The hospitality of Gladwyn K Bush captivates Henry Muttoo’s memory of the intuitive artist and is a primary characteristic of his impression of her work. Muttoo, the Cayman National Cultural Foundation’s artistic director, vividly recalls meeting Bush, better known as Miss Lassie, and being welcomed into her South Sound home some 20 years ago.
“I’d seen her in her yard, raking sand and leaves and so on. The reputation that she had was like a lot of older people – if you get on her wrong side she would curse you,” Muttoo said.
“So this is why perhaps she had this reputation of being a madwoman.”
In October 2011, the World Monuments Fund included Mind’s Eye on its 2012 World Monuments Watch List, signalling Miss Lassie’s house cultural significance and threatened status. At the same time, the Cayman Islands Government pledged $500,000 over four years to secure the site for future generations.
Muttoo meets Miss Lassie
Muttoo’s interest in Miss Lassie was piqued after he had caught sight of paintings on the window glass of her traditional wattle-and-daub house, which Miss Lassie’s father and grandfather finished building in 1881, and in which Miss Lassie’s parents brought up 11 children.
“I drove past the house on many occasions, but I saw the windows and I thought, oh it’s quite quaint. I had seen a few of them before, and I didn’t really do anything about it. I inquired about her from a woman who as a former member of the board. Her name was Leslie Bigelman,” he said.
Bigelman, the founding director of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, tookMuttoo to Miss Lassie’s house and acquainted them.
“When Leslie introduced me, I met a completely different person from the one I had imagined because there was this old woman who appeared very kind. She came to the door and said, ‘Come in, come in,’ and she welcomed us in. She said, ‘Sit down, make yourself at home,’ and she sat with us,” Muttoo said.
“One of the things that struck me, and it was reinforced in further visits: She always had time for you. If you came and knocked on her gate and asked to come and see her, she would either come out and speak with you, or if she had met with you a few times, she would tell you, ‘Come in,’ and she would invite you in, and make certain you had water and so on. She would stop whatever she was doing. She would turn off the stove. She would never tell you, ‘Oh I’m having a cup of tea, come back later.’ It would never happen. She would always have time for people. I guess for the older people it was important for them to meet and talk with people about their day and so on.”
Disarmed by Miss Lassie’s hospitality, Muttoo was not prepared for the experience of entering her home, packed with artwork and the walls themselves adorned with her paintings, which she rather dismissively called ‘my markings’ – spontaneous, voluminous and compulsive.
“Imagine, I was stunned when I arrived in her house. Coming into her house, there were paintings all over. There were paintings tacked up close to the ceiling and they were tacked all over the house. They were pushed on the chairs and on the back of chairs. Everywhere you turned there was a painting,” Muttoo said.
“These paintings were very powerful. They were paintings that were mainly religious paintings, and she would write verses from the Bible on them, like, ‘I come to call sinners to repentance’ and so on. And the paintings would be on things like car windshields and pieces of glass, and her fridge was painted. Her fridge was in the back of this house here, and there was an old fridge in the yard that she had painted on, an old fridge like it had gone bad and someone had left it.”
The Foundation’s artistic director since 1989, Muttoo’s own professional background is in theatre, as an award-winning stage designer and director.
“My first impression was I had arrived in sort of a stunning art museum, an intuitive art museum. It’s like you were at a very powerful exhibition, and because the house was so small, the power of the work became even greater because you were within touching distance of everything, so you never felt divorced from the paintings,” he said.
“That reinforced the whole aspect of her friendliness, the tiny space of the house.”
Muttoo said, “Because I’m an artist also, I knew instinctively that there was a lot of value in this, partly because when I spoke with her, her words were words of wisdom.”
The Foundation steps in
Muttoo went to the Foundation board and told them he wanted to help keep Miss Lassie’s work alive. The first idea was to do a video interview with her and air it on television. “Then we realised it might be better to do a book,” he said.
The Foundation hired local photographer Patrick Broderick to photograph the paintings and the house, and in 1994 the Foundation produced the book “My Markings”. Miss Lassie received 15 per cent of the wholesale price from all sales of the book and 30 per cent from any copies she sold herself.
“We came to the house and asked her if she would let us photograph her. We told her we wanted to do a little book, and I can’t say she was flattered because there was no excitement. She didn’t understand and she didn’t care. She painted because it was something she couldn’t stop doing. But she placed no value on them for money or anything. She gave them away. She would give them to people, and there may be many people we don’t even know who have the paintings,” Muttoo said.
Miss Lassie died in November 2003 at the age of 89. She did not startpainting until the age of 62, compelled by visions including seeing Jesus Christ. The Foundation did do a video interview with Miss Lassie on the occasion of her 86th birthday, with videoing by Frankie Flowers and Muttoo interviewing.
By virtue of many conversations with Miss Lassie, she and Muttoo formed a close friendship. “She talked with me a whole lot about various things, and I think she was appreciative of the work the Foundation was doing with her,” he said.
In 1996, with a Government grant, the Foundation purchased 102 pieces of Miss Lassie’s paintings, plus absolute copyrights, for $285,000. The amount was paid out over 11 years, to Miss Lassie until her death, and thereafter to her son Richard Bush. Following Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, Muttoo rescued 22 other paintings from Miss Lassie’s son’s property. The Foundation purchased those works and rights thereof from Bush for $13,000.
After Bush’s death, the property was put up for sale, and the Government arranged with owner Julie Brown to purchase the property and structures for US$1 million, far below the original asking price of US$1.6 million, given the property’s prime location. In 2009, the Government vested the property to the Foundation, which immediately commenced the project to conserve the property with the ultimate goal of turning it into a gallery and museum. The property is formally named “Mind’s Eye – The Visionary World of Gladwyn K Bush (Miss Lassie)”.
Supporters say the inclusion of Mind’s Eye on the World Monuments Watch List – along with 66 other sites in 40 other countries and territories – is third-party verification that Miss Lassie’s house is culturally significant to not only Cayman, but the world. Muttoo said the recognition is the result of a combination of factors: the historic structure itself, the significance of Miss Lassie’s art and the potential threats the site faces from natural and manmade origins, including hurricanes, earthquakes, insensitivity, and lack of funds.
“The thing that distinguishes Mind’s Eye from every other building in Cayman is that it is an art museum,” Muttoo said. “Miss Lassie’s work is the largest single collection owned by anyone of a single artist in the Cayman Islands, and it is significant work.”
Ultimately, Muttoo sees the formation of a Caymanian mythology in the life and work of Miss Lassie, who had almost a prototypical Caymanian experience, marked by her spiritual call to artistic creation, as well as her natural quality of kindness to others.
“A lot of mythology is based in fact. You don’t know what is fact from fiction, but if the story inspires and energises, then the story is valid. Unless cultures have that, then you’re really groping. You’re not a people. You can’t seriously call yourself a country if you’re just a set of people going around in circles all the time with no serious mythology to teach your children,” he said.
Miss Lassie’s visions have the potential to be the particular consciousness of what it means to be Caymanian, he said.
“I try to explain to people, that an idea is not a vision. If I have an idea for a painting, it’s not a vision. A vision goes deeper than just having an idea. It’s a synthesis of everything you are that comes back to you. That’s my way of putting it. It’s a synthesis of what you are deep down in your soul that reflects itself back so that you can see it without being able to touch it,” he said.