Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Just Now
   by Celeste Hamilton (Guyana 2003–05)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

YOU CAN FIND HIM EVERYDAY on the corner of the market entrance sandwiched between the shifty Indian currency-changing men and thePrinter friendly version women on their way to the market to sell splotched pink flip-flops or buy freshly butchered chicken. Irreverent and erratic chutney music blares from the dilapidated upstairs rum shop. On this crowded and dirty back corner of stands Claude Stevens, looking for the man who said he’d come back Tuesday to buy his coconut tree painting, anticipating somebody to discover his artistic talent. In the midst of the raucous hustling and transient bustling Stevens waits — quiet, patient, stolid.
     
You can find him every night on the corner of the Demico Quik Serve, the fast food place whose specialty is soggy fries, cheap ice cream cones and service with a scowl. The hustling on this street corner is for a different commodity: sex. Boys wearing Sean John jerseys and sideways hats walk with a swagger and talk of dirty romance in hopes of securing a date for the next Bootyfest. The latest dub music blares from the trunks of cars in front of all the Chinese restaurants as dreadlocked Rastas sit on bicycles smoking joints, women with huge gold hoop earrings with the word “SEXY” in it sell cigarettes and little children scream in joy as they swing in the playground next door. In the midst of this menagerie of New Amsterdam residents and lively chatter, a bittersweet smell of rum and ice cream wafts over the spot where Stevens leans against the wall, making no movement except to adjust the painting he is holding with both hands.
     
Stevens has been standing in these same two spots for nine years now, struggling to sell his pieces of artwork. You would think that sharing his name with Monet would be a source of luck for him. But it hasn’t.
     His native land Guyana leaves very little room for the art world and others like him. Only an independent nation since the 1966, Guyana is battling to find its cultural identity. Art is part of the process, and at age 55 Stevens is trying his best to open the eyes and consciousness of the Guyanese people, while making a few dollars on the side. Yet there is one problem. Stevens can barely see anymore.

Berbice = an area of Guyana

CLAUDE STEVENS WAS BORN in New Amsterdam, Guyana and has lived there his whole life. His mom, a housewife and his dad, a mechanic both disapproved of his interest in art growing up. His older brother, an artist himself, encouraged Stevens to pick up a paintbrush at an early age. Stevens entered numerous art competitions in school and succeeded. But he needed to make money. He then started sign-writing and painting advertisements — much like VS Naipul’s Mr. Biswas — for various commercial businesses such as Pepsi, XM Rum and Banks Beer. Soon, however, the non-existent art community in Guyana became an issue for him. The only art to be found in New Amsterdam was tacky replicas of Hindu goddesses and mundane waterfall clocks. “I was very interested in selling my own work when I started looking around and seeing that a lot of walls here are very empty. I started building an interest in people by moving from place to place and having discussions about art,” he says. “I found that people started developing an interest in art in Berbice. Years ago there was nothing.”

     It was only at the age of 40 that Stevens gave up lucrative commercial art for art that was his own. Walk into any Internet café, private home or Chinese restaurant and you will see a painting of Stevens’. His paintings are quaint and evoke feelings of calm complacency and satisfaction with life. Filled with bright colors and thick, broad brushstrokes, the people and landscape of Guyana come alive through his work. Scenes of the Canje bridge with one car traveling over it, the Essequibo river shimmering as if its waters were made of gold, a lone man carrying his cane down a coconut- tree-lined dirt road, the awe-inspiring Kaeiteur falls — they all recall the rustic feel of 18th century masters. His paintings highlight the natural beauty of Guyana as well as pay tribute to the struggles and successes of its people. They make one proud to be a Guyanese.

I SEE STEVENS as I am walking out of my home on Kent Street one day. His hands capture my attention. In them, he is holding a painting of crude and starkly contrasted geometric black shadowy figures against a white background. I walk closer and see that the figures are of an African mother and a small baby she is holding. Immediately I am interested. Stevens, who is tall and lean, is wearing a collared blue and yellow striped shirt with a rip at the bottom and a faded NY Transit hat. His hat is pulled over his tight, gray Afro curls — so far down that it almost hides the dark sunglasses he is wearing. I’m not sure if he ever knows what’s going on or if he knows everything that is going on. I wave; he does not wave back. I come closer and closer until my face is close to his and it is only then that he recognizes me. We make the introductions and his low and slow raspy voice informs me that he has advanced cataracts. It would cost $800 to fix his eyes, a hefty price for Guyanese standards. I buy the painting partly out of a desire to help and partly because I am captivated by it.
     
Stevens’ art has become his bartering tool for his eyesight. He diligently works during the day and fastidiously sells at night to save money for an operation. Though New Amsterdam’s interest in art is minimal, he describes the community’s response as “reasonable.” Many people would like to buy more of his work but since Guyana is in a bad economic state, they worry about providing food on the table more than tacking a painting on the wall. This doesn’t stop Stevens. He is persistent, motivated by his health and love of art, even though it has caused him to somewhat retreat from normal society. “An artist’s life is just really funny at times because the more that you get involved, the more times it puts you away from society,” he says. “I’m an observer.” Still, people make him happy and he confesses that people from all walks are life are his muses. At any given moment you can find Stevens deep in conversation with a local passerby or an interested foreigner, and sometimes I even catch him talking to himself.

  
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