Sean Leonard: “Artists, this space is available”

Trinidadian architect Sean Leonard, co-founder of the Alice Yard art space, on the influence of family generosity and Carnival productivity on his practice, and Alice Yard’s decade-long experiment — as told to Stephen Stuempfle

Photo by Nadia HugginsAlice Yard, a contemporary art space in Port of Spain, Trinidad, marks its tenth anniversary in September 2016. Photo by Damian Libert

My great-grandmother Alice Gittens died shortly after I was born, so my information about her has come through the reports of others. Everyone seems to have the same complimentary things to say about her generosity. She would feed pretty much anybody who would call: “Ma Gitts, what’s happening?” Her house on Roberts Street [in Woodbrook, west Port of Spain] seemed to be like a station where people would invariably stop.

She moved there in 1953, and died in 1963. After that, the house passed on to various other members of the family. I remember going there pretty early — maybe aged four or five. In the backyard was a shed under which we’d park our cars, do the laundry, make ice-cream. My cousins and I learned to ride bicycles here. And there was a huge mango tree, mango rose. I would live on mango chow.

I knew I wanted to be an architect at an early age. My father is a quantity surveyor. The dining table would be littered with drawings all the time, and I recognised that I could read them. My father would have us colour the walls in the drawings. Since I probably had an inherent design sensibility, I was able to conjure what I was reading in two dimensions as something in three-dimensional space. I could actually see the door.

Since my father was in the field, I had the opportunity to interact with architects who were close to him. One of them was Hayden Franco, the father of one of my current business partners. I would draw and design away, even at the age of seven or eight, and Hayden would offer criticisms. I pretty much followed him around. Later, I worked for two years in an architectural practice as an intern.

While there, I was encouraged to go and study at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture in London. At that point, I didn’t know what a portfolio was. About a third of my portfolio contained images of my own Carnival costume designs. After arriving at the school, I couldn’t understand how they could possibly have accepted me. But after being there for some years, I understood why. The inclusion of that kind of work had a lot to do with my being in the middle of Carnival all the time.

I graduated in 1989, and I worked in architecture in Britain for two and a half years. I actually returned to Trinidad en route to a job offer in Zimbabwe. A childhood friend reminded me of a promise that I would design his house when he got married. So I thought I would return to Trinidad, do this project, and then go to Africa. I came, did the house, and never left.

 

When I returned from Britain in 1991, I designed and produced a children’s Carnival band for about ten years. And I began to interact more with the artists’ fraternity in Trinidad. I was intrigued by what artists had to say about what they did, in a way that I couldn’t speak about what I did.

I had a conversation with the artist Mario Lewis about the pattern of mas camps, as environments of intense production during the Carnival season, becoming very dormant for eight months of the year. How could these spaces be repurposed, refurbished in a way that meant that the energy of the mas camp could continue — not in the production of mas, but maybe in other things?

I was also trying to find a way of linking my design of buildings with my making of mas. What the children’s mas did for me was develop the ability to make things very fast. Buildings take decades. I was struggling to find a way to bridge these two ways of operating.

Then I realised: there’s the yard at the house on Roberts Street. Maybe this can happen in the yard. And lots of things happened at the same time. The Galvanize event [a six-week arts festival in late 2006] was in its formation. That was the catalyst for me to say, “Artists, this space is available — use it, and I will use it with you.”

I also had a conversation with musician Sheldon Holder, the founder of 12 the Band. I walked with him into this space and said: “I think 12 needs a band room. Would you be comfortable using a space like this?” He looked at me like that was a stupid question. “Of course!” That was the first buy-in to the idea, and I felt comfortable making other approaches.

The next conversation was with the artist Christopher Cozier. I think we must have spent a couple of evenings here, just conjuring possibilities. Some of those conversations would happen through drawings. Chris and I, for about a year, shared a sketchbook. He would do something, and then I would do something. In the sketchbook was a reference to a little exhibition “box.” So the way the gallery box evolved was as a question: could something this size be attractive, usable?

After Galvanize, [writer and editor] Nicholas Laughlin joined the conversation. I began to feel there was a kind of commitment to what was happening here. I suddenly began to relax. I had a kind of recognition that there was real support for Alice Yard.

I had to let a lot of the infrastructural direction be guided by what the artists wanted. A situation would arise, a request would be made, paths would cross, and then we’d have another kind of energy in here.

We wanted to see what was the range of creative disciplines that could be accommodated simultaneously, which is pretty much the way negotiations were forged in a traditional yard context in urban Trinidad. In this instance, it would be the work of creative individuals — whether it’s music, sculpture, dancing — having a meeting, mounting an exhibition.

I recognise that, through my profession, I’m able to bring something to the way the space evolved — its physical shaping. Very seldom am I guiding. More often than not, I’m responding — and if it’s not to the artists, it’s to things that Chris and Nicholas say: “Why not?” “Could we?”

If the thing ever becomes weighty and not fun, then it means we should be doing something else. I hope the experiences of the last ten years begin to inform others, in seeing opportunity. We have the space — what do we do with it? That is really what the Yard is about.

 

 

In 2006, architect Sean Leonard, artist and writer Christopher Cozier, and writer and editor Nicholas Laughlin founded Alice Yard, a multi-disciplinary arts space in the Woodbrook neighbourhood of Port of Spain. Each brought a unique set of experiences and perspectives to a collaboration that has now flourished for ten years. Here visual artists, musicians, writers, and others from Trinidad and abroad have engaged in a wide range of conversations and projects — an ongoing series of open-ended events. Their activities have drawn on modes of collaboration, experimentation, and conviviality that were characteristic of this family space for decades, and are fundamental to broader yard traditions in Trinidad.