“Speak, memory,” an incantation-command that became the title of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1951 memoir, might be one of the best names ever assigned to an autobiography, evoking both the conjuring tricks and the struggles necessary to summon accurate details of past actions, feelings, and events that the effort to look back at the unfolding of a life entails.
Judy Ann MacMillan, an artist who was born and brought up in Jamaica, where she has lived almost all of her life, is now in her early 70s. With her recently published autobiography, Born Ya: The Life and Loves of a Jamaican Painter (Beattie Books, 2019), she allows her memory not only to speak but also, sometimes, to roar.
MacMillan’s book offers a rich recounting of a period of dramatic change, both in the world around her and in the recesses of her sensitive, self-aware spirit. (The phrase “born ya” in its title is Jamaican patois meaning “born here”; MacMillan uses it to express her indelible connection to Jamaica’s “multi-coloured, disparate, and delightfully dysfunctional” national family.)
Several weeks ago, at her home in Kingston, Jamaica’s traffic-choked, funky capital, MacMillan told me, “Like all autobiographies, this book has been a lifetime in the making, but I wasn’t intending to write my own story. I was encouraged to do so by Nick Gillard, the founder of Beattie Books, a new imprint in London, who became my publisher, and by various friends.” She added that her memoir also grew out of her experience writing explanatory captions for the images that appeared in My Jamaica: The Paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan, a 2004 book that brought together reproductions of a career-spanning group of works and a text by the British art critic and curator Edward Lucie-Smith.
Even in the brief descriptions MacMillan provided for the portraits, landscapes, and still lifes that filled that volume, the candor, sass, and born storyteller’s sense of timing that anyone who has had the pleasure of savoring her anecdotes and zingers while sipping tea — or some stronger libation — with the artist shone through. (Describing a beach scene, she observed, “The heat from the sand, the breezes, the sound of the water were what I was trying to share in paint.”)
Born Ya begins with MacMillan’s birth into a well-to-do family in Kingston, in 1945, and her childhood during the waning years of colonial-era Jamaica. As she grows up and chooses to become an artist, she examines changes in her understanding of herself, the world, and painting — her beloved taskmaster of a métier — against the backdrop of Jamaica’s challenging emergence as a modern, independent nation. (For more than three centuries, until 1962, it was a British colony.)
From the shape and shade of a Bombay mango tree in her backyard (“that magnificent umbrella of leaves against the blue sky”) to the feel of her Art Deco house’s cool, Cuban-tiled floor beneath her bare feet, MacMillan’s recollections seize upon colorful, atmospheric details.
Her paternal grandfather had worked on the Panama Canal and abandoned his family, prompting his wife to flee with her two sons to Jamaica around 1909. One of them, Judy Ann’s father, Dudley, grew up poor but became a successful businessman whose motto, “I’m born brand new every morning,” reflected “charismatic charm [that] came from a complete lack of bitterness.” Dudley went on to establish the country’s first advertising agency and to run a nightclub and, later, a movie theater. On Sundays, he quipped, “I don’t need to go to church. I’m on a hot line to God.”
Although Judy Ann adored her mother, Vida Juanita Rose Fullerton MacMillan (“the movie star of my childhood”), she recalls, “I was terrified of her anger and that fear of displeasing her was constant.” Born in rural St. Ann, a parish in north-central Jamaica, her mother, whose family faced its own hardships, once declared, “Vida Juanita Rose Fullerton doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
Once, following a mix-up concerning a portrait of a former Jamaican prime minister that MacMillan had been commissioned to paint by a government office, which resulted in a long delay in her payment, Vida stormed into the office of the finance minister, a young Edward Seaga (who would become the country’s prime minister in the 1980s) and successfully obtained her daughter’s overdue fee. However, a subsequent exchange of letters regarding another, related matter came to a decisive end when Vida wrote, “Dear Mr. Seaga: Please don’t communicate with me anymore, because you bore me utterly.”
That kind of chutzpah, mixed with determination and common sense, is what Judy Ann — daughter, student, budding artist, romantic partner, mother, professional painter —ended up cultivating for herself over many years. These valuable assets helped her cope with the culture-shock experience of going to art school in Scotland (“I learned that it was the worst possible form to complain. […] At home [in Jamaica], complaining and conversation were one and the same.”) and then marrying an American businessman-engineer and moving to Ohio. Moving on following an amicable, inevitable divorce, she eagerly returned to Jamaica to resume her art career.
The great reward of her marriage to her American, Dave — they remained friendly until his death in Florida, many years later — was their son. He was the only person, MacMillan once noted, for whom she would have given up painting, had she ever been required to do so.
When she was a young artist, the painter Albert Huie (1920-2010), an acquaintance of her father’s whom she first met when she was a little girl, became someone she could turn to as a mentor and friend. Later regarded as one of the giants of Jamaican modern art, Huie had studied in England and Canada, and had assimilated certain Postimpressionist touches into his renderings of his homeland’s lush natural environment, which he painted with gusto.
MacMillan also depicted the landscape. However, throughout the 1970s and later, too, as a number of local artists belatedly experimented with various modernist styles and techniques or explored more contemporary trends, landscape painting was mostly shunned by Jamaica’s small but influential community of taste-makers — an ironic twist in a place whose history and popular consciousness have been shaped by nature’s forces — the mountains, sun, sea, and storms.
As a result, MacMillan began to feel like an outsider in her own country’s arts community, although today she has become one of its respected, if still not best-known elders. (Two of her recent portraits are on view in the current Summer Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Kingston.)
In the early 2000s, she decided to honor Huie on his 80th birthday by putting together a book about his work and career. Having engaged the services of Lucie-Smith to write an essay, she boldly marched into the executive offices of Air Jamaica, the national airline, to request that it sponsor his proposed research trip to the island. (In fact, Lucie-Smith had been born in Kingston; he moved to England in the 1940s.)
Still, as negotiations with a Jamaica-based publisher were entering a decisive stage, MacMillan felt the need to enlist the aid of a businessman friend of Huie’s whom she also knew. Fearing that the publisher would not answer her phone calls, and that her Huie-tribute project would die, she writes: “I knew that was the system. At the top level, it was ‘penis to penis.’ The Huie book would be no different; I knew that it would stall, because I did not have a penis.”
“Why do you need me?” her businessman friend asked. MacMillan replied, “Because you have a penis, and I don’t. You have to be my penis when the project stalls, and I need you in place from now for that moment.”
“Why can’t it succeed without a penis?” the businessman inquired, and, knowing her homeland’s society and culture all too well, MacMillan replied, “Because then a woman would have to get the credit, and that cannot be allowed.”
The Huie book was published. Her work on that project, which allowed her to get to know Lucie-Smith, led to his later contribution to MacMillian’s My Jamaica. She writes that the rotund, often silent Lucie-Smith won her over at their first meeting, when they began speaking about art in Jamaica and the writer remarked, “When you spend your life in the international art world, you can get the idea sometimes that a sense of beauty has been lost, and that is a rather depressing thought. How good it is to return to Jamaica and find that beauty is alive in the work of Albert Huie.”
For MacMillan, such comments validated the path she had long pursued. She bought and renovated a ramshackle, Victorian house in the hills of St. Ann, with a postcard-perfect sea view, and patched the place up following each brutal hurricane. There, working outdoors, she continued to savor the challenge of capturing the shimmer of light limning trees and bodies on sun-drenched afternoons, or the air of strength and unshakable human dignity of her portrait sitters — a Rasta shopkeeper, an old woman who lived on the streets, her own lovers.
Today, MacMillan writes, “I’m still painting, not because I’m in the trap of habit but simply for the love of it. I know that one day the paintbrush will drop out of my hand, but if I had never sold a painting, I would still have done it, because it helped me to appreciate the extraordinary gift of life and life’s beauty.”
In Born Ya, memory speaks, informed by some insightful lessons learned inside and outside the studio. Its voice is one whose tone of hard-won self-awareness is tempered by an irrepressible — and refreshing and inspiring — current of vulnerability and strength.
Born Ya: The Life and Loves of a Jamaican Painter (2019) by Judy Ann MacMillan is published by Beattie Books.