The forgotten artist
By Alim A. Hosein
August 17, 2003
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That, Emerson Samuels agreed when I spoke with him in June this year, should be the title of the following article. That was the first, and it has turned out, only, interview I ever conducted with Samuels, and it resulted from a mistake I made - not once, but twice. This mistake typified Samuel’s situation not only in contemporary times, but it seems, for much of his career.
In January 2003, in a retrospective on Hubert Moshett who had just passed away, I erroneously attributed the portrait of E.R. Burrowes, which hangs over the staircase of the Burrowes School of Art, to Moshett instead of to its rightful creator, Emerson Samuels. And I had made this same mistake once before. I corrected my second mistake after a prompt from someone else, and resolved to go have a chat with Mr. Samuels. But the correction never appeared in print. This, I learnt later when I spoke to Samuels, seems to be a pattern of occurrence which is a hallmark of his life as an artist. This pattern of being overlooked became so apparent during the course of my interview with him that I suggested the title of this article. Samuels readily agreed that it was a fitting one. This article was in the process of being prepared when I read that Samuels had died at the age of 75.
Samuels looked forward to the publication of this article since he felt that it had the potential to redress, in some small degree, the neglect he felt that he suffered from as an artist. And there is justification to this feeling. For most of the Guyanese public, he was an unknown name, and he felt strongly about this state of affairs, and my role in it, as he revealed somewhat hesitantly with his head lowered: “I don’t want to hide this from you. Many of the art exhibitions I have entered when I read your reviews you mention other painters, but I hardly see - although my work is there - any mention of myself. And this has been going on for years. That affected me.”
Without rancour, he recalled some other similar oversights, involving other people. “I did the cover for the Christmas Annual and everybody else was mentioned except the artist who did the cover design. Everybody else!” Another bugbear was the confusion over his name. On more than one occasion, he recalled, he was called “Emerson Simon” instead of his real name. In fact, things got so bad that “at one time it was even said that I was dead”.
But this was the leitmotif of his life, even from the early years. One particular slight that Samuels felt was the consistent lack of attention from the authorities. He worked alongside the leading artists of his day and even won major prizes, but was never lionized in the way that Greaves, Moshett and others were. Moreover, he regretted that he never received the benefit of overseas training or exposure: “There are times when I felt that I’ve been left out of certain things. All the Carifestas that were held: I was never sent to any of them. I don’t have the answer why this is so”.
It would be easy to accept that anyone would have felt discouraged by such persistent ill luck. But this was not so in Samuels’ case. Despite being dogged by this kind of luck, he persisted in his art. To the end of his life, he continued to work at his art, his last employment being with the National Centre for Educational Resources Development (NCERD) in Kingston, where he worked as an illustrator. Not only did he do this on a day-to-day basis, but he also continued to exhibit work and even win prizes in nation- wide competitions. In fact, in recent times, he won medals at the Castellani drawing and watercolour competitions.
Samuels’ artistic ability was recognized by one of his masters at Golden Grove Methodist School who assisted him with drawing on Monday afternoons. He never attended secondary school. When he was about 15 years old, he travelled with his mother from his home in Nabacalis to seek employment in Georgetown. It seems that even from this early time, he and his parents recognized that his future lay in art. He took with him a set of pencil drawings that he had done at school, and headed for the British Guyana Lithographic Company. Samuels recalled that in those days, the Lithographic Company was the leading printing house in the Caribbean, pulling in work from the other Caribbean islands. This company would have been known to a young artistically-inclined person, and would have been a good place for such a person to start work.
This occurred in the middle of the 1940’s, during the Second World War. Also, this was a time when art in Guyana was largely in the hands of expatriate artists, and the emerging first group of locally-born, non-white, men and women who would in just a decade, create the first flowering of local art.
At the Lithographic Company, Samuels met the late Hubert Moshett, who was one of the leading artists of the time, both as a lithographer and a painter. Moshett considered the work of the young Samuels to be promising, so Samuels landed himself a job. This, however, was to be the start of a long career in Graphic art, which Samuels continued up to the end of his life. He began work at the lithographic company as an apprentice, doing artwork and litho work. He later had a stint at offset printing, making plates for lithography. Moreover, apart from Moshett, Samuels had the opportunity to work with Reginald Phang and Vivian Anthrobus, two other leading Guyanese pioneer artists. Although Samuels never attended Secondary School, he learned a lot from these experienced artists. He indicated that the contact with these artists was fundamental to his development as an artist.
Samuels was actively involved in the main current of art in early Guyana. He was a member of the Working People’s Art Class, and also the British Guiana Art Group. In these groups, he associated with the names of the day in art: E.R. Burrowes, Moshett, Marjorie Broodhagen, R.G. Sharples, Basil Hinds, Denis Williams and others who held sessions on art every Sunday morning.
In fact, Samuels first exhibited his work at a Working People’s Art Class exhibition in 1951. His painting “Workers”, which depicted men at work constructing the New Lithographic Company, caught the eye of the judges and won the “Picture of the Year” award. Samuels learnt from this illustrious group, but he also educated himself. He recalled being encouraged by others to read about art, so he joined the library and read extensively about art elements such as colour and light. He also studied the reproductions of the work of foreign artists. This was a good education for him: “I didn’t like Impressionism and Expressionism at first - when I wasn’t educated enough to understand.
But then there is nothing like wanting to probe into something and reading. So I was able to appreciate the work of Matisse, Braque, the German Expressionists and so on.”
All this time, Samuels was producing his own artwork. He was very much influenced by nature, but also placed great faith in the imagination: “I allowed my imagination to go deeply into what I actually saw - like what appeared under the retina of the eye.
You see shadows cast on the canvas and you’re willing to follow those shapes - believe me you’re able to follow those shapes. As you peer at that blank canvas you’re able to conjure up shapes. You’ll probably reflect on form - something you may have seen somewhere. I would refer to a piece which I call “A Dream Expressed”, a small piece which Martin Carter bought way back in the sixties. It was just a dream: it was like a storm at sea more or less.”
Samuels kept working in this manner and produced paintings such as the Metamorphosis series in the late 1970’s. He was constantly experimenting in subject matter. The Metamorphosis series resulted from experiments in form. “I set myself not really to just hold on to a particular type of expression. I would do realism too. Landscape painting, I did some of that too.”
But there is one element which he revelled in, despite his style or subject matter, and that was the element of texture. “I feel that a painter’s work must be experienced in a painterly manner. I must be able to see the brushstrokes very evident or the palette knife which I like”. And he continued: “I always held fast that the way how I always expressed myself, even in landscape painting, my brushstrokes and my palette knife played an important part in texture. Because I love texture. I still do, to show what texture can do to surfaces. Texture brings the work alive.”
What is less known is that Samuels also created at least one other important painting, that of L.F.S. Burnham when he was Prime Minister. This painting hangs in Parliament Buildings. Samuels also has paintings in the Colgrain and National Collections and other collections.
But, interestingly, while he exhibited at a number of group exhibitions, Samuels never mounted a one-man show. This, to some extent, would have contributed to his low profile among Guyanese artists, and would have lead to him being overshadowed by the then-upcoming young artists such as Greaves and Savory. Samuels was frequently reminded of this by his friend Philip Moore who considered that Samuels was doing himself an injustice by not mounting an exhibition of his own work. But Samuels suffered from a too-cautious approach: “I was very self-critical, and that is one of the things... I know I have the ability and I can work, but considering the work of other painters, you know...I see some things that I sometimes don’t see in my work. That may be very foolish way of thinking.” Added to this over abundance of caution was the lack of critical attention to his work.
But, Samuels had plans to finally mount a one-man show in the near future. In the same breath that he lamented his lack of courage to mount a one-man show, he decisively announced: “I am going to have one. I have works that I have accumulated and pieces I am working on. I am doing a range of scenes which are going to be done in pastel. I’ve already done some of them and I’m looking back - not too far back - in history, but it’s going to be somewhat historical.” He revealed that the pastels were based on prints of old Georgetown.
But there is another side to Samuels. The association with graphic art which began his working career continued throughout his life. In this field, he made a number of significant contributions. For many years, Samuels was one of the major illustrators of books and other educational literature in Guyana. After leaving the lithographic company, he worked with the Ministry of Agriculture from 1961-1969, illustrating educational literature for farmers. He was then seconded to the Ministry of Information where he continued to work as an illustrator.
Of particular note in this period is the rich work that Samuels did in stamp design. He is responsible for an incredible range of locally-designed stamps, starting with a design for a stamp focusing attention against racism in the early 1970’s. He also created stamp designs for Easter, to celebrate the opening of the Pegasus hotel, stamps depicting steelband players, the six peoples of Guyana, stamps to celebrate the Guyana Association of Professional Engineers (GAPE), the Emancipation issue of stamps depicting Cuffy, Accra, etc, and the Teachers’ Golden Jubilee stamp issue, among other covers.
Then in 1973 he began working with the Ministry of Education, and was given the opportunity to work on the Timehri Readers. He did the illustrations for books such as Our Flag, The Rampat Family, and We Go Fishing, among other titles. Later, he worked on the Remedial Textbook series, with The Rebel being the first that he illustrated in this series. He also worked on the Supplementary Reading Materials series produced by the Ministry. He also did the illustrations for another book, They Came From China, but that never got published. Numerous Guyanese who were schooled in the 1970’s therefore grew up with Samuel’s drawings. In this section of his career, Samuels worked with the talented American illustrator Tom Feelings who spent some time in Guyana in the 1970’s, and with two of the best young Guyanese illustrators, Victor Davson and Harold Bascom.
But bad luck dogged Samuels in these endeavours also. The first set of the Emancipation series of stamps were somehow lost at sea. The original drawings for The Rampat Family sent to the publishers were reported lost. Another set of original work, handed over to a foreign consultant working with the Ministry on one on the series of Supplementary Readers, also managed to get lost.
Up to the end of his life, Samuels continued to work as an illustrator, his last place of employment being with the Materials Production Unit of NCERD. He also worked as an instructor at the Burrowes School of Art. In all of these activities, Samuels made a substantial contribution to Guyanese graphic art. But perhaps because this art is not given as much prominence as painting and sculpture in Guyana, it is not so popular, and its practitioners unknown.
Emerson Samuels was one of the last links to a bygone time not only in Guyanese art but also in manners. Despite my grievous slighting of his reputation, and all the other setbacks he had sustained in his long career, he received me courteously, and was unfailingly polite and friendly during our conversation. He obviously was glad of the opportunity to talk about his life and work, and he anticipated clarification of his role in Guyanese art.
Samuels was a country boy who never had the startlingly different art of a Philip Moore to help him stake out his own territory in Guyanese art history. Nor did he come up with the brilliant syntheses of Guyanese elements and modern European art as the rising young stars of his day - Williams, Greaves, Savory and others - did. What he had was a loyalty to his work, a faithful dedication to his craft that kept him going as a productive artist up to the end of his time. It is regrettable that this commitment was not bolstered by sufficient self-belief, so that much of his work passed unnoticed. But the work he produced says clearly that as a painter, graphic artist and educator, he made a significant contribution to Guyanese art.