Two Reviews of The Solitary Alchemist
Reviewed by Jonathan Ali for The Caribbean Review of Books
Does suffering produce the best art? It’s not an original question, but it is one that prompts itself several times during the course of documentary filmmaker Mariel Brown’s most recent film, a portrait of the Trinidadian jeweller Barbara Jardine.
For over three decades, not unlike the manner in which she works with her raw materials, Jardine has slowly and quietly carved out a niche for herself as a creator of unique pieces of jewellery. Many of these pieces are commissioned works that are meant to be nothing more than decorative. Her most interesting pieces, however, are those that tell a story, their inspiration drawn from the details of Jardine’s personal life — one that, while it has seen its joys, has also known its fair share of trouble and tragedy.
If you’ve never heard of Jardine — “Barbie” to friends and family — you may be forgiven. There’s a reason why the term is “arts and crafts,” and not the other way around. That Jardine is an artist, however (and a world-class one, according to her biographer Judy Raymond), is the primary article of faith upon which The Solitary Alchemist is based. At the outset, mas man Peter Minshall — himself an artist many would argue has not received due recognition — gives Jardine a solid endorsement, calling her creations “miniature works of art.”
The film’s backbone is the creation of a new piece, Heigh-Ho My Heart!, for an exhibition of work by contemporary artists in Dundee, Scotland, to which Jardine has been invited. This is more of a structuring device than a way to give the film any real narrative impetus. Unlike Brown’s previous documentary, The Insatiable Season, which energetically followed the progress of a Carnival band to its final, frenzied explosion on the streets, The Solitary Alchemist (first screened in 2009, then re-edited for DVD release in late 2010) is not so much concerned with what’s ultimately going to happen as it is with slowly and gently painting a picture of Jardine’s life and work.
Much of this is done through observing Jardine at work in her studio in her lovely Port of Spain apartment. That in itself is not remarkable — indeed, it’s what one expects — but it is the way Brown chooses to present these scenes that is compelling. Rather than show Jardine working via hackneyed montage sequences cut to music, she goes instead for lengthy static shots without scoring, the sounds of Jardine’s various tools the only aural accompaniment.
Such a style — called “contemplative” in the art-house cinema world, and not always positively — has its dangers. There is a risk of lapsing into ponderousness, even pretentiousness. What makes this style appropriate here is Brown’s aim, which is to show just what a laborious, painstaking, and, yes, solitary task artistic endeavour usually is. The crystal-like clarity of cinematographer Eniola Adelekan’s images, particularly the extreme close-ups, also helps make these scenes quietly enthralling.
In between these sequences, Jardine and her sisters give us her back-story, beginning with what she calls an “enchanted” childhood in south Trinidad, where her father worked in the oilfields, and where Jardine decided, at the age of six, that she was going to be an artist. The idyll of this period is evoked with the aid of black and white photographs, and it is clear that while oil may not have been, as Jardine claims, the “glamorous” industry it is now, the life it afforded her family was not an uncomfortable one.
Jump ahead to the early 1970s. Jardine is a luxuriantly tressed bohemian beauty doing a master’s degree at art school in London when two significant events take place: her father dies, and she falls in love with a young Trinidadian man named John Otway. Jardine wraps up her degree a year early, and, turning her back on what seems set to be a glittering metropolitan career — we’re shown a glowing notice in the Times of London and a photo of her work in Vogue — she returns to Trinidad, a decision she retroactively judges to be “crazy, daft.”
Jardine would spend the next decade and a half in a relationship with Otway that was to cause her deep unhappiness. The details of the relationship, and the reasons why she remained so long with Otway — of whom we are only told that he is an “artist,” and who from photographic evidence looks uncannily like Peter Frampton — are not matters Brown feels compelled to explore. Nor does she attempt to portray the couple in a Sylvia-Plath-and-Ted-Hughes sort of way.
This is to the film’s benefit: instead of becoming preoccupied with questions of the links between creativity and mental illness, it keeps its focus on the galvanising effect that the end of the relationship had on Jardine’s work, the alchemical transformation of experience into art. As an example, we are shown a piece called Metamorphosis (1988). The illness that was to lead to Jardine’s mother’s death, an event that clearly still affects her profoundly, is another instance of suffering pressed into the service of creation. The result is In Memoriam (1994), an angry, even cynical, memento mori.
The brilliance of these pieces enforces the claims of Jardine’s talent, and her own belief that she has not had the kind of recognition she ought to have achieved by this stage of her career. Hence the invitation by Jardine’s former art school colleague, Georgina Follett, to participate in the show in Dundee — though one is taken aback by Follett’s officious claim that the United Kingdom, when it comes to the arts, is “the country that innovates.”
As it makes its way to its end, the film accompanies Jardine to Scotland (a clichéd burst of bagpipe music announces we’re there). We see the finished Heigh Ho My Heart! discreetly displayed in a corner of the gallery, away from the work of the other artists — rather fitting, given Jardine’s outsider status. Not surprisingly, the exhibition proves no deus ex machina; there is no belated acclaim, no sudden discovery of a great artist who has been toiling away in obscurity at the periphery.
Also not surprising is the artist’s philosophical reaction to all of this. One of The Solitary Alchemist’s achievements is the way it gives us a palpable sense of Barbara Jardine’s character without needing to have her explicitly reveal all the details of her life. With her chic, ultra-short white hair and the multiple earrings running from the lobe up to the helix of her left ear, she is a striking subject by any standard. Yet the way the camera reads her face, and the way Brown is able to get her to open up, suggest a sensitive, guileless personality without exploiting it.
(There are two moments — the first as she is about to begin work on Heigh Ho My Heart!, and the second just as she has finished it — when Jardine gives in to tears and the camera remains fixed on her, drawing out the shot. But these instances don’t feel voyeuristic. In fact, cutting away or fading out prematurely would have considerably lessened the emotional impact of the scenes.)
How, then, does The Solitary Alchemist leave us? As it began, with Jardine in the studio, back at work, alone. It is a fitting conclusion to a moving portrait of an artist who, whether or not she achieves the recognition she ought, will continue to do the work that her life — with its joys, yes, but also with its sufferings — compels her to do.
By ANDRE BAGOO Monday, December 21 2009, Newsday
ONE OF the most touching moments in The Solitary Alchemist is its dedication. The film, directed by Mariel Brown, premiered at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival in September, mere days after the death of Brown’s father the influential journalist and poet Wayne Brown. A title card at the end of the film reads: “In loving memory of Wayne Brown…”
It is a fitting end to a film that is about an artist coming to terms with self-doubt over the trajectory of her career and with her own peculiar emotions.
The Solitary Alchemist is an intimate study of the life and art of Trinidadian jeweller Barbara Jardine (also known as “Barbie”). The work traces Jardine’s history, from her education at London’s Royal College of Art to her return to Trinidad in 1974. The focus is on Jardine’s struggle to come to terms with her own life decisions and her growing sense that she has not received the recognition she deserves as an artist. The film, three years in the making, went on to scoop the award for best Trinidad and Tobago film at the TTFF. At a screening earlier this year at MovieTowne, Brown explained her inspiration for making the documentary.
“I have childhood memories of my mother dressing up, getting ready to go out. And then, when I was 16 I saw an exhibition of jewellery at Precious Little and Barbie’s piece, In Memoriam, was there and I was absolutely gobsmacked as I had never seen figurative work like that,” Brown said, according to a post at the TTFF blog. Brown later edited a book about Jardine which was written by journalist Judy Raymond and entitled Barbara Jardine: Goldsmith.
The film works best as a character study of an artist and her process.
“Being an artist or deciding I wanted to be an artist was simple,” Jardine says at its opening. “I was six years old when I remember telling myself, ‘I am going to be an artist.’ What that meant was a kind of rather romanticised view of painting in a smock and creating wonderful images…I always knew what I wanted to be.”
“I was always very drawn to the traditional, labour-intensive, mediaeval techniques. There was an alchemical magic about it which always attracted me,” Jardine also notes.
“An artist is somebody who deals with emotion and I certainly in my work deal with emotion. When I’m working on a particularly intense piece there is a coming together of focus, co-ordination, thought processes and an intensity of creative concentration that makes one feel acutely alive.”
This is a fascinating look at the craft and processes of a fine jeweller. But it is also an examination of the artist’s own turmoil and self-doubt; universal themes audiences will connect with.
The film, though, is perhaps too long and would have gained from some tighter editing; some of the commentary is repetitive and/or unnecessary. While there are fine examples of cinematography, a few of the shots of the artist’s intricate pieces did not gain from being dimly lit. The title of the film is also something one takes a while to get used to.
That said, this is a fine production, with a competent score, that hints at the complexity of a woman engaging in a constant process of self-discovery. The dedication to Wayne Brown reminds us that artists, like the rest of us, grapple with inner struggles in the face of a finite end.