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Treasure From The Island

Treasure From The Island

Elton Braithwaite carves wood, pushes a broom, and is teaching something about life at a Massachusetts community college.

HOLYOKE, Mass. — Summer mornings find Jamaican folk artist Elton Braithwaite in the college classroom teaching youngsters a little bit about wood carving and a lot more about life.
Nights, he’s back in the classroom pushing a broom.
The college president calls him a treasure. The head of the maintenance staff does too.
“Whatever I’m doing, I’m just Elton,” says Braithwaite, who has carved a unique niche for himself at Holyoke Community College as both an artist and a janitor.
He has no time for those who wonder what lessons a man who works at a menial job can offer at a place of higher learning. Or for those who would question why a man whose wood sculptures have been displayed in art museums and two years ago were chosen by the Jamaican government to represent its wood carving traditions in an international tour, should spend his nights pushing a broom.
“When he was on Earth, Christ was a carpenter,” Braithwaite says.
“It may be unusual, but he is a gifted artist and just does terrific work,” says college President David Bartley. “He is a treasure.”
Still, Bartley can’t resist adding that if only Braithwaite would work on his academic credentials he could be teaching art in more than the college’s summer program for school children.
He looked into it once, says Braithwaite, whose diploma from the Jamaica School of Art hangs in his Granby studio and who gives programs at schools under the sponsorship of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “But they wanted me to take over courses that I had already taken.”
And at age 49, his life has taken a different turn.
Braithwaite’s journey began at age 15 in his native Jamaica, when the youngest of 12 children found a screwdriver in the road.
“I brought it home and sharpened it into a chisel,” he recalled. And for the first time he looked at a block of wood and saw the image of a face waiting to be released. He called it “Blind-Eyed Bartimus”.
Then one Sunday afternoon, he took his first 10 pieces — fashioned with the sharpened screwdriver, a wood mallet, and the edge of broken bottle in place of sandpaper — and set them out on a table in the front yard. A car stopped. A man and woman got out.
“He said, ‘these are awesome.’ I didn’t even know what the word meant then,” Braithwaite says.
“How much?” the man asked.
The stunned boy stammered $15.
“He gave me $25 and then he called me back as I was running to the house to tell my mother. I thought he was going to take his money back,  but he asked to see my tools,” Braithwaite says. “When I showed him my screwdriver and broken bottle, he said he would send me some proper tools.”
Months passed and finally a package arrived from Andover, Mass.
“I couldn’t wait to get home. I opened it in the post office and inside were chisels, mallets, sandpaper — everything,” says Braithwaite, who displays the tools — now worn — to every class he teaches.
“I am still trying to find that man: Peter Bernizes,” he says. “All I know was he was in the Air Force then.”
As his work became recognized, Braithwaite traveled to Ghana and other African countries seeking out their woodcarvers and their stories and eventually made his own way to Massachusetts.
“Mother Nature is the greatest artist, I just shape what she creates. The stories are in the wood,” he says, pointing out how trailing roots can become the flowing locks of a staff capped with a figure depicting the wind. And how the live heartwood in a dying oak can, in his hands, become a serene Daniel amid the swirling menace of the Lion’s Den.
His summer workshop is a wood bench under a shady tree — “just like back home in Jamaica.” But now it is located in a New England backyard that he has turned into a fairy garden of his sculptures.
“All of us have gifts. We just have to find them. In my classes for children, I try to open eyes and opportunities just as that man did for me in Linstead, Jamaica,” he says.
“Relax,” he urges a tense 10-year-old, his hands closing over the child’s as together they gouged out the background on a plaque. “If you get out of the rhythm, you will cut too deep.”
“My lessons are patience, determination, and discipline. Wood carving is slow, hard work,” he says as his summer class of youngsters, raised with the quick gratification of computer games, determinedly sanded walking sticks they had chosen in the woods behind the campus.
And a broad grin spread over his face as the children — their imaginations sparked by his folk tales — began telling their own stories of the faces they had found hiding in the wood under the guidance of his strong hands.        

— Yrudy Tynan is a reporter for Associated Press

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