Like many Caymanians, Davin Ebanks, son of Pastor Alson and Norma Ebanks, spent much of his formative years on the water, thanks to a special bond with his grandfather, a turtle and shark fisherman and skilled catboat builder, like his father before him. Although he no longer resides permanently in Cayman, Ebanks has retained his connection with his nautical roots, which led to his winning the National Gallery’s public art sculpture competition.
When Davin Ebanks entered the National Gallery’s public art sculpture competition, of course, a catboat was involved.
His winning submission, “Adjacent,” is an onyx and glass concrete sculpture that complements the gallery’s elegant design. Two half-models of the vessel stand upright and intersect to symbolize the bow and the stern of a catboat, and the result is an inventive yet simple piece, connecting both the historical and contemporary cultural environments of the Cayman Islands.
The jury noted in particular that the sculpture manages to be striking without being overpowering and is “current yet timeless in its appeal.”
“In a pure, simple design, the artist has shaped a time-honored symbol of Cayman culture – the catboat – into an ageless piece which is both reflective and progressive in theme and form,” said Eme Paschalides, culture project manager at the gallery. “Art is one way – the most enduring way – that a nation transmits its values over time. This avant-garde sculpture will continue to speak meaningfully about Cayman’s past and Cayman’s future and will be an inspiration for generations to come.”
Ebanks’s permanent piece will be erected in front of the gallery off of the Esterley Tibbetts highway. His prize of $10,000 will be awarded once the project is complete, and he will also receive financing for the sculpture’s production and installation, all courtesy of the Water Authority. The sculpture is scheduled to be erected on July 1.
The installation, and the process to build it, are no simple tasks. “Adjacent” will be the first sculpture of this size that Ebanks, 39, will have created by himself, and he welcomes the challenge.
The sculpture will be about 10 feet tall and 4 feet wide, made of steel-reinforced cast concrete, sand-cast glass and semi-polished facades. The process includes pulling hot glass from a crucible furnace once the glass has melted.
“Basically, I’ll take a giant metal spoon and dip some of the glass out and pour it into a mold. Right before it cools, I’ll take it to a kiln that is held at 1,000 degrees and is programmed to slowly cool the glass down. This is the time-consuming process as it takes a couple days to bring the glass to room temperature,” he says.
“The concrete part is easier – it just needs to be poured, and I can do that right here in Cayman.” He will build the mold for the concrete and then ship it here in pieces. “It will then be put in place on site by bolting it back together into the ground, with the help of National Concrete,” he says.
The catboat, which inspired his design, interests Ebanks on many levels: It was once a functional object that, although no longer needed, is still considered an aesthetically pleasing work of art to be appreciated. But there is also a keen logic to it that appeals to Ebanks’s sensibilities.
“It’s part of a process to make a thing, but it’s also very beautiful in itself,” he says. “The catboat is a symbol of Cayman culture, but more than that, you needed a catboat back in the day like you need a pick-up truck to get around the island from one end to the other. Everything about how the catboat was made reflects that. For example, the keel was made of iron so you could drag it off the reef without tearing it up. It was functional, but now catboat races are for joy … Something shifted from a part of everyday life to what we now consider culture, and the catboat now has its place in the home for Caymanian culture,” he says.
Ebanks is inspired by artists who create large-scale modernist sculptures, including Constantin Brancusi and Anish Kapoor, whose works had a major impact on the Minimalist movement. But he does not consider himself a true minimalist.
“My sketches will have lots of excess and patterning, and then I slowly take elements away. My work is not considered true minimalism, but it does have echoes of it. However, I have a distinctly different goal behind my work than minimalist sculptors whose work is about the experience of the object, which stands for nothing other than itself. I’m actually interested in the opposite of that.
“I’m all artist – I hoard and collect things and then I pare away all the things I don’t find to be necessary, but getting rid of things you care about is the toughest part. It’s hard because I really love them, but they don’t belong there. That’s how I work.”
When describing his winning sculpture, he explains how the bow and the stern of the catboat look very similar but are not quite symmetrical, and it is the tension between those two parts that he is drawn to. There is also a recurring theme in his work which represents something that isn’t there, yet is very present. “This is different from true minimalism.”
Ebanks is also drawn to the deconstruction of objects. He has an innate desire to take things apart and then put them back together, and he believes that his background in graphic arts lent itself to his work as a sculptor.
“You can’t think about deconstruction without thinking about construction. This piece is a deconstruction of a catboat. It’s about leaving it in its raw form. It’s about symmetry between two opposing ideas.
It was glass blowing that led him to put those thoughts into his work as a sculptor. He fell in love with glass art while pursuing his design degree. He became a visiting artist at his alma mater, Anderson University in Indiana, and then held artist-in-residency positions at various universities. Slowly, the glass blowing work turned into sculpture.
He earned a master of fine art degree with a concentration in glass sculpture from Kent State University in Ohio, and in 2010 exhibited his master’s work, “Blue Meridian,” at the National Gallery to critical acclaim. It was the culmination of two years’ work to translate the history and environment of Grand Cayman into glass and porcelain, and he was the youngest artist to hold such a prestigious solo show at the gallery.
One piece from that show, “Death of the Ajax,” consists of twin wooden panels that frame two halves of a blueprint for the Ajax, a traditional Cayman Brac catboat that was used to hunt turtles. Below each half are five cast glass turtle skulls. Given the proximity of both skeletons, the viewer is left to question the implications behind “death” in the title. It speaks to both the passing of this vessel as a Caymanian piece of heritage and the passing of the animal, which the boat was invented to capture. On a symbolic level, it represents a sense of loss both culturally and environmentally.
This piece and a few others from the “Blue Meridian” show are in the National Gallery’s permanent collection; his work has also been displayed most notably at Urban Glass, New York, where he worked as an instructor; and at the United States Glass Art Society’s Annual Conference “2150 Fahrenheit,” an invitational show.
He has been the recipient of the McCoy Prize, a national award from the Cayman Islands for excellence in the arts.
Ebanks has gone back to his glass blowing roots in his new series of work, specifically hot molten glass, which he loves working with due to its immediacy.
“If I want to make something appear to have fluidity or tension in any other material, I have to create that effect. With molten glass, when it is soft, I can pull it and get that fluid motion or tension and then it is frozen forever. In a sense, you get to capture your own motion, and you’re not going to get that in metal or wood.
“People think artists work on one type of thing for years. I’m working on other series that approach the same topics but look very different. Once you’re working on projects for awhile,” he says, “you become familiar with them, which breeds boredom.”
Ebanks, who resides in Salisbury, Maryland, would love to move back to Cayman some day.
He lives in Cayman four months of the year, “but the difficulty is that due to the material I’ve chosen to work with, it would not be practical to work here, at least for the foreseeable future – it’s too hot, too energy-intensive, and you have to ship everything in, which is expensive, not to mention, glass is extremely heavy.
“In 10 years, I imagine I’ll be doing something similar to what I’m doing right now – working a lot overseas but have more of a presence in the cultural environment and community here,” he says.
Although Ebanks’s grandfather has passed away, he was present at the artist’s 2010 solo show. And Ebanks has carried on his grandfather’s legacy in many ways. He is an avid fly fisherman and runs a small side business on island with a local guide, taking tourists out any chance he gets. There is no catboat, or high-powered motor boat, for that matter, as the fishing is off the shore, and unlike the turtles before him, he lets the fish go since the activity is simply for sport, and “they’re ridiculously hard to catch.”
With the same determination he puts into his life’s work, however, he welcomes the challenge. It seems that neither function nor form, deconstruction nor symmetry matters on these days, only the simple pleasures of being on the sea – just as in the good old days.
To see the artist’s portfolio, visit http://davinebanks.com.