Cayman National Cultural Foundation Artistic Director Henry Muttoo reveals what makes Miss Lassie’s home on South Sound such an important piece of history for the Islands.
Tell me something of the history of Miss Lassie’s house.
Miss Lassie’s house was built by her father and grandfather who began construction in 1879, shortly after the storm of 1878 had destroyed their home closer to the beach. Her father was 18-years-old at the time. Miss Lassie claims that the house was built for her father to move into with his new bride; her mother. The house was completed in 1881. The roof was thatched in the early years and was later replaced by wooden shingles. In 1947 her brother Floriston returned from New York where he was residing, built on the wooden extension at the back, added a detached cookrum to the back of that, a second cistern and recovered the roof with corrugated metal.
The walls of the house were built from wattle and daub. The wattles were of ‘candle wood’ cut from the South Sound area. The floors were made from pine and the foundation posts and framing from the famous Caymanian ‘Ironwood’.
The labour was all free as in those days the communities were close-knit and people assisted each other to build their houses, boats, etc. The only money paid out was to the mason who did the wattle and daub.
Miss Lassie’s father was a master mariner. She claimed that he was the only Caymanian at the time who could build, rig and sail schooners. He owned three schooners; one of them the Kolsking was named after Miss Lassie. Miss Lassie had 10 siblings and all 13 members of the family lived in the small house, which did not include the wooded addition, at the back.
The home became a ‘waystation’ – a sort of cultural rest-stop for travellers from the outlying districts travelling to George Town to rest before continuing their journey.
Why is it such a special place for the CNCF?
Miss Lassie’s house is an authentic traditional Caymanian home. The, materials were mostly local and the plan and layout was typical of the houses of the period although, it would have been somewhat affluent for those times.
It is a record of how people lived in the past.
Except for a one-week trip to Curacao to attend the Carib Art exhibition, Miss Lassie’s entire life was lived in Cayman and in the house. Her family history dates back to the 1700s. Although she was able to afford a modern lifestyle, she had very few modern comforts. She continued to use water from her cistern right up until her passing. She was generous ‘to a fault’, assisting many of her relatives and friends, and charities with financial contributions, as well as gifts of her paintings. While she only travelled out of the Island once, she was a great ambassador for her Islands, welcoming visitors and locals, every day, without ever turning away anyone. Visitors who met her often commented that the meeting was the best part of being in the Cayman Islands.
Even though she did not attend church in her later life, she had a very personal relationship with Jesus – whom she claims appeared to her in visions. She acknowledged that she was ‘the worst sinner yet, she had great faith that through prayer, she could be cleansed led to heaven through forgiveness. Many of her paintings reflected this longing to be cleansed.
As an artist, Miss Lassie stands alone as the great Caymanian painter. Her works record a life of anguish and joy, of culture, religion and love, of hope and despair, of earthly cares and heavenly bliss – all without the learning of modern artists. She managed the rare fear of retaining the freedom and innocence of a child into adulthood. She was an individual who achieved individuation (see Carl Jung) at the age of 62 years and was compelled to paint her visions and life until she passed, in November 2003, at the age of 89.
The house is endangered. It is close to the sea on an island subject to hurricanes and earthquakes. Cayman’s traditional built heritage is fast disappearing through rapid development. It is the duty of organisations such as CNCF (with assistance from everyone who cares about the Cayman Islands) to step in and save some of the past that is necessary for defining the future.
And for you? Tell me about your own relationship with Miss Lassie.
I first met Miss Lassie in 1992. I had seen and marvelled at her small white cottage standing cathedral-like with beautiful art painted on the windows. The house was small, yet it seemed majestic, squatting on its bed of white sand, lined with conch shells. I immediately felt an urge to meet the artist. I was finally introduced to her by Leslie Bigelman, a CNCF board member at the time.
I looked around her living room and was mesmerised by the sheer abundance of her gift to express such complex human emotions, with such simplicity. More than that, I was enthralled by the wisdom of her words. I particularly remember asking her how she felt about death since she had experienced the demise of so many of her family and friends. She simply replied with a gentle smile, “I have no fear of death; I have closed too many eyes.”
I marvelled at her self-assurance, her absolute faith in what she described as “the redeeming power of Jesus” and her unequivocal love for her Islands. I knew immediately that this was a rare individual within whose life and art reflected Caymanian culture. I felt that the people of the Cayman Islands needed to have full access to her wisdom.
I took the idea of a book “My Markings” to the board of the CNCF and the rest is history. Following that I actively pursued the acquisition of the house for the people. This was realised in 2008. Miss Lassie and I became very close friends right up until her passing in 2003.
What can visitors expect to see and learn at the Mind’s Eye cultural site?
When the restoration/conservation of the property is completed and the house opened to visitors – local and overseas – will see the house Miss Lassie lived in as it was when she was at the height of her creative powers – ca. 1993. They will be able to take a guided tour, which will reveal aspects of Miss Lassie’s life as she and members of her family and told it.
They will be able to examine paintings and see how her work reflected her life – secular and religious. They will experience the joys of being in this sanctuary-like place where belief, hope, faith and charity drove an old woman to paint her life. They will be able to see video footage of Miss Lassie speaking about her paintings and her family history. They will be able to see replicas of documents pertaining to the history of the house. They will be able to sit on the deck on the beach-front backyard and gaze at the beauty of the water with the remains of ‘Sand Cay’, which feature in many of Miss Lassie’s paintings; all of this while partaking of Caymanian traditional teas and cakes.
They will be able, if so desired, to relax on the white sand beach or snorkel. They will be able to purchase gifts of prints of Miss Lassie’s works and other memorabilia with images from Miss Lassie’s works. They will be able to see the original windows of the house that are being preserved. They will be able to see exhibitions of works by other Caymanian intuitive artists and works by children. They will be able to use the space for painting… and much more.
What uses do you have planned for the site other than a visitor’s centre?
An education centre specific to intuition and intuitive art and individuation, which aims to develop the creative spirit in freedom instead of limiting the human creative capacity with the laws of art and how others do, or have done it. An art gallery for intuitive artists and children. A lecture centre for creative visioning; a centre for devotion and a place for reflection.
Anything else you may wish to add?
A huge thank you to all who have assisted with getting us this far, especially – The CNCF Board, the Restoration Committee, Steve Hawley, Alan Veeran, Dart Foundation, A.L. Thompson, Rebecca Hoffberger, the National Trust… and a plea to everyone – especially – Caymanians of means, to assist CNCF in this project by doing as Rumi asked, “Sell your cleverness and purchase wonder.”