Nijel Binns Sculpted Creative Encounters with
Jackie Chan, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder
She’s the only cornrow-wearing Black woman in the world who stands 16-feet-tall and embodies aesthetic attributes of Asian, African, Native American and European people. She’s part mythical goddess, part urban princess whose presence in the south-central district of Watts was intended as a symbol to urge community healing after the infamous Los Angeles riots of 1992. Every enduring gesture of The Mother of Humanity™, as she’s called by her creator Nijel Binns, offers thoughtful symbolism: She holds “a feather of peace found not only in Native American culture but it was used by the Egyptian goddess Maat,” shared Binns, “her left breast is concealed while the other is exposed, not for pornographic nature […] in the Amazon women warriors used bow and arrows and amputated their left breast to make it easier to draw their bow—the breast is symbolic of the source of mineral resources for all humanity, and her form is modeled on the continent of Africa that is sublimely established in her shape.” This graceful two-ton monument, valued at U$200,000, would be followed by six reproductions to be placed in Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and Spain if this portrait sculptor’s vision is ever realized.
For Binns, The Mother of Humanity™ is a testimony that the art of figurative sculpting isn’t confined to creating portrayals of living or deceased heroes. Binns, a native of Battersea, England, spent four years in Mandeville, Jamaica before migrating to Newark, New Jersey in 1963. “My first exposure to sculpting was at St Benedict’s Preparatory [in 1971], I fashioned a hand flashing a peace sign that I finished in antique gold.” Being highlighted for his talent in a Newark newspaper inspired Binns to explore his artistic ability. But his first professional sculpture wasn’t executed until 1990.
“I’m an anomaly in many ways: I’m self-taught as a sculptor and as a writer,” shared Binns, who tutored himself in ancient Egyptian history, Greek sculpture and the Renaissance period. “I did one semester at Montclair State College in New Jersey, I learned to draw lines and squiggly circles and felt that was not for me.” Binns traded college for four years in the U.S. Air Force, with the intent of entering the film industry. “I became a stuntman in Jackie Chan’s first American film The Big Brawl. Being a stuntman and fight coordinator was his priority until he decided to create a 3/4 life-size bust of Michael Jackson.
“It was clay with a ceramic gold finish,” he recalls, “I gave it as a gift to Joseph Jackson [Michael’s dad].” A photo of that statue and a thank you note from Joseph Jackson that read: “In acknowledgement of the gold statue of Michael that you sculpted for my family, I express sincerest appreciation. Your work is a pleasure to own. I find the statue is beautifully detailed and well crafted. It captures the likeness of Michael very well.” That note was in Binns’ folio during a chance meeting in 1990 with Stan Hilas of The Fitzgerald Hartley Company, who was searching for a sculptor to create a bronze figure of Michael Jackson.
That note and photograph, coupled with being prepared for the opportunity, secured the commission to create the Artist of the Decade Award that was presented to Michael Jackson by CBS/Epic executives Tommy Motolla and Dave Glew. That year, Binns was retained by Motown to create the Maasai Princess, a 18K gold-plated bronze statue valued at $75,000, that was presented to Stevie Wonder on the occasion of his 40th birthday. Among Binns’ other illustrious commissions is a bronze bust of John W. Mack, former president of the LA Urban League, and the first bronze monument of actress Shirley Temple for a daycare center that bears her name at Fox Studios in Century City, California.
From a piece of clay to a silicon mold to a wax form for a ceramic shell in which molten metal is poured, the process of crafting a bronze bust can consume four months and requires painstaking attention to details. Binns scours photographs of his subjects taken from all angles in search of the expression that “captures the soul of the person.” He passes on his ‘love of beauty’ through sculpting classes at his Los Angeles studio.
In spite of his impressive commissions, the creative life for Binns is peppered with struggle and angst. “I manufacture for eternity,” he said, “most people don’t see the value in that. I usually have to initiate projects for people to say, ‘Oh, yeah I need that.’ If there’s a Nate Holden Performing Arts Center there should be a statue of Nate Holden not just a name on a building.” One can say the same for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial site. Songwriter and music producer Joshua Thompson of Tallest Tree Music attests, “[Nijel’s] a living master who has trained with masters, he’s nearing his peak and is someone the world ought to notice. When you see how people react [with amazement] to the accuracy of his work that impact is what art is supposed to do.”
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Abroneka is aiming to become R&B royalty
Unknown girl group Abroneka wants to become a household name, but they won’t sing soca. They have been writing, rehearsing, and perfecting their harmonizing skills for over seven years, now, they’re being shopped to US record labels and are banking on becoming Trinidad’s first R&B export.
The kids-from-the tough-inner-city-with dreams-of-stardom storyline is a familiar script. The reason Abroneka’s first chapter is worth your attention is largely due to the credibility of the accomplished team that grooms their sultry vocals, arranges their music, and polishes their tracks. Champion Sound Studios has mastered Road March and Soca Monarch-winning tracks for Machel Montano, Iwer George, Fay-Ann Lyons, JW & Blaze, and Shurwayne Winchester, while patiently preparing to introduce Abroneka to the North American market.
METRO went in studio with Crissy Abigail Fraser, 23, Rhonda Bobb, 26, and Kandis Dyer, 28, before they set off on their version of an Olympic quest to earn platinum and popularity. A chance meeting in 2005 on the set of Synergy Friday Night Live brought the trio together. After each girl displayed her vocal chops, Rhonda secretly noted who she would team up with to form a group. “Then I took a breath and popped the question: Allyuh want to start a group?!” Junior Lewis coached and produced them, then brought Abroneka to Martin Raymond at Champion Sound Studios. Abigail says Albert Bushe, their former vocal trainer, called their sound “soca pop, a mixture of R&B, soca and dance music.” That was 7 years ago. Today, the tracks they have shipped to US record labels are strictly in the R&B and dance genres.
What will distinguish Abroneka from EnVogue, Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child is yet to be determined. At the moment it’s not lyrical content. Abigail, Rhonda and Kandis summarize that though their ballads are sung with vibrancy, they tend to write about “heartbreak, a first time crush, and bad experiences.” But for good measure, they paired an uplifting message with an upbeat tempo for a track titled “Dancefloor Ain’t Gonna Be Lonely”.
Abigail and Kandis hail from the Beetham, and Rhonda is from Maraval. By day they’re retail sales clerks. But when dusk descends they’re in the studio breathing life into their lyrics. They’re disciplined and determined to realize a musician’s ultimate dream. “We all come from a musical family, it’s in our blood,” shares Rhonda. “The area where I grew up is a bit hostile,” explains Abigail, “there is a lot of heartbreak, a lot of poverty, a lot of negativity that could make you either go negative or positive. I take [all that] and use it as a positive and write a way that people can get out of it.”
Their singles “Close Your Eyes” and “I Like It with the Lights On” are destined to attract contracts and airtime in America’s key urban markets. To get Abroneka in the mood to convert lyrics into groovy tracks simply requires a beat. “When we hear a beat we flow with it,” shares Abigail. When arranger Gregg Assing played a beat for the girls, they instinctively felt it was “sexy, nice” and directed them to close your eyes. “We started harmonizing, once you have the feeling the words flow,” adds Rhonda.
When they attain success they have another mission: “My community made me grow up to be a very headstrong young lady,” admits Abigail. “I want to give back educationally.” To become recording champions representing T&T, Abroneka dismisses the “comfort zone” mindset they say Trinis enjoy, and embraces the Jamaican hunger to win. “They [Jamaicans] push harder, they really fight for what they believe in, what they want they really go for it,” asserts Abigail. “There is talent here, not just soca and wining. They can write, produce, sing any kind of music…they have the talent, they just don’t have the hunger the Jamaicans do.” Yet, Abroneka will fly the Trinbagonian flag when they mount that Grammy Awards podium.
© SEAN DRAKES
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Enjoying star treatment on Celebrity Cruises’ Summit
I was seated at the wall of windows that wrap the Waterfall Grill, enjoying cinnamon waffles and omelets, when a pod of playful dolphins sprung from the twirling sea, one after another, to kiss the warm morning sky. Over the next five days of our sojourn aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Summit from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera, I anticipated more magical experiences in a departure from the ordinary.
The Summit boasts 11 passenger decks and 1,059 suites that accommodate 1,950 guests, whose epicurean tastes are satiated with 45,000 pounds of beef, lamb, lobster, and fish. The crew, made up of more than 60 nationalities, provides Vegas- and Broadway-style entertainment; prepares and serves 9,000 meals daily in three dining rooms; and facilitates socials, seminars, and shore excursions. ConciergeClass is one of three unique brands of services—offering guests preferential pampering. At this level of service, staterooms are appointed with 24-hour butler service, guests receive dining seating preference, VIP invites to onboard events, and a variety of in-suite comforts.
Each day at sea allowed for indulging in a tireless roster of fun opportunities. To view the poolside cooking competition and live band, I joined Kathy and Gregg McCree from Brooklyn, New York, who had dropped anchor in a sun-kissed whirlpool spa. “We usually cruise for birthdays and anniversaries,” offered Kathy as we ordered smoothies, “we were told Summit had a mature crowd; so far we’re in the whirlpools most of the day.” That evening we dined in the plush, art deco Normandie, which is distinguished for its decoupage, flambé tableside service and dine-in wine cellar featuring 175 fine vintages.
The abundance of tequila factories in Puerto Vallarta, our first port of call, supports the popularity of this excursion. Mario, our guide, steered us to a crowded demonstration and sampling of two-dozen flavors of the legendary libation. Later that evening, after dinner — and more tequila — we donned white attire and attended the masquerade ball in the whimsical Cirque du Soleil-designed lounge. Roughly a dozen excursion options are crafted for each port.
A colorful folkloric showcase followed by sightseeing along the waterfront, then silver shopping in the Golden Zone, easily filled our itinerary in Mazatlan. Founded in 1531, it’s Mexico’s oldest town. Cabo San Lucas is the hot spot for aquatic adventures. Qevin and I chose the two-bay snorkeling experience for the chance to swim amid flamboyant fish and got a great adrenaline rush wave-running back to the ship.
Michelle and Stephen White of Quartz Hill, California, on their fifth and first cruise, respectively, were among the guests snapping farewell photos as the anchor lifted. “I’m a casino girl myself,” whispered Michelle as we recapped the trip. “I wasn’t looking for a 24-hour party boat [which Summit isn’t]; the costume ball, bingo, and Broadway show are a good blend of entertainment.”
The last dinner at sea is a regal affair with tailored tuxedos and elegant gowns. A string quartet serenaded patrons as captain Michail Karatzas greeted his guests. At our table, Sandra and Dexter Bryant of Orange County, California — usually fervid conversationalists — were still in sensory heaven from the romantic Cleopatra Slipper treatment they enjoyed in the AquaSpa. To chart a course for your own divine cruise experience, visit Celebrity Cruises.
© SEAN DRAKES
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Collecting money never loses popularity
and can earn you a pretty penny
Preservation, rarity, and demand comprise the elusive trifecta sought by coin collectors and dealers. “When you get that combination the value of the coins goes through the roof,” says David Neita, director of sales for California-based American Heritage Minting (800-800-2184), “the first year of issue of any denomination is always in demand,” rarity matters little without demand. “Any bust half-dollars, dimes, quarters from 1796-1838…anything from the early beginnings of this country is very much in demand,” shares Neita, who sources gem-quality coins for his wholesale dealership, but advises, “buy the level of preservation that you can afford.”
Neita, a former CBS Morning News (1968-1973) journalist, fell in love with coins while researching for a Mint Masters catalog he produced in 1986 for a dealer. “It’s a high-risk high-reward business.” The famed King of Siam coin set, including a specially minted 1804 dollar, sold for $10 million last year. Coin dealers operate like stockbrokers, they aim to buy low, sell high and keep the difference to grow their business—and they are instrumental in negotiating for collectors. At this year’s Florida United Numismatists Show in Orlando, auctions hammered $85 million, not including millions traded on the bourse floor, which hints at why this is a very secretive and close-knit community, adds Neita who hails from Brooklyn, New York.
“It took us 20 years to establish contacts in France before they would sell to us.” Neita, 59, is primarily self-trained and specializes in US, English, and French coins. He studied how to grade coins, the history of US gold coin varieties, and counterfeit US gold coin detection at the American Numismatic Association, “but there’s nothing like being on the bourse floor at a tradeshow, going from table to table studying coins,” he says. “You have to be outgoing and like a sponge to soak up information. The death in this business is the day you think you know everything. It’s impossible to be an expert on every coin, find an area of specialization.” Neita offers us what every numismatist (student of the coin) should know:
Theme strengthens a collection. Before spending a dime on a Buffalo Nickel, Indian Head Cent or any coin buy the book advises Neita. There are books on every US coin that provide dye varieties and historical insights including where the coin was struck. “I own slave tokens made in 1793 and 1838, colonial paper money (issued by the Continental Congress to support the revolutionary war, some of it was made by Benjamin Franklin), and currency that bears the signature of somebody who signed the Declaration of Independence—that’s my kind of money!”
Preservation elevates value. Transport coins in a lightweight plastic flip that allows for carrying many coins at once. “When handling coins always grip by the edge, never place a finger on the coin,” cautions Neita, “[being] thumbed or fingered effects the level of preservation, cotton gloves help.” Storage should reduce exposure to moisture and dust. Neita recommends a safe deposit box for very valuable coins, and abhors applying chemicals for preservation. Coins converted to jewelry can never be a coin again.
Investing takes patience. If exploring US coins for investment Neita suggests holding them for 3 or 5 years—or longer. “Hold foreign coins for 5 to 10 years, but avoid investment grade if you might be forced to sell before these timeframes because you’re setting yourself up for the fall.” The Guidebook of US Coins: The Official Red Book by R. S. Yeoman (Whitman Publishing; $16.95) is an annual guide that lists mintage (how many were made) and dollar value indicators. Have coins graded by a third party like the Professional Coin Grading Service or Numismatic Guarantee Corporation. Grading is key to authentication. Reputable dealers guarantee their coins are genuine and will repurchase any coin at the highest price for that grade if the coin is found to be counterfeit.
Attend the premier coin show in the US, American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money or the Long Beach Coin and Collectibles Expo to sample the thrill of the bourse floor. For a starter’s tipsheet refer to Helpful Hints on Enjoying Coin Collecting by Bill Fivaz (Stanton Books; $15.95) and A Guide Book of United States Type Coins by Q. David Bowers (Whitman Publishing; $19.95), more research available via www.coinbooks.info.
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Companion post to TipSheet: Old Money
The ‘slave token’, an English copper coin dating from 1793, was struck to resemble the British penny and circulated as money by abolitionists in England as a call to end slavery. Today they are valued at $300 each. “There are only a handful of us collecting them,” notes Neita, “the last one was cited in London.”
“The only Black folk pictured on currency—[usually] Southern obsolete and
Confederate money—are pictured working in fields,” says coin dealer and enthusiast David Neita of American Heritage Minting. Then there is Black America today: Jackie Robinson is on a 24K gold $5 dollar coin issued in 1997 for $300 and can now fetch $4,400—$8,500.
Crispus Attucks, a revolutionary hero and first of five people killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770, is pictured on the Black Revolutionary Patriots Silver Dollar issued in 1998 at $15 each it’s now valued at $160—$1,750 depending on coin grade.
“From slave cabin to hall of fame,” were issued from 1946 to 1954. Individually they cost $40—$12,500. Hathaway also designed the Carver-Washington Commemorative half-dollar that pictures conjoined busts of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and was minted between 1951-1954.
By PCGS’s 1—70 grading scale, a 62-grade Carver-Washington costs $20, while a 67-grade can command $15,000. Neita’s forecast is the secret to all coins: “They’re not making any more of them, [as] more people collect them they will go up in value.”
California-based coin dealer David Neita worked for CBS Morning News (1968-1973) and majored in journalism at Columbia University School of Journalism. There are US mints in Denver and Philadelphia, last one to close was in San Francisco.
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A Primer for the Pedigree Enthusiast
Michael Brown was on a leisure drive with his dad Michael, and Chinney, a Siberian Husky, when he came across a dog show. Since that introduction to the sport of pedigree dog exhibitions, Brown has bred Chow Chows and competes in 70 shows per year. From his home in historic Lambertville, New Jersey he unleashed the dogs for 15 minutes to offer this primer to assist your pedigree pursuits.
BREED RESEARCH. Investigating genealogy is a matter of priority for pedigree breeders. Before acquiring Marchwind Miro’ de Ca’nquet, a six-month-old Italian Greyhound, Brown says, “I went back ten generations looking at photographs of Miro’s ancestors…reading what owners had to say.” Brown’s ideal breed type had to have correct size and silhouette, a hound-like head and high-stepping strut. Dog World newspaper, specialty books and breed-specific Websites and kennels were instrumental to Brown’s research. Visiting major kennels (including some in England) to learn the types of dogs they produce informed his analysis. When creating your own kennel type you should be firm on how inbred or outbred you want to be—by adhering to either a small or broad gene pool. “You can have a successful breeding kennel with two or three very good brood bitches,” adds Brown, who never buys dogs for breeding from pet shops.
SOCIAL TRAINING. “First thing I do in preparing a dog for show is to get it a complete veterinary physical.” This screens the dog for parasites that provoke weight loss, and coat and skin deficiencies. Next, Brown sources a handling class at a respected kennel club to familiarize the dog with being around other dogs and humans. “These classes are the best simulation of real dog show conditions.” He and Champion Tudors Diamonds Are Forever (call name Shirley), a five-year-old high-strung Italian Greyhound, attended two 30-minute sessions per week for four months. “I worked to socialize her, I took her wherever I went [and] I made sure to expose her to children, the elderly and people in wheelchairs, so that no social encounter would faze her.” Weekly coat conditioning and teeth cleaning were coupled with networking with handlers at shows, and practicing
postures and walking patterns required in the show ring. Brown recommends budding handlers join the Owner Handler Association of America , as well as a club for their specific breed.
SHOWTIME. When the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship awarded $50,000 and a 2004 Suzuki XL-7 for the owner of the Best in Show winning dog, and a $20,000 purse for best dog shown by its owner/breeder, debate flared, says Brown, “insiders felt that dog showing should remain an amateur status sport.” “No award money is given at prestigious shows like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York or Crufts in Birmingham, England,” which attracts 20,000 dogs for its three-day extravaganza. “No one does this for the money,” said Eugene Blake, a revered handler and prominent African American show judge with over 50 years experience. Blake judges sporting, hound, toy and non-sporting categories and emphasizes that “we judge on breed type…without that you don’t have a [potential champion] what makes the dog breed is the way they move not the way they look.” Blake believes the sport is very accepting, “I’ve been involved since before the civil rights movement when places were segregated.”
At annual National Specialty, prizes for competitors who win points toward championship ranking range from $25 – $125. That’s nibbles ‘n bits compared to the princely penny enthusiasts invest. Brown incurred a $6,000 vet bill for orthopedic surgery on Shirley’s broken leg, show entry fees range $22 – $50, and buying a healthy Italian Greyhound pup can cost $1,300, while a show quality pup can fetch $4,000. Cultivate your curiosity, visit the American Kennel Club a comprehensive information emporium.
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