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Jill of all trades


Sherie Holder-Olutayo

Jill of all trades

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Walk into Julie Benn’s Speightstown studio and one is transported into a world where colour is infused with nature – sea blues and vivid greens come alive leaving you with a sense of  tranquility, and art by local artists along with her own pieces take their dominant  role on walls transforming the room and drawing you into their  landscape.
Perhaps it was all purposely done to capture the artist and her work or to captivate potential clients. Whatever the motivation behind the displays they work in terms of peaking one’s interest. But for someone who is showcasing interiors and her prowess at bringing a room to life, Julie has proven that her professional life is at the heart of everything she does.
Many people search high and low trying to find a career that’s filled with passion, one that allows them to flex their creative muscles and earn a living to boot. It seems that Julie Benn has found all these and more.
While her studio reflects a microcosm of who she is – artist, photographer, interior designer, and daughter of  calypsonian, The Mighty Gabby, who also adorns her walls in a portrait she did ten years ago – Julie is quick to point out that she doesn’t want to play up that part of her life.
“I just want people to see me,” she adds laughing. “I don’t want people to say that’s Gabby’s daughter, people come up to me all the time telling me that. They don’t even call me by name and I’m not used to that living in the United States and England.”
It was her life overseas that gave Julie the educational grounding to set up her business here.
“In 1991 I did my first course at the Barbados Community College and then when I went back home to the States, I enrolled at the Sheffield School of Interior Design,” she said.  “Then I went to England at American Intercontinental University and did interior design for a year and then I went back to the States to finish. While I was in England I also did hairdressing as well.”
Yes, she’s a hairstylist also. If she may seem like a jack-of-all-trades, she is definitely a master of one – interior design-though she does infuse a lot of her international appeal and training in her work.
“It is hard in terms of finding what you want all the time, so I travel back and forth a lot to Miami and New York to shop for clients,” she said. “But I also find a lot of things here. I like to support the local artists and craftspersons. But yes, I still have to go back and forth because of the amount of design centres there are huge  filled, with  so much to choose from.”
Julie has had the best of all worlds, the opportunity to live overseas and still feel at home in Barbados. Though she has established her own business here, her age and race have often come into question with potential clients.
“I’ve actually found people have come here and expected to see a white woman,” Julie revealed. “I used to have a collection of my certificates on that wall and I took  them down because I had people, both black and white, questioning them. It’s almost like they’re saying it doesn’t add up; you being this age I’m going to be 40 this year and having all of this. I’m not used to that in America. In America you have people who have businesses at 23.
I had my first home at 28. I’ve been in business since I was 24 so for me being 39 or 40, I’m not sure why that’s a big deal. I don’t get defensive or angry about it, I just handle it well.”
Julie’s youthful appeal and petite frame perhaps can throw a lot of people off. But it is the quality of work, both in Barbados and in the United States, that speaks volumes.
“I think our generation today have embraced who we are in terms of Caribbean people and the colour spectrum more than our foreparents. When I was a little girl in the 1970s in Barbados, people were into beige and browns; now you’re seing bright fuchsia and peach. I like it because it is who we are . . . we’re a colourful people. Colour expresses your mood and it says a lot about you.”
Whenever Julie works with clients she also likes to talk with them to get an idea what they’re trying to achieve.
“As a designer I do counselling before I start a project. A lot of times people feel like they have to generate a lot of stuff to prove they are worthy and the stuff has nothing to do with who they are. Plastic dogs or cats have nothing to do with who we are as a people. But they’re afraid to have the African mask, sculpture made by a local artist and they would have this huge collection of ceramic things and plastic dogs and cats imported from Asia. The clutter isn’t about a look, it’s about what’s going on within.”
Getting down to the bare bones and helping people declutter and organise their thinking is intrinsic to the looks that she is trying to achieve.
“As a designer I feel I’ve just grown. I incorporate who I am, my travels into my work. Every time I get on the plane and go to a new destination, that impacts my work.  As a person I am a lot more settled in my spirit. There was a time when I was working 18-hour days in New York. I don’t feel the need to do that every day to feel like I’m accomplishing something,” she said. “I still work very hard and do the long hours, but I don’t need to do that every day.”
But nothing gives Julie more pride than when she gets a satisfied client from what she does. Whether it’s a hotel or a private homeowner, the feeling is often difficult to verbalize.
“It’s a lot of gratification to help people express their dream and realize who they are in their homes because at the end of the day, regardless of what you do for a living, you have to come home. I feel the home is your most important place,” she said. “You’ll travel, go to work but your home is where you form memories to last a lifetime.”

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