature spirit. The female body is one of nature’s most beautiful sculptures and Junkanoo is one of the most colourful and creative art forms, so Monty decided to put them all together.
“Using brushes and speciality body paint, the nymphs are brought to life during extended sessions that do not include the use of airbrushes or templates,” he explained. “They are all detailed, original, living works of art. And they are preserved in my collection of photographs.”
Back in Nassau, Monty teamed up with Antonio Saunders, a schoolteacher and fellow photographer, to find models and costumes for the Junkanoo Nymphe. They used headpieces and other parts of actual Junkanoo costumes on loan.
A young woman named Analicia Thompson became the Junkanoo Nymphe in 2015. At six feet, with five-foot heels and a tall headpiece painted in a Junkanoo theme, she cut a striking figure.
“The costuming was by Rochelle Knowles, Bolera Gibson and Troy Nixon,” Monty said. “And the effect was so impressive we got invitations to special events at Atlantis and Albany. The Junkanoo Nymphe was also received at Government House by Lady Pindling, and she opened the Junkanoo in June event last year with Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe.”
A few months ago Monty joined his girlfriend, Kristin, at a yoga camp in Denmark for a six-week stay. “While looking for things to do, a friend who was involved with marketing the national handball championships suggested we pitch the body painting idea. Handball is big in Scandinavia - second only to soccer - like basketball in the US. They loved the idea and arranged for me to paint the top five national players for promotional purposes. Photos were made into posters that were displayed all over the country months in advance of the championships,” he said.
“There were three-storey posters on buildings, huge billboards, flags along the roads and at art museums, as well as graphic wraps on a train travelling across Europe. The media coverage was enormous, including live television interviews, and I am now very well known in Denmark.” Some two million people watched the tourney. It was the most watched televised event in the country. Monty was able to raise $18,000 by selling photos of his body paintings of celebrity female athletes. Half went to the Bahamas Down Syndrome Centre, and half to a Danish charity.
Later this month, Monty will be at the Danish travel show in Herning. The trade show will be covered by hundreds of travel writers and attended by major European tour operators, airlines and destination reps. In fact, meetings at this show led to the launch of a new air route to Cuba from Denmark recently.
“The Junkanoo Nymphe will be a special guest at the opening ceremony with the travel writers and the US ambassador to Denmark,” Monty said. “I am hoping that our Ministry of Tourism will help to underwrite Analicia so she can promote the Bahamas first-hand.”
Monty has already approached the ministry for support, arguing that painting and photographing Junkanoo Nymphes at prominent locations in major European and Asian cities would create a media buzz that exposes Bahamian culture to key tourist markets.
According to Janet Johnson, tourism communications director, “the Junkanoo Nymphe could be an ambassador for Bahamian art and culture. I think it’s unique. It draws attention and gets us access we wouldn’t normally have. We used to pay Dr Myles Munroe a fee for talking about The Bahamas in his travels. Monty could serve in a similar role.”
Body art is a bigger deal than you might think. Major body painting shows are held in several countries annually, the largest being the World Body Painting Festival in Austria. In the United States shows are held in New York and New Mexico. “I plan to compete in one of these at some point and I still work with investors on developments where my passion for architecture is unhindered by the need to run a business,” Monty explained. “But right now I’m thinking about accompanying our Olympic team to Brazil in August to help promote the Bahamas with the Junkanoo Nymphe, and perhaps take along a Junkanoo troupe as well. It would have such a powerful impact in the land of Carnival.”
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