By DIANE PHILLIPS
ON January 29, another historic building on Bay Street burned. Long before it was known as the Cotton Ginny building - named for the popular clothing store it housed - the striking stone structure had been the art studio of the late Elyse Wasile whose hand-painted small ceramics found their way into homes, embassies and great estates around the world. Whether in her famed watercolours or acrylics, Wasile’s depiction of native sloop sails or delicate pink flamingoes captured the colour and culture of The Bahamas and though some part of the functional canvas included a leap of imagination along with reality, overall imagery conveyed a sense of a happy place.
The New York-born and California-educated Wasile spent most of her working life in The Bahamas and became an ambassador for the country through her affordable art, creating a body of recognizable work which the average household could afford to own; a serving platter for less than $75, a small soap dish for under $20. Wasile’s pieces, often purchased for gifts, are still widely available online on sites like eBay and Etsy in addition to art sites.
Wasile died in 2013 and the building had been long abandoned. So it is not that the fire destroyed her upstairs studio where visitors were always welcome to watch her work. What the fire destroyed was another opportunity to memorialize a contributor to Bahamian culture, preserve a stately structure, celebrate a piece of history and monetize an architectural treasure.
Our lack of reverence for our history is a death warrant guaranteeing its slow demise. The 20-something who knows every word to rapper Eminem’s latest hot chant has no idea who Norman Solomon was or that Etienne Dupuch, the founder of this newspaper, had the courage to pen the argument for majority rule when the then-ruling party, with few exceptions like Mr. Solomon, thought it would be the death knell of The Bahamas.
It is not the fault of the young person who does not appreciate the kind of courage that stance would have taken. It’s all our faults for failing to preserve, protect and embrace the full picture of life before and after Independence, including the built environment.
Although Mr. Solomon instigated the investigation against the Colombian cartel that used The Bahamas as its own private highway for the trans-shipment of cocaine under the nose of the arguably complicit government of the day, even flying its foreign flag on Norman’s Cay in the Exumas where Mr. Solomon dared to tread and face down machine guns, it was he who held Sir Lynden Pindling’s hand as he lay dying in his bed, both men crying for the country they loved. They knew what it meant to love their Bahamas in its infancy, a feeling so intense words cannot do it justice.
This lack of interest in and respect for our history was brought into sharp relief this week during a stop in Savannah, Ga., during a trip necessitated by an unexpected family matter that took me off the island for the first time in well over a year.
In Savannah, history was celebrated everywhere, in beautiful fountains and aging statues in parks and green spaces, in plaques on elegant historic buildings that had been lovingly restored and were now serving as home to professionals and families. You could hear the living sound of history in church bells ringing throughout the day from steeples built more than 100 years before.
How many more irreplaceable buildings will we lose before we understand that history pays? How many more structures that could have been converted into luxury condominiums or restaurants on the waterfront will go before we declare we have to save that which is uniquely ours and demolition by neglect will come with a penalty?
How long can it take us to do what we have known for years is the right thing to do and preserve historic Nassau?
It’s a simple question that needs an answer before we lose another building like the late Elyse Wasile’s Nassau Art Studio. Antonius Roberts did it.
The versatile artist proved preservation can be profitable.
He could have let Hillside House fall into further disrepair when it became his. Instead, he restored it, created a cultural happening experience and quietly showed us what to do. Making preservation and restoration a greater priority will make every Bahamian walk a little taller and if Savannah can do it, and Charleston, and so many others, why can not the original Charles Towne, Nassau, do it? Historic Charles Towne on West Hill Street and beyond has given it a start. It’s time to take the next steps before we lose the riches that are before our eyes if only we could see.
And while we are at it, how about a hero’s walk?
Let’s be honest. Who has ever looked at the bust of Sir Lynden Pindling at the airport named after him and thought it was large enough?
And why was the bust of Norman Solomon, created by the great bronze artist Pete Johnston, never erected where it was supposed to go at One Bay Street?
And why do we only celebrate the founding fathers or important women around Independence or Majority Rule Day?
We need a National Heroes and History Walk.
Such a walk could be spread throughout the islands, starting with the Lucayan Indians in the southern Bahama islands, moving north to tell the full story, staggering some statuary underwater in the Lucayan Sea. Everyone who comes through the busiest airport in the country, LPIA, sees the Sports Hall of Fame, an excellent tribute, but who sees images of our architects of tremendous talent who helped shape our settlements and our cities, the likenesses of Jackson Burnside or Henry Melich, both deceased, or historic preservationist architect Anthony Jervis whose work includes the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, or artists like the late Brent Malone, or musicians like Ronnie Butler, Fred Ferguson, Isiah Taylor, Rik Carey, Dyson Knight, Wendy Williams, Abigail Charlow, Freddie Munnings Sr. and Jr., Marvin Henfield, or a legend in the transportation field like Romeo Farrington.
There is no shortage of stories worth telling, only the imagination needed to bring them to life.