A report by Anne Salafia for the St. Thomas Source.
Elisa McKay opens her arms to Crucian culture. Through her collage and multimedia artwork, the 81-year-old McKay embraces the spirits of her ancestors. She depicts the lives of Crucians from the days of enslavement forward. She tells their stories.
In the second annual “New Blood” exhibit, which opened Friday at the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts, McKay displays her latest piece: “Early to Sunday Service.”
In the work, folks have gathered in front of the Lutheran Church on Company Street – the church where McKay’s parents were married.
McKay photographed the church, had it printed on canvas, and added a collage of characters in the foreground to create the art piece.
Organized by artist Lucien Downes, “New Blood” exhibits the work of established and emerging Virgin Island artists. The show continues Thursday through Saturday through April 29.
McKay’s parents, Ogese T. McKay and Hedwig (Hedi) Ingeborg Agnete Rasch, both born and raised in Christiansted, moved to Harlem in 1925, during its Renaissance. Ogese McKay had completed his second of two four-year stints in the U.S Navy; their first child was five.
The youngest of eight, Millie, as little Elisa was called then, grew up in Harlem but was raised on Crucian customs and foods: fungi, kallaloo, saltfish, sugar cakes, and lots of vegetables.
“My mother cooked Crucian,” she said. “There was a market in East Harlem, La Marqueta, on Park Avenue between 110 and 116th Streets. All the Caribbean people shopped there. Anything you could get in the Caribbean, they sold at La Marqueta.”
McKay’s mother, a nutritionist with a nursing background, juiced carrots for her children, cooked brown rice, and preferred honey to sugar.
Her father, a carpenter who had honed his skills on St. Croix, played music at night. He played for Marcus Garvey at a United Negro Improvement Association meeting in New York and performed at Italian feasts, Long Island nightclubs, and in an orchestra.
“I remember him playing the stand-up base a lot, but the tuba was his lifelong instrument,” said McKay. “We always had a piano in the house, and we all learned an instrument.”
McKay regrets that she did not continue playing piano. She could pick up a tune by ear, and she could read music, she said.
“One of these days, I will get a keyboard and entertain myself,” said McKay.
Her parents were her heroes, as were James Baldwin, Billie Holiday, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and her junior high school Spanish teacher.
Ogese McKay had always played music. He started with clarinet, moved to French horn, and landed on the tuba. Fellow Virgin Islands musicians included Alton Adams, Fess Finlay, and Ernest Francis. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1917, just as the United States was assuming ownership of the former Danish West Indies.
“These guys created the USVI Navy Band,” said McKay.
With Alton Adams as bandmaster, 66 USVI naval musicians traveled and entertained the troops during WWI, according to McKay. They were stationed on the Panama Canal and in Cuba and toured the eastern seaboard of the United States.
When in the territory, they built bandstands: one in Christiansted, one in Frederiksted, and one on St. Thomas.
For her 18th birthday, McKay’s parents gave her a trip to St. Croix. With her mother in attendance, she spent a month with her Aunt Marriel in Watergut. On weekends, a driver delivered them to her aunt’s beach house in Frederiksted.
“I was a city girl coming to St. Croix. People did not even know where St. Croix was in 1955,” she said.
McKay fell for the island.
“Waking up and walking right out onto the beach in the mornings? And those stars! The house had a little front porch facing the road and the back door opened onto the beach. You walked out onto the sand!” McKay said.
Her parents returned to St. Croix in 1962 and built a home in Estate Work and Rest, where they raised chickens, sheep and goats. McKay visited often. Airfares on Pan Am ran $140, she recalled.
“I came for long weekends, came for summers and Christmas holidays. I came constantly,” McKay said. “My parents were in their 60s; we considered that old back then.”
Meanwhile, back in the city, McKay worked in the electronic data processing field as a liaison between keypunch operations and computer operations. She trained others, too.
Returning to school at 38, she enrolled in City College and earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in secondary education. But the island was in her blood, and, in 1978 McKay made St. Croix her home.
She brought her daughter Ayanna, age six, and established her in the first grade at the Tamarind School while she taught ninth and eleventh grade English at Central High School.
After grading papers into the night, McKay made pressed flower greeting cards as a meditation. So began her life as an artist.
Her father had not yet taken up painting. That venture came later as he mourned the passing of his wife, Hedi.
McKay had heard that Leo Carty was arranging art classes for seniors. Although her father initially resisted the idea, he finally signed on for lessons. The teacher handed him paints, brushes, and a canvas, and he took off from there, according to McKay.
“‘Life begins at 90’ – that was his motto,” said McKay. “He painted from 90 until he passed away.”
During that time, the elder McKay had one-man and joint shows at Russell Waterhouse Gallery, the Fort Frederik Museum, and the Reichold Center on St. Thomas. Country Day School exhibited his work after his death. His work always sold out.
Despite the paintbrush now in hand, Ogese McKay did not put down his tuba. He celebrated his 90th birthday by giving a concert and lecture at Estate Whim Plantation Museum.
He also completed his autobiography, “Now it Can be Told,” available at One of a Kind Kulture Shop in Frederiksted. He died in 1995.
In 2017, Studio Walsh hosted an exhibit featuring father and daughter: “McKay and McKay.” Borrowing back her father’s paintings from their owners, McKay showed her work alongside his.
Ayanna McKay contributed one of her grandfather’s paintings to the show, “Christiansted Steeple.” Her mother photographed the painting, printed it on canvas, and embellished it with collage. She called her resulting piece “Shadow Dancing at the Steeple.”
“Spirit Mill,” another Elisa McKay multimedia piece in the Studio Walsh show, references the enslaved people who built and worked the mills on St. Croix. The silhouette represents a worker at the mill; two profiles to the right represent his wife and their son. The photograph inside the mill are this boy’s children, the worker’s grandchildren.
“A lot of people don’t know the history of the sugar mills. The sugar mill here represents a history of enslavement,” McKay said.
Along with doing artwork, McKay teaches yoga and writes freelance stories for the Virgin Islands Daily News. She worked with the Interfaith Coalition for 15 years and has taught art at the School of the Good Shepherd.
“I’ve come home to St. Croix, the island of my parents, my multicultural roots, and my African/Caribbean ancestry. This rich culture is woven throughout the tapestry of my life. In the spirit of my ancestors, I celebrate my heritage through my art … with respect, honor, and love,” said McKay in her bio for the “New Blood” exhibit.