Antillean Charm crafting a space in Jamaica’s art industry

Self-taught artist Symerna Blake meticulously places flowers for her signature shadow box collection (Photo: Gary Mitchell)

Those orchids are huge! W- wait…Is, is that a doctor bird in a box?

Well, yes and no. The bird and flower you’re actually holding is made from clay, but it looks so ‘real’, right?

Those are the reactions that Kingston fine artisan Symerna Blake love, as the mind (and hands) behind Antillean Charm.

Symerna Blake with a 90% complete shadow box (Photo: Gary Mitchell)

Blake took BUZZ on a personal tour of her inventive process when the team visited her Mount View workshop and showroom in St. Catherine.

Antillean Charm, now a three-year-old company this September, is the prime source of income for the young creative Jamaican and for her, business is booming. And for good reason.

A decision to showcase Jamaica’s modern transition

“Antillean Charm is a boutique art business. The concept came about while working in corporate marketing. I felt there was a space for gifts that captured where I think we are as Jamaica now: our sophisticated, discerning aesthetic,” Blake said.

A screengrab from the Antillean Charm website (Photo contributed)

In an interview with BUZZ, Blake explained that Antillean Charm was birthed while still in the corporate working world of bustling Kingston, after noticing a gap in the fine gift market. She noted that her shadow box concept reflects the richness of Jamaica’s natural beauty.

“I wanted to create something that captured all of those qualities. The goal of Antillean Charm is to be as life-like as possible. It’s active, animated nature in your space. You get all that vibrancy without having to feed or water them,” Blake shared excitedly.

Plants that you don’t have to water but live forever, on the comfort of your wall! (Photo contributed)

The signature collection of Antillean Charm, to which Blake credits her growing popularity, is the ceramic flora and fauna shadow boxes.

“The shadow boxes came about because as a self-taught artist, I was looking around for inspiration and there was a lot in unadulterated nature.  We give you the life-like experience of the actual birds, butterflies or orchids living in [the wild],” Blake added.

Nature’s raw beauty, Symerna’s muse…

A five-day process begins with Blake modelling clay and one-by-one imprinting feathers on this Jamaican streamertail hummingbird (Photo: Gary Mitchell)

Blake told BUZZ that from Jamaica’s rich biodiversity, selecting the inspirations for her captivating pieces was rather difficult, but over time, she’s crafted somewhat of a ritual.

“There’s so much inspiration. But I’ve gotten a better sense of the taste of the market in the three years since I’ve been in the business. That helps to make the selection process easier,” Blake, who interestingly holds a BSc in Psychology, asserted.

Though it may be protected by law in the wild, the Jamaican red-billed streamertail, or ‘doctor bird’ is the hottest commodity offered by Antillean Charm. Blake’s 28-piece nature collection shows no signs of slowing down.

More of the Antillean Charm signature shadow box collection (Photo contributed)

“My best-selling item is the Jamaican streamertail. It captures all the colours we tend to associate with Jamaica,” she further remarked.

“[The collection] is a big family. Right now, it comprises 20 orchids from around the world; four hummingbirds of the Americas, including the streamertail; and four flowers of Jamaica,” Blake told BUZZ.

Blake speaking with the BUZZ team at her studio in Mount View, St. Catherine (Photo: Gary Mitchell)

The young Jamaican artist expressed her gratitude at the positive feedback for Antillean Charm’s collection, as nature enthusiasts revel in the hyper-realistic, vibrant display.

Antillean Charm: The PERFECT gift

“Reception has been great! People really respond to the celebration of nature, I think that’s a universal thing many identify with. It’s not loaded and there’s a lot of enthusiasm, even if you’re not buying people just really appreciate it,” Blake beamed.

Orchids are a favourite muse for Symerna Blake, who recreates their timeless beauty in larger-than-life gift ideas (Photo contributed)

The fact that sales have been really strong, especially because of the format, is something Blake takes great pride in. With the standard gift coming in the 12”x 8” variety, each piece is intricately packaged – a feature that makes the pieces appealing to corporate entities.

“It comes ready for gifting or travelling as a diplomatic or corporate gift. Overall, for a three-year-old business, I’m really satisfied with where we are now,” she said.

As a testament to her immense focus and attention to detail, Blake explained that the average piece, from start to finish, takes five days to complete.

A commitment to lasting quality

From the modelling of the clay, to the inscription of leaf structure (or feathers), drying and firing in a kiln, to the painting, framing and packaging stage – the laborious process is worth every penny.

Symerna, the consummate professional, places butterflies for added effect (Photo: Gary Mitchell)

“There are a lot of steps and they’re justified because in the end, you get a solid, quality piece that you can have as an heirloom. You can pass it on for generations and it’s not going to fall apart,” the Kingston resident told BUZZ.

While she initially didn’t consider herself an ‘artist’ in the traditional sense, Blake argued that she fully understands and owns so the growing weight of responsibility.

“It’s the feedback I’ve been getting from the market, in word and in deed, [as well as] the untapped possibilities and all the other things out there in our shared natural heritage,” she began.

Antillean Charm, rising to expectations

“The fact it is a product that has found its market share, it gives you a sense of responsibility, which is great. You realise that this is something that is required; people look out for it, they identify it and they also have expectations of [the brand] now, I’m constantly working to improve the product,” Blake contended further.

“As we speak, I’m refreshing the entire collection, so I maintain that standard people have come [to] associate with Antillean Charm. I think I’ve grown as an artist and my knowledge of the materials and techniques has improved,” Symerna indicated.

For her, Antillean Charm’s legacy comes from the high quality displayed in her work.

“One of the things Antillean Charms [uses] to set itself apart is the detail. Not everyone is willing to invest the time that is required to do each individual feather; that’s the hallmark of Antillean Charm,” Blake said.

“Every single step, each layer has to be first-world quality. I design the pieces from the ground up, with the market in mind. The ability to buy a piece of art that is travel-ready and designed for travel is [another] thing that sets us apart,” she added.

Much more can be expected from Antillean Charm, as Blake hinted on a fresh outlook and new concepts to come.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think this shadow box is seconds away from springing to life! (Photo: Gary Mitchell)

“The other thing is the scope of potential because I haven’t even scratched the surface. Twenty orchids, four birds and four flowers – it sounds like a lot, but within the scheme of global flora and fauna, it’s nothing. And I’m so excited about some of the new orchids that I’m working on,” she told BUZZ.