Heart forms: Cheryl Daley-Champagnie

Cheryl Daley-Champagnie is both a businesswoman and an artist. A graduate of Jamaica's School of Visual Arts 21 years ago, she has been a painter, teacher and creator of the "sisterlocks" hairstyle. Her many interests have led her to set up her own centre for spiritual nourishment and work. Petrine Archer-Straw talks to her

The business of printmaking. Photograph by Petrine Archer-StrawCheryl at work. Photograph by Franz MarzoucaCheryl Daley-Champagnie. Photograph by Franz MarzoucaFrom The Dwellers series, 1996; mixed media on handmade paper; private collection. Photograph by Petrine Archer-StrawFrom The Dwellers series, 1996; mixed media on handmade paper; private collection. Photograph by Petrine Archer-StrawFrom The Dwellers series, 1996; mixed media on handmade paper; private collection. Photograph by Petrine Archer-StrawFrom The Dwellers series, 1996; print on handmade paper; private collection (detailed section of print). Photograph by Petrine Archer-StrawFrom The Dwellers series, 1996; print on handmade paper; private collection. Photograph by Petrine Archer-StrawPhotograph by Franz Marzouca

Cheryl Daley-Champagnie is both a business woman and an artist. With a facility that many artists would envy, she transforms what she creates into sales. Whether working with textiles, handmade paper, semi-precious metals or even hair, she produces sought-after work without compromising her artistic goals.

Since her graduation from Jamaica’s School of Visual Arts 21 years ago, she has run a small appliqué and clothing business, supplied decorative designs and prints to Jamaica’s hotel industry, played the stock market, sold health products, and established her own hair company. She has set up a “Dwelling”‚ a home business where women style their hair, buy clothes and art, and laugh and cry over issues that affect them. Cheryl supervises their “transformations” in her front-room studio, at the same time making art that reflects the textured nature of daily life.

She appears to manage all this with enviable success. But few realise the emotional battles she has fought for personal wisdom and artistic integrity.

Cheryl’s commercial and artistic preoccupations may seem disparate and self-indulgent. But a closer look at her life and thought reveals a single-minded vision. There is a complex process at work here, driving her to explore whatever she is doing logically and completely. Although she seldom exhibits, as she outgrows one business obsession and moves to another, she evolves new ideas for her work.

She recognises her need for extremes, and defends her passions. “Balance [comes] after the fact . . . balance never changes anything or questions existing forms.” Her struggle for equilibrium and the lessons she has learned make an instructive story.

 

Many who were at art school with Cheryl remember her obsession with texture. The surfaces of her paintings were heavily encrusted in yellow, orange and sepia flesh tones that seemed to represent inner body parts, in spite of her preference for abstraction. The images were obscured by filmy washes of paint and varnish, carefully overpainted and layered so that the surfaces communicated a sense of inner mystery. Their ethereal anthropomorphic forms and skilful surfaces provoked a powerful emotional and sensuous response; people wanted to question, investigate and even touch them.

The content of these paintings was as much a mystery to Cheryl as it was to their viewers. She felt the need to create seductive surfaces, she says, with little idea why; she was even intimidated by the thought of exploring what they meant. She knew only that they satisfied what she called the touch-taste sensation, and she regularly talked about how she could taste the paintings as she created them. They satisfied an inner need to explore her tactile sense, but she preferred to mask their emotional impact by claiming that her interest in textured surfaces was purely technical.

It was the technical side of her creativity that led her to teaching and commercial design. Cheryl started her own classes in papermaking and later printmaking at the School of Visual Arts a few years after graduating. Her earliest attempts were based on rudimentary instruction plus intuition. Her introduction to printing and handmade paper sprang from her experiments with texture in painting, rather than from mastery of printing’s technical procedures. Only after a postgraduate course at Buffalo State University under the master printer Paul Martin did she come to respect the rigours of the discipline, admire its logic, and fall in love with its complex chemistry.

As an experimental painter she had always believed in what artists call “the happy accident”. After Buffalo, she learnt there was nothing wrong with an element of predictability or with forecasting results in her work. She developed a zen-like approach, believing that magical results and truth would come through mastery of detailed methods. She set out on a quest to do things with eyes shut and hands behind her back, until she felt free enough to let go.

Almost scientifically, she became fascinated with how people responded to her textured prints and paintings, and used this knowledge to market her art commercially — and controversially. She applied her textures to clothes, stationery, wall decorations, jewellery. She found that people, especially women, were drawn to whatever she produced. Whether it was fine or commercial art, her textured surfaces attracted interest.

Cheryl did not compromise the quality of her products for the sake of a larger market. She created limited editions, signature designs and one-off items that maintained individuality and integrity. The major difference between these manufactured pieces and the art she made for herself was that she rarely touched them; she supervised their making. For years she employed a hearing-impaired papermaking apprentice. Using sign language to communicate with him was a way of distancing herself from the perilous nature of commercial work.

 

The distinction between fine art and commercial art allowed Cheryl to avoid the real issue of content. If other people manufactured her images, she felt she would not have to fully own them, grapple with them emotionally, or deal with what her need for texture really meant.

“The commercial things came about because I knew there was scope for good quality printmaking in Jamaica,” she explains. “I needed a lot of money at that time, and it was a way to earn income quickly. So I taught various people my skills . . . I hardly touched the work . . . I talked myself into thinking that I could teach something, have it produced, see it but not touch it, and not be affected by it. At the time, I felt it would not affect me; but it eventually did. It was slow and insidious, and became a silent language in my own work. And so, [seven] years ago, I decided I would never do work on that scale again.”

Cheryl’s first solo exhibition was a watershed in her life. It gave her a better understanding of her strange imagery, and why she decided to commit herself to fine art instead of commercial work.

The pieces were vast walls of handmade paper, heavily embossed or printed with discernible images of battered houses and ghostlike, faceless people. All the work was devoted to the same theme: The Dwellers, an exploration of childhood memories of family and home life. She acknowledges now that the mysterious figures in her work represented the people sheltered in her family home when she was younger. Her immediate family was very small, but her home was a refuge for other relatives taken in and cared for by her mother. Their presence was ambiguous to Cheryl, an extended family of strangers.

Her interest in texture, she now sees, stems from these early experiences, where the intimacy of embrace within the family was distorted. “Only at 40 am I beginning to understand what is meant by the term personal space. I understood it in theory, but I never knew what it really meant . . . how could I, given my family background? . . . It could not mean anything to me. As a child you feed off touch and taste. My need for tactility was a result of a need to be touched, and represented my sense of estrangement from my own home.”

 

Cheryl’s home now, shared with her graphic artist husband and her two children, is a haven of privacy, tucked away in the hills of St Andrew in Jamaica. Her lifestyle is something she protects and is careful not to jeopardise, even though it has been severely tested by her professional ambitions.

Seven years ago, when she made the commitment to concentrate on her fine art and drop the commercial work, she sacrificed a number of opportunities to travel and exhibit abroad; instead, she spent more time with her children. She gave up teaching, moved her printing presses into her home, and began working in the garage. The decision is paying off. Twelve-year-old Tariq and his sister Kelsy, nine, are thriving and very much part of Cheryl’s creative life. She is determined to include her children in whatever she is doing and be “there for them” in a way she believes her mother never could be. “I will not disenfranchise my children for the sake of business. The children will always come first.”

Then, in 1999, Cheryl stumbled into a new business venture that has again challenged her family life.

The new business is a hair company based in a second home which Cheryl calls “The Dwelling”, with a bustling atmosphere strikingly similar to her childhood home. It developed out of her need to keep her own hair natural in Jamaica, where hair processing with chemicals is the norm. After a series of frustrating experiments she discovered “sisterlocks”, a way of maintaining black hair in braid-like locks. She experimented with her own hair, but soon took courses so that she could introduce the system to others. She set up a company that now has a rapidly growing following of women who identify with a more afro-conscious image.

Since then, sisterlocks has become more than just a hairstyle and business venture. It has thrown Cheryl into debates about race, identity, and personal choice for women. It has made her explore her own issues about inter-personal relationships, texture and touch, while she spends the hours necessary to create sisterlocks. As she nurtures each new head, she feels she is making art in a form that goes deep into African traditions related to weaving and female adornment.

She does not see her sisterlocks creations as a substitute for fine art or printing, but she knows it will affect the content of her work. She talks about her hair designs like art. “They are all beautiful, exquisite pieces of work that take a long time to come to fruition.” She dislikes the drudgery of locking for hours, but it’s a necessary part of the business. Her self-discipline and involvement with each person counter the tedium. She has to relate to women, not as faceless clients but as fellow sisters with engaging issues and interesting lives. Her own art, she feels, lacked this act of participation.

Not surprisingly, involvement with the hair business has been frowned upon by her detractors in the art world; hair styling is seen as a creative wasteland. But The Dwelling has become a multifaceted studio space where she can think, work and teach. It is neither an elitist gallery space nor simply a hair salon, but a genuinely creative space. “A hair salon has negative connotations because it is a place of abuse, but The Dwelling is a place for nourishing rather than altering. The Dwelling is a place for seeding . . . a place of empowerment where people can find themselves.”

It is also a place for art. In the back, one room has been assigned to a seamstress making heavily textured monochromatic shirts and tops in Cheryl’s white and beige cotton designs. Further along the corridor is a bedroom where Cheryl’s children come to rest after school. On the bed is a beautiful white-on-white coverlet, another of Cheryl’s designer lines called The Longford Quilt‚ in homage to her childhood home. And in the front room are the pièces de resistance, two printing presses: a hand letter press for stationery and beautifully bound books of recycled paper, and the other reserved for her own artwork and limited edition prints.

Cheryl envisages an extension of The Dwellers series, about street people who live in their bodies, weathered bodies hardened but not dead. It is a theme that has been running through her mind as she strips away her sitters’ dead hair to reveal fresh styles.

Most of all, The Dwelling is a space which Cheryl is comfortable about sharing. It has taken a great deal of struggle and courage to arrive at this place, which pulls together the diverse strands of her life, and she is determined to maintain it as a place of honesty and truth. “The Dwelling feels right, and I’m going to stick with it. I like the idea of empowerment. I like people learning to accept themselves, to embrace themselves. I want to teach them that.”