Spectacular Wooden Furniture from Jamaica
The work is spectacular: heavy pieces of wood giving rise to flowers and birds as easily as if they were nothing but pieces of cloth being gently folded and molded at the artist’s will. Heavy dark trunks twisting into elegant rounded tabletops with the history of the wood mapped into ever-widening concentric circles. High chairs with backs flaring into radiant golden-colored crowns. The legs of tables and chairs that seem to be growing directly into the ground. All I keep hearing as I look at the spectacular work of Gilbert Nicely is Bob Marley singing, in a very ancient voice, “Roots Natty roots, dread bingy dread, I and I a the roots.” Gilbert Nicely’s work is all about roots.
Nicely hails from St. Mary, Jamaica, where he is the patriarch of a dynamic family of woodworkers. It all began, Nicely said, because of a lifelong fascination with the visual arts. “I started painting at seven years old,” he told Meaningful Designs. “But because of the scarcity of paint where I lived and when I was growing up, I quickly moved on to another medium that was more around me at the time; I moved on to using wood.”
At what was then the Tacky Secondary School (Tacky being the name of an enslaved African who led a rebellion on the island of Jamaica), he continued pursuing his interest in art and crafts, all the time focusing more and more on wood.
Today, he has been making heartbreakingly beautiful pieces for more than forty years. He has had numerous exhibitions, is the recipient of his country’s prestigious Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica, and has had his work collected by several prominent individuals, both on and off the island.
Woodworking as a Living Art Form
In his earlier days Nicely made — and even today continues to make — decorative pieces such as fruit baskets from cedar wood, which take him roughly two days to make. His work then — and now — references the lush vegetation and animal life where he lives. But over the years, his work has grown steadily ambitious in size, scope and execution, and these days he makes such things as six- to eight-piece dining table sets, which can take him two to three weeks to put together.
“Why I do this work,” he told Meaningful Designs when we visited him, “is because I love seeing the piece I had visualized — the piece I had in my mind’s eye — finally come to life. That is the main reason why I continue making wooden furniture and decoration. In that moment before I start working on the wood, it is as if a kind of communication takes over with the wood and it all starts to come alive for me, even before I make my first mark! For me, the work that I do is a living art form, and I consider my work to be so much more than functional pieces of furniture.”
Looking at Gilbert Nicely’s work, it is easy to understand why he considers his work a “living art form” since the very organic nature of the wood is celebrated, and there is no attempt to camouflage parts of it that have been scratched or that have other “imperfections”. Rather, for Nicely, all those imperfections add to the authenticity of the piece.
And then there is the fact that the work, in its present form, seems to still be alive; indeed, seems to still be growing.
What is striking about Gilbert Nicely’s artistic process is the sense of at-oneness between himself and the material that he works in; there is a peacefulness in him that is carried over to his work. There never seems to be anything at all forced about the artist’s work. Indeed, the work looks more organic than not, as if there is an innate sense of communication and cooperation between the artist and the piece of wood that he is working on.
A Family Legacy of Woodworking
One of the things that Nicely takes great pride in is that, without plotting or prodding, two of his children have joined the family business. His son Omar and his daughter Cassie work with him. “My children saw the work that I was doing and they just gravitated towards it,” he said.
His children have benefited from the fact that Nicely has his workshop at his home. It was in his workshop that they saw him coaxing the wood as he worked with it, came to understand the character of different pieces of wood, and develop a respect for the wood — for the larger environment and ultimately, for art itself. From their father’s workshop they would watch the pieces go out in the world to have lives of their own.
“My works, they travel oftentimes more than I do,” Gilbert Nicely told us, laughing. “My works go out and they attend special functions, and sometimes they are put on display. Past ambassadors to Jamaica (such as the Nigerian ambassador to Jamaica, Mrs. Yukunga) have bought my work and taken it with them when they leave the island. So, too, did the wife of a past US ambassador to Jamaica. Other collectors of my work, as well, have taken it to many different countries. So while I am here, working exclusively in my workshop at home, the work is travelling all over the place!”
The Need for Environmental Protection and Stewardship
“I believe fully that the environment needs to be protected,” Nicely said emphatically when we put this question to him. “Because of this belief, my family and I, we plant a lot of trees, and most of the wood that we use in the workshop are from trees that have fallen down elsewhere. People know me so well by now that they know when a tree falls they can come and sell it to me. “So, yes, we are very careful in the wood that we use and from where we get that wood. We always take that into consideration.”
Gilbert Nicely can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be contacted by telephone at 1-876-374-4376 or 1-876-369-1153.
Until next time.
The cover image from this article is by Emma Lewis. Norman Gordon contributed reporting for this article. All the other images in this article are copyrighted to Norman Gordon.