One day, Patricia Fay was making high-end pottery to sell in Boston. The next, she was living in Saint Lucia, an island nation in the Caribbean. She was at the beginning of a 25-year research project that has culminated in a book to be published in December — “Creole Clay: Heritage Ceramics in the Contemporary Caribbean” (University of Florida Press).
“Your life can change that fast,” said Fay, who has taught art at Florida Gulf Coast University since 2000 and now serves as assistant director of the Bower School of Music & the Arts and art program leader.
The potter had spent her life moving from town to town with her two sisters, mother and father. It was a family trip to Saint Lucia, celebrating her father’s retirement, that served as Fay’s introduction to the Caribbean.
Fay vividly remembers the trip that pulled her from snowy Massachusetts in March to the place that changed her life.
“The whole thing was a shock to the senses,” Fay said. “It was the plants, it was the palm trees, it was the temperature of the water, it was the tone and the food and the people and the juxtapositions.”
As a potter, Fay felt compelled to find local pottery on the trip. She took a taxi to a marketplace in the center of Castries, the island’s capital.
“I saw these pots,” Fay said. “The most honest pots I’ve ever seen. They were entirely and completely about their function, and about their purpose: to cook food, store food, cool water, do what they were supposed to do.”
Fay, who had long been creating pots with clean forms and a lot of surface decoration, was fascinated by these locally made, unglazed, unadorned pots.
She went back to Boston and searched the library at the University of Massachusetts, where she was a graduate student, for academic writing on the pots of Saint Lucia. Finding only a short article on similar pots and one line in a memoir, Fay knew she had to go back and conduct her own research.
On the suggestion that she would write an article on the area, Saint Lucia’s ministry of tourism provided Fay with a taxi and driver to help her navigate the island and find local potters during her second trip.
One local potter was Catty Osman, a woman who would become a close friend and source for Fay’s research. Fay watched Osman make a complicated coal pot in just 16 minutes. More interested in Caribbean potters and techniques than ever, Fay looked for ways to get back to Saint Lucia and stay longer. She found a short paragraph at the bottom of a Fulbright Scholarship brochure about a program she thought would help her do the research she wanted to do. With just three weeks to go before the deadline, Fay applied and eventually received funding for her trip.
During her two years in Saint Lucia, Fay researched, interviewed, photographed and bonded with the potters she met. The project interested Fay on more than just an academic level. As a potter herself, she felt connected to her interviewees, who were often women making pottery to use or sell.
“I was making a living making pots, these women were paying the bills making pots,” Fay said. “I understood that, and we could have conversations about accounts that don’t pay, and people trying to get your prices down, and it was fascinating.”
After the two years, Fay returned to the United States and began her teaching career. Along with her desire to work with ceramics, Fay realized during her graduate school teaching assistantship that she also enjoyed teaching.
“I found a sense of purpose in teaching that was really satisfying,” Fay said.
She spent her time making her own pottery, teaching at a private high school and then a college, returning to Saint Lucia and other Caribbean islands every summer for research on potters, some of whom she now calls family.
She applied for a job at FGCU in 2000, excited for the opportunity to help build its arts program. At the time, only one other art faculty member had been hired – Morgan Paine, as associate professor.
“When I applied for the job here, I gave it everything I had,” Fay said. “I wanted this job, I wanted this place, I wanted this idea. I wanted to build a university and I wanted to stop moving.”
Fay got the job and had the opportunity to mold its arts program with Paine — from the curriculum to the color of the ceramics studio floor.
She knew she eventually wanted to publish a book about pottery and potters of the English-speaking Caribbean, but also knew her book would require high quality, color pictures – an expense that academic publishing doesn’t always afford.
“I didn’t want to write a book about these people if their pictures couldn’t be in it,” Fay said.
In 2011, FGCU’s then-liaison to the University Press of Florida, Jim Wohlpart, forwarded Fay a press release that could solve her funding problem. The University Press of Florida had received a grant specifically to publish books about the arts and culture of Latin America and the Caribbean by first-time authors. The grant fit Fay’s needs exactly.
With the help of colleagues at FGCU, Fay created a manuscript prospectus for her book. Once she received an advance contract for the final product, she applied for sabbatical and spent the 2013-14 academic year traveling to seven islands, updating her research, and beginning to write her book at last.
Fay, who refers to writing as a “really peculiar form of torture,” spent three years writing the book. She said several colleagues supported her during the writing and editing process. Associate Professor Maria Roca, who chair the Integrated Studies program and was part of the FGCU search committee that hired Fay, calls the book a “true labor of love.”
“She has worked so hard to honor the legacy of these potters and the region, and it’s just an engrossing, wonderful book,” Roca said.
Fay, who has spent so much time with her book that she can flip through hundreds of pages of photographs and find the one she is looking for in just one or two tries, is looking forward to re-focusing on taking care of the fruit trees in her backyard, creating pottery and teaching her students.
In her time at FGCU, Fay has had the chance to watch her students graduate and move on to positions at museums, in art production and become teachers themselves.
Felipe Maldonaldo (’16, Art) spent two years as Fay’s studio assistant, and has graduated to become an art teacher himself. This year he took on the role of ceramics teacher at North Fort Myers High School, but when he first started college as a psychology major, he was nervous to take Fay’s Ceramics I class.
His email to her asking about the intensity of the course received a brief and encouraging response back that he still remembers.
“’Show up to class, you’ll be fine, I promise,’” Maldonaldo recalled his future teacher telling him.
Fay’s course helped Maldonaldo realize he wanted to pursue an art degree, and even after graduation Fay has continued to encourage and mentor him.
“She continues to push me. She doesn’t let me accept my bare minimum,” Maldonaldo said. “I have everything in the world to thank her for.”
An ongoing goal of Fay’s that may get easier with the publication of the book is to live her life in “better balance.”
“All of my students, and pretty much everyone I know, (including) my mother who lives here, they preface questions to me by, ‘I know you’re busy, but…’” Fay said with a laugh. “I think my goal is to have people stop saying that to me.”
Her time at FGCU has seen Fay guide students on study abroad trips in developing countries – including St. Lucia – bring projects such as the annual Empty Bowls charity event to campus, and present at national conferences. She’ll present at the 2018 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference next November, marking 20 years since her first presentation there on Caribbean pottery.
“I very purposefully came to FGCU to settle and to stay. Helping to build this university has been one of the most important things I’ve ever done, and one of the most meaningful,” Fay said. “The various ups and downs and changes and stresses and challenges of Florida Gulf Coast University defined my professional life for the past 17 years and will continue to do so. I love this place — I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
Photo exhibition to launch book
Because of the image-heavy nature of Fay’s book, she said “it seemed to make sense to do the book launch with photographs and be able to talk about it that way.”
Fay’s book launch, set for 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25 in the FGCU Library Reference Area, will feature a photo exhibition and lecture. The exhibition will be open through Feb. 8.
Empty Bowls fundraiser
On Friday, Dec. 1, at 11:30 a.m., the FGCU campus will be the site of the annual Empty Bowls event, which Fay brought here 11 years ago.
Fay’s book centers on functional pots and the people who use them. She said the event is “about building these connections between potters, people and food.” Student potters donate bowls, local restaurants donate soup, and attendees donate $15 each to Interfaith Charities. It takes place in the Arts Complex courtyard.
Fay said she loves how the soup-kitchen style event brings the campus community together. “It’s not just about checking off the fundraising box or the Service Learning box,” she said. “It’s an idea about food and pots and people.”