February 25, 2018

‘Miss Shirley’s creative hands’

By Utamu Belle

Did you know that you can make a vase or a tissue holder using old, wooden clothes pins? How about making stylish jewellery from cocrite or coconut shells? Were you even aware that decorative wall packets can be made from plastic spoons, forks and knives? Or how about fashionable hats made of old newspapers? Well, these are just a few products made by the creative hands of Lindener, Mrs Shirley Williams, affectionately called ‘Miss Shirley’ by residents in the Linden community.

One of the finished craft pieces

For decades, Miss Shirley, a resident of Half Mile, Wismar in Region 10 (Upper Demerara-Berbice) has been using her gifted hands to create ideal food and decorative designs, and also imparting her knowledge to numerous generations of men and women. It is her belief that ordinary things can be transformed from trash to treasure. “I use the coconut husks in the cake decoration area”, she excitingly told the Sunday Times Magazine. “When you finish squeezing out the milk, you wash it out and you dry it. Then you get the dye and you dye it in whatever colour and you decorate the cake stand with it”, she continued. According to Miss Shirley, this adds a beautiful grass- like effect to your cake designs, as she explained that the coconut husk can also be used to make wine. She further explained that her interest began with cake decorating in the 1960’s, at the age of 19, after seeing her aunt mixing icing with a fork. That interest would lead her down a path of cake decorating and creativity.
Early beginnings
“I started icing cake when I got my first son…When I got my lil’ small change, I would go and buy my icing sugar and every week I would keep practicing…until I know to icing the cake, but not in the right way”, she admitted. But patience, perseverance and persistence would keep her connected to the craft she had grown to love. “At that time, I couldn’t afford to go and pay for the classes. I had a friend, she decided to go and do the classes, and she bought some thimbles for me. So she used to ice the cake and I would bake it”. Miss Shirley would later have the prestigious opportunity of being part of a group which visited schools in the community conducting icing and pottery classes.
“I said, ‘you know what, I ain’t putting my hands in no mud! I gonna do the icing'”. Following the untimely death of her teacher, she explained that she took the leading role of teaching the class. “I end up teaching the classes because I had more ideas about it. Then I started doing wedding work and bridal cakes.” She later started her own ‘sharing the knowledge’ classes after forming a group in the 1980’s. “We started with a group. ‘You teach me, I teach you’. Sharing the knowledge…until I started going to the church and gathering the young people. Anywhere I go and the young people there I would gather them and teach them what I know”, Miss Shirley added. By then, her group started to gain momentum, organizing its own local exhibitions. “What we used to do, like every month, or like how Valentine’s day coming up, we would make different things and we go on the road and carry out exhibits to sell.
This created a window of opportunities, and then the group was invited to be a part of what became the first national exhibition at the World Food Day event in 1999. She recalled that the group put on one of the largest exhibitions of craft at the time, and was recognised and interviewed by various agencies. This exposure garnered more opportunities, which ultimately led to the formation of her very first registered group, the ‘Blooming Developers’ in 2001. The group specialised in delicacies such as meat, fish, rice, cake and pastries, in addition to art and craft, tie dye, fabric painting and floral designs. It was operated out of a makeshift room at the side of her home, which was constructed from scraps of wood and cardboard along with vinyl which was placed over the sand. A year later, the all-female group, which consisted of about 25 members, would then move to include males who were passionate about creating with their hands.
The structure was later upgraded and the group was formally registered in 2003. Miss Shirley’s operation was first to pilot a government voucher system at the time, which allowed participants to learn whatever trade they were interested in. Apart from that, she continued to impart her knowledge, through volunteer classes at various schools. This, she noted, came with its fair share of challenges. “You find that the children want to learn but they don’t have the finance. Nevertheless, I used to do what I can and make sure that they get what they want”, she explained.
Success stories
She recalls the success story of a female student with whom she worked to get her grade up, even after teachers had given up hope. This, she noted was achieved through timely intervention. Miss Shirley encourages people to focus on using their hands to create economic stability. “Yes, education is very important in your life. You know to read and write these days and you hardly getting a job. Moreover, with the situation in the country today, you need to learn to do something with your hands. Even if you’re a nurse or a teacher, you know you would get that money monthly. But by the time you get that money and pay your bills, money done. But if you’re doing something with your hands, you always have something. Your hands never out of money as long as you’re doing something with it”, she advised.

Miss Shirley surrounded by some of her creations

One of the finished craft pieces

An array of finished products

Over the course of her career, Miss Shirley has participated in several expositions and has received numerous awards and certificates. These days, Miss Shirley, now 76, is not as actively involved in catering and decorating. But her legacy lives on in the lives she’s changed through her work. She works along with some of them to this day and they assist her in getting the work done, whenever the need arises. “I get the recipe book and I train people. And when I finish training them I take one of the best out of the set and put them to be teachers”, she explained, noting that she gets a feeling of fulfilment from the many success stories of students who have ventured out and created their own businesses. She explained, “I have two young women. They came to classes from school, and when they left they went right into their own business. I have a couple of them abroad that doing their own businesses”, she noted. “I don’t mind helping people. But they got to help themselves. Everything has a season now. If you have a trade and it is not working for you, you could use your hands for something else and get a dollar…,” Miss Shirley advised. She added that her interest, to this day, lies with assisting younger folks develop a sense of creativity.(Guyana Times Sunday Magazine)