Largely considered by many in the local arts community as Guyana’s pioneer ceramist, Stephanie Correia MS AA (b. April 28, 1930 d. July 17, 2000) was responsible for elevating clay works far beyond the parameters that limited consideration of the medium as merely utilitarian to a position just a few years later where they were finally given the opportunity to share the same platform as fine art works. In recognition of the many years she dedicated to perfecting her work and educating countless eager students in the process, Correia was awarded the Medal of Service (1980) and the Golden Arrow of Achievement (1996) by the Guyana government. The invaluable contributions she made to her field of creative practice and her commitment to the preservation of local indigenous iconography through the production of her own work and the subsequent engagement with other practitioners using the same medium, have secured her a leading position in Guyana’s relatively short history of art production.
Born Stephanie Helena Campbell to Stephen and Umbelina Campbell nee DaSilva, she would go on to spend the rest of her life drawing inspiration from and studying her family’s heritage in order to better inform her creative practice. Her father, a Spanish Arawak originally from Venezuela, was the first Indigenous legislator in the British Guiana House of Assembly (a position he held for nine years), while her mother was the daughter of Portuguese immigrants from Madeira who had settled in the Pomeroon District. Young Stephanie grew up with her family at Santa Rosa Mission, Moruca in the North West District where she learnt about the indigenous cultures under the guidance of her father. She often accompanied him to various settlements and would observe residents engaged in, among other things, pottery-making activities. Recognizing an early creative inclination, her father encouraged her to draw objects from life and also taught her the art of bow and arrow making, tibisiri spinning and basket weaving.
In 1950 she enrolled at the Teachers’ Training College on Main Street (now the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology). Two years later she graduated with a Class I certificate after securing first position both years and becoming the recipient of the inaugural Bain Grey Prize. The early years of her professional career were spent teaching in different capacities at a number of institutions including the Sacred Heart RC School, the ER Burrowes School of Art and the St. Joseph’s RC School in Mabaruma. She gave up teaching shortly after in 1955 and got married to Vincent Jerome Correia, whose job at the then Interior Department required him to make frequent trips to hinterland locations. In the same way she accompanied her father on trips to the interior, she would also later accompany her husband. Between the years 1955 and 1961 she visited a number of Indigenous reservations and continued her observations, sketching their customs and scenes from their daily life.
It wasn’t until around 1970 at age forty that her first connection with clay was made. After joining a clay club in the National Park, Correia began experimenting with the material, trying to find ways of working around the difficulties she faced trying to shape the material into complex figures. After making some progress mastering the material she began to make and sell smaller clay items to persons who showed interest in acquiring them. From there she ventured even further to decorate the pieces with under glazes using Amerindian motifs. She spent the next few years researching the subject and experimenting with different types of clay found in the coastal areas. Following a series of trials and tribulations Correia knew exactly how to work around the fact that our earthenware clays tended to crack easily. Her participation in two overseas ceramic courses between the years 1972 and 1974 also strengthened her understanding of some the technical difficulties she was experiencing with the material and equipment.
Since there were no glaze supplies available at the time Correia sought alternative methods of decorating the vessels that best suited the warm red colour of the clay while maintaining the black, red and white colours traditionally used by the Indigenous peoples. Eventually she found that white and cream slip could be applied wet using a number of different techniques. Her range of coloured slips then expanded to include black and brown, both of which were developed from different oxides. Correia also worked on developing a glaze for the interior of pots, which would be lead free and safe for food and drink. These seemingly simple features quickly became markers that separated her work from the rest, making them easily identifiable in the process.
As her career progressed over the years, her focus shifted to producing the kind of bowls, water jars, goblets and cooking pots that were common among the indigenous tribes. Although she did occasionally experiment with the shapes of her vessels and sometimes added organic materials such as leather and beads to accentuate some of the pieces, she remained committed to using only indigenous motifs in her work. This decision, which came very early on in her career, was what made her work distinctive. It represented the perfect balance of traditional and modern ceramic practices. More importantly, it was done in a way that did not compromise the integrity of the heritage she was paying tribute to.
Correia exhibited regularly with prolific women artists of the time and had spent three years (1979 to 1981) training a group of twelve Guyanese women who would later form the Lama Craft Group. During the active years of her career she exhibited works in a number of regional and international exhibitions and has had her works added to collections in many countries in the region and further afield in England, Canada and the USA.
Her work continues to be a source of inspiration for generations of local ceramists (and painters alike, as she was also an accomplished painter). In fact, a casual observation of the ceramic works currently on our local market would reveal some subtle and not-so-subtle hints of Correia’s unique aesthetic, a testament to the lasting impact her vision and work had on Guyanese art production.
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on September 17, 2017.