Appreciating DEW

Media Excellence Awards
Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcaster’s Association
Acceptance speech given on behalf of the family of the late Dunstan E Williams on Friday November 13, 2009. Illustration of the author by Dunstan E Williams.

The very last question I asked about this event would probably have been the first for Dunstan E Williams. I asked how long I would have to speak on his behalf. He would have asked whether he had to be here at all.
That Dunstan, who was less formally and more popularly known by his pen name, DEW was shy is an understatement. This was an artist who after decades of drawing daily in a newspaper always seemed genuinely surprised and pleasantly amused by the attention that was paid to his work.
I was, by the way, told that I had around five minutes, which is probably four and a half minutes longer than Dunstan would have been up here. If you were really lucky, he would have walked up, smiled and said thanks.

I am mindful that today, there is a generation of young journalists populating the newsrooms of media companies who have no idea who Dunstan E Williams is.
They have never seen the bold ink lines of his artwork, so robust and definite that they resisted the considerable variations of the printing presses of the past.
They have never seen his signature, that solid rectangle of black with his initials reversed to paper white at the bottom of a cartoon so funny and yet so compellingly real that it leaves you breathless with laughter.

Dunstan Williams was born in Point Fortin, the youngest in a family of two boys and three girls. In a family known for its reserve, Dunstan was considered quiet.
He appears to have taken his career cue from his mother, Octavia, who drew constantly and added her own art to dresses, something unheard of at the time.
Some of you may be young enough to have only a vague memory of an evening paper or the cartoons of the artist we honour today.
As is the way of the world, other cartoonists draw for the newspapers today, some of them, like Keithos and Calpu began their careers early enough that there is significant overlap with DEW’s remarkable run.

These are all good artists, but as a child, I grew up learning just how funny, humane and remarkable the people of this country are through the cartoons of DEW. That’s a singular achievement, registered a panel at a time.
It is one of the privileges of living in this country that I could grow up enjoying the work of an artist so passionate that my world view was influenced by him and then get to work with him.
My relationship with the Guardian goes back four decades now and during that time, I got to know this remarkable, silent, painfully shy man.

He would have laughed, shaking his head in embarrassed surprise, to know just what an awestruck fanboy I really was whenever I visited his small workspace at the paper.
I would, of course, have concocted some perfectly acceptable reason to be there, but really, I was gawking like a ten-year-old offered a chance to hang out over pizzas with Hannah Montana.
I’d be having a perfectly official, formal conversation with Dunstan while ogling the neat pads of newsprint on which he would doodle, working out angles, anatomy and objects.

His work was a remarkable, unique expression of what it means to be a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago. With a gentle, wry wit Dunstan probed at the fabric of a simpler society, exploring the problems of politics, human interaction and the events of the day.
He was a fine writer and humorist, as any successful cartoonist must be. When couldn’t fit his thoughts about matters of the day into his panels, he would write amusing, sharply considered letters to the editor as “I De Clare.”
Within the constraints of the haiku of words and image of the single panel in which he did his life’s work, he married incisive observations with a generous, forgiving perspective.
But as good as his writing and thinking were, his art was the true star of the daily DEW show.

To explain the beauty of his bold black line work, I need an example and I keep returning to what I think of as the archetype of his work.
There are three people that he constantly returned to in his single panel stories, a policeman, an unfortunate fellow and one of the many women he took such unbridled pleasure in drawing.
This threesome might be found in a Carnival band, in a backyard, outside a bank, playing the roles that suited his thinking on that day. The policeman, his straight man, he drew with respect, though the character might express surprise or a stern, official frown.

The man would invariably be the fall guy, the hapless butt of the story, dishevelled after some level of humiliation and left to explain the absurdity of his position to the incredulous officer.
The woman I have saved for last, because this was where the gentleman DEW revealed his romance with the female form. The woman might be elderly, middle-aged or youthful as suited his intent, but she would invariably be in command of the situation, hand on hip, proud and unforgiving of eye.
She would also be sumptuous of buttock and bosom, lush in her Caribbean womanhood with an expression that warned any comers that they had to come better than good to win her favour or avoid a clout.

This dynamic would play out again and again in his work, particularly in the Evening News. The ill-prepared man trying to be heard, the tolerant but impatient woman, the authority figure listening patiently with no intention of yielding.
In various incarnations, they would become the leads in his dramas even as the stars of his ever-changing cast of characters changed over the decades.
This work, over 35 years, would become for its fans, the defining illustrative work of a class of art memorabilia best described as Trinidadiana, the popular art of the people.
Other artists may currently claim this place more decisively. Codallo, Cazabon and Holder are the names most commonly invoked in this pantheon, but I make myself so bold as to suggest that the name DEW belongs among them.

My only true regret this evening is that I am unable to point you to a collection of work that would decisively make the argument for me.
Trinidad and Tobago was shaped, through daily nudges, by his appreciation of the nuances and foibles that make us so special and the loss of him as an artist is only eclipsed by the loss of his work to public viewing.
His daily panels offered us a mirror into our lives that showed us who we are and who we could be. He was a pivotal observer of life in Trinidad and Tobago.
The recordist who imposed no ego, the artful visualiser of what he discovered, the comedian who could make us laugh at ourselves without self pity or remorse.

With every bold stroke of his pen he told us all how much he loved us and how much he appreciated the daily opportunity to express it.
Tonight the men and women he would only have referred to as “the bosses” return the favour and on behalf of the man, on behalf of his family and on behalf of his many, dedicated fans, I would like to end this by saying, at the very least, what he would have loved to tell you.

Thank you.

Thank you for this honour, thank you for recognising the enormity of his talent and the value of his life’s work.
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