Amazing Jamaicans: April

This was a tough one. This month, 117-year-old Jamaican Violet Brown became the world’s oldest living person. Mrs. Mosse-Brown hales from Duanvale, Trelawny on the west side of the island and was born in 1900. Aunt V, as she is known, received a flurry of media attention and the Prime Minister’s Medal of Appreciation. In one of her interviews, she says she avoids “rum and dem things.”

Well I cannot say the same for my next Amazing Jamaican, New York-based Jamaican artist Simon Benjamin, who celebrated his birthday in April. For those who know Simon, it was no surprise that there was more than a sprinkling of visual artists, designers, filmmakers, photographers, creative directors, architects, rum and dem things at his “birthstrong ting”. It was a gathering of creatives as well as internationals.

Although Simon has lived in New York for almost two decades, he remains true to his Jamaican roots while possessing a curiosity and creativity that set him apart. Brooklyn Beachouse, his visual diary is influenced by his travels, his love of the beach and his ability to connect with people from all walks of life. He is humble sometimes to a fault, but his talent speaks for itself. And that’s why he is this month’s Amazing Jamaican.

As with my previous posts, I still find it challenging to write about people I have known for years as friends. Simon and I grew up in Kingston in overlapping social circles. We also attended tennis classes with Coach Arthur Phillpotts. I got a glimpse of Simon’s creativity and entrepreneurial spirit when he designed and screen printed t-shirts for Tennis World when we were kids. He has come a long way since.

I also remember Simon as a bit of an outlier. He got the travel bug earlier than most when he went to “study abroad” in Colombia for an entire year of high school. He returned fluent in Spanish and a changed man. Having done a year abroad in college myself, I can only imagine how that experience impacted him and provided an opportunity for self-reflection, discovery and an early appreciation of culture. It is no wonder that Simon brings an acute sense of self-awareness and cultural understanding to his work with a relaxed, mature ease. In the last few years, Simon ‘the artist’ has emerged much stronger, but Simon ‘the creative’ has always existed.

As a director and designer, Simon has worked with clients from art and culture, fashion and beauty, luxury, lifestyle, entertainment and music brands to bring ideas to life through his filmmaking and design studio, All Courtesy Of. I will never forget his work for Tiffany & Co., where he created a large installation out of marshmallows or his animation for a Taylor McFerrin music video for Brainfeeder Records. COURTESY is a creative design shop that takes projects from start to finish, but can also come in to collaborate with agencies on ideation, creative direction, art direction, design and animation to support clients with branding and storytelling.

Simon definitely brings a cool factor and positive vibe as a director, a teacher at the School of Visual Art in NYC and a talented designer, who is dedicated to honing his craft and encouraging others to do the same. Check out his TEDTalk on Investing in Imagination in Jamaica.

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As an artist, Simon has been using different mediums from watercolors to video to explore urban beaches and their place in communities, particularly in Jamaica. His most recent artwork the Jamaica Biennial 2017 (Juried Selection) included installations – FORUM IV, 2016 and ACCESS, 2017, was featured at the National Gallery of Jamaica. He brings the relationship Jamaicans have with swimming into perspective, and puts a spotlight on the limited beach access that exists in urban communities. Stay tuned for more on this.

Following his debut solo exhibit, FORUM, in Kingston, March 2016, Simon Benjamin entered into a new era of creativity. And for me, he has joined the ranks of rising Jamaican artists. Speaking of his talent, one of his friends and a fellow filmmaker said, “What I like about Simon is that he is also very driven.” I would add ‘authentic’ too.

When I look at Simon’s life, I see the journey of someone who has recognized his talent from a young age and has actively found ways to share it with others. Simon inspires me to embrace my purpose, hone my craft, work hard and go for it. There are so many talented and amazing Jamaicans out there, but not everyone puts in the work. Stay the course, Simon! I can’t wait to see what you create next.

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Simon and I have had our share of crazy coincidences. Here is a relatively recent one.

For years, Simon tried to get me to move to Brooklyn. I was a Manhattan girl, who rarely left the island. Brooklyn felt like a far off place that was too quiet and spread out for me. I liked the hustle and bustle of Manhattan streets.

Fast forward 13 years, I finally moved to Brooklyn and I love it. When my friend Shanna came to stay with me, I got to show her around my new neighborhood. Shanna is also good friends with Simon.

It went something like this:

Shanna: This is really nice Brianne. Your neighborhood is so cute. Come, let’s take a picture by this blue door.

Me: Yeah, I am really enjoying it here. I don’t know why I took me so long to move. Don’t you think the people are really cool?

Shanna: Yes, and everyone kinda dresses like Simon don’t you think?  

Me: YAASSS, Simon is so Brooklyn – with the stripe shirt and glasses. He is. (We continue chatting and walking on our way to brunch).

 Me: Look, see someone there… him look just like Simon. 

Shanna: Wait. That is Simon, Brianne!

There was Simon walking by Trader Joes on his way back from breakfast at the same brunch place we were going to in Carroll Gardens. You can fill in the rest.

“STAY THE COURSE” – Drink Courtesy of Simon Benjamin

Tequila, Soda, Lime and Bitters. Stay the course and do not mix with other spirits. No hangover guaranteed. 


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