Published On: Fri, Dec 1st, 2023

Artist Deborah Jack creates a map of St. Maarten’s memory

PHILIPSBURG — Artist Deborah Jack took some time out of her busy schedule to speak with StMaartenNews.com about the Open Society Foundations 2023 Soros Arts Fellowship: Art, Land and Public Memory, that came her way. The fellowship comes with a most welcome grant if $100,000 and her project is scheduled to be completed by March 2025.

Her award-winning project entitled To Make a Map of My Memory: Wayfinding Along Synaptic Topographies intends to create a new kind of archive. During the next eighteen months, the artist will interview St. Maarteners and use their recordings to create a library of oral histories, accompanied by photographs, film and video. The project links cultural memory preservations in St. Maarten with climate justice.

Jack’s project focuses on the experiences of communities in small island nations that are bearing the brunt of climate disasters. It combines voices and recollections from local elders with archival imagery, vernacular photography and present-day images of the changed landscape to create a poetic documentary project. With To Make a Map of My Memory Jack underscores the importance of preserving these intangible histories and advocates for the value of island consciousness as a counter – and cure – to the extractive nature of landlocked continental forces.

Jack is the daughter of Harold and Orris Jack and a grandchild of Leopold Charles Bell. She graduated in 1989 from Milton Peters College and currently works as Professor of Art at New Jersey City University.

Jack is a multi-faceted artist. She published two collections of poetry (The Rainy Season in 1997 and Skin in 2006), but she also uses text, video and photography in her work.

White Hot Magazine wrote in February 2022: “To encounter Jack’s work is to sit at the shoreline of colonial histories, to face storm surge and live to hear the melodies of the next day.”

The artist herself has left her marks in St. Maarten before she ventured into her current job at New Jersey City University. She represented St. Maarten in the past at poetry festivals in South Africa, the Netherlands Antilles and the Netherlands and she is also a founding member of Axum Art Café. Ras Mosera is also a founding member. In the past she worked six years for the government at Government Information Services.

To receive a fellowship from the Soros Arts Foundation is without any doubt one of the highlights of Jack’s career. “It is an international award,” she says. “As an artist living in St. Maarten and working in the United Stated I am excluded from a lot of grants because I am not an (American) citizen. One day I received an email that I was nominated for the fellowship with an invitation to apply.”

That application, Jack says, is about a project you want to realize. As a single mother with limited financial resources she jumped at the occasion. She ended up in front of a committee that subjected her to intense questioning. ‘They wanted to know the long-term effect of my project. The questions they asked were probably questions I should ask myself. They forced me to look closer at my project.”

Jack laughs a lot when she is telling her remarkable story. “They want you to dream but they also want you to realize your project,” she says, adding that the foundation not only provides financial support, it also teaches fellowship-winners about finances and how they can get more grants.

From personal experience, Jack knows that practicing art includes making choices. “The question is: do you go out and spend a hundred dollars on drinks or do you invest that money in art supplies,” she says. “I always went for the art supplies; I do not party that much.”

Jack’s project focuses on oral history and on changing landscapes in St. Maarten. “In my lifetime I have seen landscapes completely altered,” she says. An example? Where now is Port de Plaisance there once was a small hill. That hill was flattened to facilitate construction.

Jack has two partners on the island that she is working with on her project: Clara Reyes and Mark Yokoyama.


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