Aged 86, Kathleen Hawkins is a spritely lady with snow white hair and radiant blue – eyes. She apologises that her brain has not yet fully awoken, and then promptly reels off a list of names of streets in London that she hasn’t seen or heard of for over 65 years.
Given the fact that she has been widely acclaimed as one of a select group of Pioneer Artists of the Pre-lndependence Era in Barbados, it is both incredible and inappropriate that this is the first time that Kathleen Hawkins has ever been interviewed for any kind of article. The good lady herself attaches no great sense of regret to this lack of public recognition, and dismisses it with the comment, “I have never been a limelight person’. I, on the other hand, am delighted to have an opportunity to partially redress the balance and at least relate some of her story.
Born in 1909, Kathleen Hawkins has lived her entire life in Barbados with the exception of a five year period spent studying in England. During her informative years, the young Kathleen readily developed a deep-seated affinity with the countryside around her family home. She loved to ride through the surrounding fields, and became fascinated by nature and man’s attempts to harness its power in the form of agriculture. It is perhaps these early but acute observations that so keenly shaped the choice of her future subject matter.
Having discovered her artistic ability while a student at Queens College here in Barbados, the sixteen year old Kathleen Hawkins then went off to England to further her education. She first attended Cheltenham College in order to gain her school certificate and further art qualifications, and then it was off to art college itself. After submitting an impressive portfolio and successfully undertaking a two week entrance examination, Kathleen Hawkins was accepted into London’s prestigious Royal College of Art in 1927.
In her typically self-effacing manner, Kathleen states that she felt lucky to get into the Royal College of Art, and that it was probably due to the fact that her Barbadian subject matter was so different to all the other applicants.
Once enrolled though, she made full use of her good fortune and spent three absorbing years honing her skills and broadening her horizons. Upon qualifying, Kathleen Hawkins returned directly home to Barbados, suitably stimulated and brimming with ideas.
Unfortunately at that time there was no great widespread interest in the arts in Barbados, and no others who could be readily identified as fellow artists, Her only true contemporary was Karl Broodhagen, but due to the lack of a common forum where they could meet, there was never any opportunity for them to interact. Consequently both artists found themselves working alone within something of an isolated vacuum.
Perhaps, under those circumstances, it is no coincidence at all that both artists looked to their immediate environment for inspiration, and both artists dedicated themselves to the teaching profession. In the case of Kathleen Hawkins, she returned to her ‘alma mater” Queens College, determined to pass onto others the excellent training from which she had so recently benefited. Kathleen’s eyes gleam with pleasure as she proudly recalls the occasion upon which her Queens College students won seven of the eight available prizes at the Annual Agricultural Exhibition. Reminiscing fondly, she explains that the Agricultural Exhibition was the highlight of the year for her because an art exhibition was always held in the upstairs gallery of Queens Park House, thus giving her extra motivation to paint.
In later years Kathleen Hawkins also taught art at Erdiston Teachers Training College; indeed she was instrumental in establishing the course and creating the basic text books.
Stating that she has never considered herself a “pioneer of art in Barbados”, Kathleen emphasizes how much she believes in learning and concedes that she was a good and very enthusiastic teacher “I liked informing people, It was always very important to me that I should teach so that others could learn; it was never just something for me to do. I don’t do things just for so; there must always be a value behind it”.
Kathleen Hawkins revelled in the joy of being back in her beloved home land, surrounded by all of its natural beauty, and she delighted in painting scene after scene of Barbadian rural life. She chose to work mainly with water colours on wood. Apart from the problems associated with preserving paper, she used the natural grain of the wood to great effect when painting the sky or various types of foreground.
In many of her paintings can be seen animals, especially horses. Kathleen rode horses since she was a child, and they have played as important a part in her life as her art. She actually became a race horse trainer after retiring from “35 years of serious teaching”. To my surprise she informs me that she owns three race horses and that she still watches them run at the Garrison. “That’s why I’m still in good health. Riding kept me tough”.
A casual glance at the paintings on display in her home’s informal gallery is all that is required to reaffirm the belief that Kathleen Hawkins’ work constitutes an invaluable pictorial history of rural Barbados. Through her natural bond with the land and its people, and her vision and talent, she has recorded accurate and detailed images of long bygone days that will enlighten many future generations of Barbadians and visitors alike. Well conscious of this important factor, The Barbados Art Collection Foundation, The National Cultural Foundation, The Barbados Museum and Historical Society, and The Caribbean Artists Today Collection, have all acquired paintings by Kathleen Hawkins, along with numerous individual collectors.
The only work of the artist ever published is her illustrated book, “Barbados 1900 – 1950 – The Olden Days in Pictures and Verse”, produced in 1986. When questioned about what motivated her to publish this one particular book, her response is immediate and emphatic. “For the children of Barbados. I wanted them to know what life used to be like in the land of their home”.
As ever, the artist was seeing herself as a teacher. Kathleen Hawkins fully deserves her public recognition as a pioneer artist in Barbados.
She is a true guardian of our heritage.
Article is written in 1996 and compliments of “Ins and Outs of Barbados” Magazine