MIND’S EYE – TWO SIDES TO THE STORY

Miss Lassie's HouseWe don’t have many cultural sites in the Cayman Islands.  The country was originally settled (so the common folklore goes) in 1658 by soldiers from Cromwell’s army and later by pirates, refugees from the Spanish Inquisition and shipwrecked sailors; but it didn’t have many inhabitants until the mid-1970s (numbering less than 1,000 in 1800 and about 5,000 in 1900) and the islands were Jamaican dependencies until Jamaica declared independence from Britain in 1962.  At that time, the country broke its formal ties with Jamaica and is today a British Overseas Territory (current population (2013) is about 55,000 people).

 One popular cultural site to visit, though, is a small house in South Sound.  We “on island” all know it as “Miss Lassie’s house”; however, the Cayman National Cultural Foundation (CNCF) has gone to great lengths to restore her homestead and the property is now called “Mind’s Eye – the Visionary World of Miss Lassie”. The home was named, we’re told, as a result of her saying, “I see it in my mind’s eye”. It was placed on the 2012 World Monument’ Watch List of endangered world heritage sites alongside such well-known places as the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the Valley of the Kings.Mind's Eye

 Miss Lassie, born Gladwyn Bush, began painting at age 62.  A self-taught artist, she described having a “visionary experience” and began painting – not just on canvas but on any surface close at hand: her walls, ceilings, windows, pillows and other furnishings in her home including the front of her refrigerator! According to Henry Muttoo, director of the CNCF, her art leans heavily on Christian themes and the sea and she is revered as an intuitive artist, one of several in the world who have “managed to retain the innocence and playful instincts of children – where they lost themselves in their work”.

 She was recognised by the Queen of England (having been made a member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1997) and her works are documented in an art book published by the CNCF.  Miss Lassie died in 2003 at the age of 89. 

 So now, what’s so interesting about that, says you?  Another folk artist with her artwork preserved.  Loved and revered by all…

Well, not everyone remembers Miss Lassie the same way. In fact, a friend of mine remembers living nearby when he and his brothers were young. He owns up that they might have been a little rambunctious…but he recalls Miss Lassie chasing them down the beach (which, in the Cayman Islands is public land) with a machete calling them “little bitchin’ bastards”!  He also tells of Miss Lassie’s son, Richard, chasing their dog with a fishing spear.  His exact words about her – “she was legitimately nuts”.

 Other neighbours remember broken glass bottles stuck on Miss Lassie’s fence; some say because she didn’t want people to come into her yard and others say that she was keeping evil spirits away.  Apparently, even the chain link fence was painted.  Still others remember her home as pretty messy – “the kitchen was a chaos of open tins of food gone bad…no place to sit in the chairs that were covered with paintings, paint and painted household items…a broom with a paintbrush tied on to it for painting on the ceilings”.  More than one person referred to her as “delusional” and the New York Times wrote that “some people call Gladwyn Bush a madwoman”.  No matter what you believe to be true, the stories are a little more interesting than the mythology that has grown up around Miss Lassie and her art.

And by the way, Miss Lassie wasn’t oblivious to what people said: she knew that people thought she was crazy but, according to her, “they even said that in the newspaper.  But it didn’t bother me.  A person can’t hurt you by what they think.”  Even Henry Muttoo, arguably the hugest supporter of her work, stated that the “reputation that she had was like a lot of older people – if you get on her wrong side she would curse you.  So this is why perhaps she had this reputation of being a madwoman.”

 After seeing and hearing those stories, I can’t go by her former home without remembering that side of the artist!

 So, as Paul Harvey used to say: “now you know the rest of the story”.

 That shouldn’t stop you from going to see Miss Lassie’s site – it has been lovingly restored and the artwork is bright and interesting (if not to everyone’s taste).  Appointments must be made for a guided tour – up to eight persons at a time; phone (345) 949-5477.  They are currently giving tours on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of each month. Just remember – Miss Lassie wasn’t just a folk artist – but a real person with a real life – with all that comes with it – perhaps not the saint that she is now portrayed to have been but a colourful and unforgettable woman!