Ken Morris: the copper man

Ken Morris, 1924 - 1992: This master craftsman transformed a traditional Carnival technique into high art

Ken Morris c 1995, in one of his copper breastplates. Photograph courtesy Glendon MorrisKen Morris in 1982, at the Savannah with Peter Minshall’s band Papillon. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Ken Morris, 1924–1992

For four decades, almost every major Carnival bandleader sought out his
skill in metal-work and costume construction. He worked with Harold Saldenah,
two generations of Baileys, Bobby Ammon, Cito Velasquez, Stephen Lee Heung,
Edmond Hart, and Peter Minshall, and for 14 years he also produced his own
band from his Belmont mas camp. Ken Morris, master metal craftsman, brought
Carnival and fine art together. His skill and imagination erased the distinction
between the two.

He was one of the greatest self-taught artists Trinidad has produced. His
entire formal training consisted of one six-month course, but his perfection
of the art known as repoussé (the process by which sheet metal
is shaped into a sphere or dome by beating from behind) was extraordinary,
and his introduction of this technique into Carnival costume design was
revolutionary.

Born in 1924 to a mas-making family, Kenwyn Morris learned his craft working
alongside his father and mother, first in Duke Street and later at 107B
Belmont Circular Road. Those early years, absorbed in the Carnival world
of downtown Port of Spain, gave him a head start. “By the time I was about
eight years old, I was quite proficient, there was nothing I could not do
with beads and wire and bits and pieces like that,” he later said. Before
the war, helmets and breastplates for historical mas were fashioned from
papier mâché. But one day young Ken had an epiphany:
he picked up a brass pot of the kind that was then a common household object,
and decided he could beat it into the form of a Carnival breastplate. Copper
was relatively cheap; with his work in this metal Morris quickly made a
name for himself.

Demand for his skills peaked in the 1950s, with the great historical bands
whose themes demanded realistically rendered metalwork. Morris sometimes
found himself working for six bands at a time. In 1958, the first time there
was a tie for the band of the year title, Morris designed and executed the
copper work for both winners, Harold Saldenah’s Atlantis and Bobby
Ammon’s Holy War.

In the 1960s and 70s, as first fibreglass then plastic were

introduced into costume construction, metalwork gradually disappeared from
Carnival. But between 1980 and 1985, Peter Minshall asked Morris to produce
various characters and sections for his bands, reviving, if only temporarily,
what was considered a dying art. “Long before it was fashionable,” Minshall
said, “when mas was naïve and simple, bats and robbers and dragons
— Ken Morris knew that there was something in mas that was very profound.”

But, beyond the bounds of Carnival, Morris was long recognised as one of
Trinidad’s finest artists. His metal sculptures were prized by collectors,
and he executed a number of ambitious private commissions, including a famous
16-foot-long mural for the Trinidad Hilton, on which he collaborated with
Carlisle Chang. These works were catalogued in a volume called The Other
Gift
, published eight years after his death.

Morris always wanted people to recognise that Carnival design was an art
— to accept the spectacle in front of their eyes as a genuine, living artistic
achievement. He dreamed of reinvigorating Carnival techniques; he wanted
young people to learn how “to produce mas rather than just playing it”. You
won’t see much copper work in today’s bands, but that isn’t necessarily something
Morris would have grieved over. He saw Carnival as a constant process of
evolution, “arising to fill the need of its time.” And Ken Morris did as
much as anyone else to persuade us that the national festival is built on
a foundation of true art.