Sculptor imitates life via wax art
OPENING THE FIRST wax museum in the Caribbean was a bold move for Frances Ross.
The English native, along with her husband Arthur Edwards, unveiled the attraction earlier this year, unsure of what the response would be.
Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine being a part of such a significant venture, which was perhaps the biggest, most life-changing decision of her career. Proud falls short of describing the way Ross feels about the achievement but the “adopted Bajan” remains very humble.
The SUNDAY SUN spoke with Ross at the Caribbean Wax Museum in Maxwell, Christ Church, recently. It took only a few steps inside the cosy building for the magic to begin.
An unfamiliar scent filled the air, perhaps emanating from the enclosed silicone rubber, from which the pieces are made. An enthusiastic Ross drew the team’s attention to a small sculpture near the entrance.
It was a piece portraying the moment a terrified female slave, baby in hand, decides to throw herself backwards off a slave ship. This piece, she said, sets the tone for the focus on the historical figures displayed on the ground floor.
Every corner of the room offered lifelike figures that were only a few of the over 30 sculptures at the museum. William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Clement Osbourne Payne were just a few of the wax figures displayed there.
The figure of Martin Luther King Jr was one that stood out. It could easily be mistaken for a man sitting in the corner of the room. It is this realistic appeal that Ross aims for each time she starts a new piece.
Ross, who’s been living in Barbados for 35 years, puts a lot of effort into bringing her work “to life”. That’s why it takes about four months to make the figures, she said. Each eyelash and strand of hair, for example, is punched into the material individually to achieve a natural look.
“It takes four months [to create] and that’s us working together. My husband does all the basic work. There are many processes involved. Then he hands it to me and I put on the skin tone, the eyebrows, moustache, beard and the hair,” she said.
Once the gruelling labour is over, Ross can step back, admire the creation and take a huge sigh of relief. But only for a moment, because the work never truly ends, she said, admitting that she is always thinking, “what’s next?”
She added that a lot of time, research and dedication were involved in what seemed so effortless.
She and her husband started many of the figures ten years before the museum’s doors were opened, she said.
Nowadays Ross, who likes to plant for leisure, is stationed at the museum four times a week to conduct tours for delighted patrons.
While she did not anticipate this level of success, Ross always knew she was gifted.
“I’ve always done artwork of some form. As a child, you know children like to lie on the paper drawing pictures. Well, I just progressed from there. I never gave it up. I always drew and painted and just improved myself.
“When I first came to Barbados I was making pottery [and] hand-painted fabrics. I had a little gallery in St Peter. Later on when I met Arthur, he was doing little sculptures, little cricketing figurines. So I began to help him with that.
“We worked together on that, then one day he had the idea and said: ‘Well, if we can do little three-dimensional portraits, we can do them full-size’,” she said.
Ross proceeded up the stairs, where there was a thematically diverse collection of figures, from Errol Barrow to Bob Marley, Usain Bolt, Li’l Rick and Rihanna.
A row of nine busts, made of resin, lined one side of the room. They looked like smaller versions of the 3Ws Monument, which was debuted at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus in 2003. Ross said she made the monument out of cement. That was just another example of the kind of exposure the museum director is getting for her talent.
She said she hoped the museum serves to educate Barbadians, some of whom may not immediately “connect” with important historical figures and icons.
“It feels like we have achieved something worthwhile in respect of having made a more or less permanent exhibition of people who would have been very important within the Caribbean. It’s not like putting people’s names on a building, roundabout or a street, and nobody ever knows what these people look like or they can’t even connect with them because it’s just a name. But if you now give them an image, it’s like you’re looking at a real person. You can connect with it and that is the point,” she said.
“It’s just a permanent record of, [for example], Caribbean people who were important to the development of the region. It’s a record in appreciation of all these people and of what they’ve achieved in their lifetimes.
“I’m empathetic to these people. For instance, when we went to Emile [Straker], we asked him if he wanted us to do his figure as he is now or as he was way back when. And he said way back when.
“We’ve made some of the figures based on photographs because that is when they were well known, or when they performed all over and put Barbados on the map,” she said.
Ross said she loved when people mistook the sculptures for real people, which is why she’s thrilled about the figure of Anthony Gabby Carter. She recalled displaying the figure at a supermarket.
“In the supermarket, people were passing saying, ‘Hi Gabberts’ and when he didn’t respond, they were like, ‘Wait, what’s with you?’”
Sometimes, she said, people were able to connect with her work on a more personal level.
“For instance, with the Clement Payne figure downstairs, people would tell me, ‘My mother was in school on the day of the 1937 riots and she told me how the police came to the school . . . .’ and ‘it brings history right in front of me’.
“It also happens because this is a small community and people know people. It’s like some people came and saw Li’l Rick in the other room and they said, ‘Oh, we had to pass his house to get here’. So everything kind of converges in a way because you’re not too far from a connection with these people,” she said. (LT)