Sculpted for Eternity

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.”


Previously published.

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Courting Contractors

A first-time home remodel almost

becomes a costly nightmare

“Hands down I was sold on the house when I stepped onto the deck and saw the beautiful meadow and creek,” recalled Alvin Adell, M.D.  “I was sold on the setting, the house itself needed some love.”  For Adell, 46, an attending anesthesiologist, the appeal of his 3,200 square-foot Center Hall Colonial in Colts Neck, New Jersey includes being a 60-minute train ride from New York City and Atlantic City, and 35 minutes from Newark International Airport.   “I travel often, convenient access was a major selling point.”   In April 2000 Adell began financing the TLC his home needed.  His remodel project had three priorities: create the feeling of a luxe spa on a homey scale in the master bath, build-out a secondary level for the master suite (with fireplace, walk-in-closets and patio), and modernize the kitchen with a heated flooring system and open floorplan onto the dining room and deck.  “I love to grill,” shared Adell, “sometimes in the winter, so easy access to the deck is important.”

Dr. Alvin Adell’s remodeled and expanded kitchen, fitted with heated flooring and premium appliances, hosts many dinner parties and is the center attraction in his home.

“One of the best things was to work with an interior designer [Beau Boger] who knew where everything needed to go, [my] designer worked with the vision of existing furniture,” said Adell.  “I went around with my interior designer to pick the materials together.”  Adell considers his style to be traditional based with contemporary African and Asian accents.

Contractor selection.  Through referrals Adell sourced three contractors to interview, he requested references and visited one site for each contractor screened.  He “checked with the Better Business Bureau for outstanding complaints, and made a subjective assessment,” said Adell, “to see if I would be able to trust that person in my home when I’m not there.”   “One contractor was low-balling, I visited hardware stores to gauge the price of materials and knew it was impossible to do the job with his bid, he was eliminated.  Low-ballers eventually add costs or skimp.”  Adell established an account at Route 18 Lumber so his contractor “didn’t have to [shell-out] upfront money on materials and have to wait to be reimbursed,” said Adell, “and I didn’t have to worry about him overcharging me for inferior materials.  Invoices came directly to me and I qualified for acontractor’s price on materials.”

Master bath with spa comforts, including heated flooring, jacuzzi tub and multi-head shower, adds value.

Budget for surprises.  Even with layers of pre-screening you may not be exempt from costly misjudgments.  “Firing a contractor midway is one of the worst things you’ll have to worry about,” said Adell.  “It delays [project completion], contractors hate to come behind another contractor midstream to correct work.  In their mind, they know you’re vulnerable, so a $10,000 job could cost $50,000.”  In Adell’s case, he waited till the “big hole in the back of my house was sealed” then consulted his attorney to be certain he would be clear and free to fire his contractor for ‘changing design decisions, hiring substandard subcontractors, shoddy workmanship, and for being grossly behind schedule,’ though the contract lacked a timeline stipulation.  “I would find mistakes laid in concrete; [contractor removed] an oak hardwood floor that was never supposed to be replaced.”  David Jaffe,

Master suite build-out with walk-in closets, fireplace and patio, positioned over the two-car garage.

staff VP legal affairs for the National Association of Home Builders, said, “a ‘time is of the essence’ clause elevates the value the homeowner places on time, the contract can be terminated on the grounds of breach if the timeline is missed [however this can be] negated [if another clause pardons contractor] for delay due to reasons beyond his control.”  In hindsight, Adell said, “I would have found a contractor who has in-house plumbing, carpentry and electrical, which means if the general contractor actually employs those three craftspeople they have more control over their schedules, if the general contractor subs it out to individual contractors and the general contractor runs off schedule he’s at the mercy of the subcontractors.”  A full-service contractor is generally more expensive.  Research resources, project guidelines, and educational seminars are available through the National Association of Home Builders.

Adell credits his astuteness to a reading list comprised of Home Depot Home Improvement 1-2-3 (Meredith Books; $34.95), Reader’s Digest New Fix-It-Yourself Manual (Reader’s Digest Association; $35.00), and Architectural Digest.  “Share your ideas with others,” said Adell, “you never know how their input might turn out to be a brilliant contribution.”

One year beyond his projected deadline, Adell’s investment tallied a conservative $200,000—more than $50,000 over budget.  Recently, his property appraised at $1.2 million, which redeems the unsavory portion of his first home renovation.


Previously published.

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StyleSheet: Exotic Blooms

Tropical flowers deliver drama,

Sean Drakes arranges a few cues

Roses and chrysanthemums are rather ordinary when compared to the durable form, dramatic height and shape, and vivid hues of exotic blooms.  Francis Queeley, originally from St. Kitts & Nevis, has been a floral shop owner over 22 years.  She has designed arrangements for the Trumpet Awards, Tyler Perry and a Super Bowl.  The next time you place an order with your favorite florist, or plan to design an arrangement yourself, she suggests you consider these useful pointers:

Francis Queeley, owner of Island Flowers.  Photo:

ODD NUMBERS RULE:  For an effective display gather stems in odd numbers.  For instance, Queeley would use one orange Asiatic Lily, three red-orange Heliconia and five green Anthuriums to build an arrangement.  “I stick to using three colors when arranging tropicals because they’re already so brilliant.”

KEEP LONG STEMS:  The drama and beauty of exotic blooms is in their height, explains Queeley, who owns Island Flowers in Atlanta’s Midtown district.  She amplifies scale and drama by setting florals so they are one-and-a-half-times the height of the vase they’re in.  To keep stems upright, Queeley creates a grid across the mouth of the vase with clear, waterproof florist’s tape.  Then she inserts stems into the spaces of the tape grid, this way stems are braced and kept upright by the tape.


EXTEND LIFE SPAN:  Queeley recommends changing the water in your arrangement every other day, that’s the trick to making your exotic blooms live longer.  Add three drops of bleach per pint of water as a substitute for cut flower food.  Bleach mimics flower food and kills bacteria.  Potted exotic flowers require less water than popular houseplants.  Bromeliads and Lady Slipper Orchids should be watered once weekly.  “Over-watering makes soil rotty and is the most common care mistake.”  A Phalaenopsis Orchid’s bloom can survive for five months if watered twice weekly.  When the petals drop it takes watering consistently to revive the next batch of blooms.

To grow your interest, visit Florists Review and  The American Horticultural Society.  Over 160,000 flower enthusiasts gather in London each May for the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, the most decadent feast of flowers and floral art on the international show circuit.  Join a local horticulture group for the benefit of seminars that discuss industry trends and to participate in friendly floral arranging competitions.


Previously published.

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15 Minutes: Meiling on Mentoring Anya

Tonight, when Heidi, Tim, Nina and Michael unveil another layer of their process to transform an unknown designer into a brand name, many viewers expect a challenge involving stilt walkers will be a cinch for Caribbean contender Anya Ayoung-Chee. 

The skyscraping stilt walker, which originates from West Africa, is a traditional  character known as the Moko Jumbie in Trinidad’s Carnival.  Odds are in favor that Anya’s vision for styling that silhouette will knock it out the ballpark.  Among those with high confidence is  Meiling, the women’s wear designer who groomed Anya for her shot on Project Runway season 9.

Meiling, Tyson Beckford, Anya Ayoung-Chee. Photo:

From her charming Gingerbread house on Carlos Street, in Trinidad’s capital city, Meiling offered 15-minutes to reflect on mentoring Project Runway contestant Anya Ayoung-Chee:

How and when did your mentorship of Anya begin?

“I’ve known Anya even before she was born, since her mother has been a close friend and loyal customer for many years.  Anya is like a daughter to me and nothing pleased me more when I saw her interest in fashion.  When she returned from studying graphic design at Parsons in New York, she gravitated to a natural passion for fashion and her second home became my atelier.  She has been privy to my creative design process and she has always been open to advice and guidance.”

A fashion design apprentice should possess the mix of what personality traits and skills?

“It has often been said that to succeed in anything, you need one-third talent, one-third skill and one-third discipline.  The most successful interns I’ve had are the ones who are open to embracing new experiences as an opportunity to learn and grow.  Whether they are asked to sew a hundred flowers on a dress, assist in a model photo shoot or attend a fitting, they must do it all in a spirit of enthusiasm and readiness.  The ones who think they are ‘above’ sorting out a box of buttons or feel they are better than the seamstresses, quickly fall by the wayside.”

Did Anya resist your advice to learn to sew or is it something emerging designers can work around?

“Anya is a very talented designer but as she admitted, her one weakness was the lack of technical experience in sewing.  I stress experience, not skill because as a designer she would still be able to recognize quality workmanship and be able to hire staff to create her designs.  However, not knowing how a garment is constructed or  understanding the jargon in the industry in order to get her ideas across to a seamstress would be a handicap.  All the great designers, such as Alexander McQueen, were also great couturiers in their own right.”

Recent collections by Meiling. Photos:

What’s the likely domino effect from Anya’s participation on Project Runway?

“I would hope, firstly, that PR would open many doors for Anya and people would see what an incredibly talented Trinidadian designer she is.  Secondly, it can also open up new avenues for other Trinidadian and Caribbean designers since this show will definitely perk up interest in designers of the region.  I have been mentoring many young women and men for several years and my door has always been open to up-and-coming designers, photographers, models, stylists and writers in the industry.  I welcome the opportunity to work with new applicants since they will be the ones to sustain the industry.”

Describe the common threads that connect your aesthetic and Anya’s?

“I think the common thread with Anya is an understanding that fashion must be relevant to the times.  It is important to be aware of current and future influences and to incorporate them into your designs.  This has been one of the truths I stress to all my interns.  In terms of an aesthetic, I was very proud to behold the top of Anya’s first [Project Runway] outfit which had a surprising T-back.  I believe that the rear of an outfit should always be interesting since people see your back just as much as your front.  It is one of my signature looks, especially in my wedding dresses.  I was thrilled to see when Anya pulled that look out from her years of working in my atelier to shine under such a stressful first challenge.”


Meiling. Photo:

The Meiling brand has been in existence for over 30 years, the philosophy is simply “less is more”.  My trademark designs are deceptively simple looking but with great attention to detail.  My customer is a woman who is comfortable in her own skin.  She does not need to bare it all to be sexy, and has the confidence to stand out from the crowd in simple elegance.  She loves fun, occasional whimsy and does not take herself too seriously.  However, she does appreciate and can recognize quality in fabric, cut, fit and workmanship.

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Designer Apprentice Scores Project Runway 9

I was an accidental tourist,” recaps Anthony Reid of his first encounter with women’s wear designer Meiling .  “The association with Meiling grew out of me running an errand for her in New York in 1996.”  That led to an invite to her show.  One of his brutal and honest critiques of a Meiling collection made its way to her ears.  She responded by asking Reid to ‘come see the next collection before it’s shown and offer ideas.’  Soon he was styling for Meiling.  He says he was “humbled and magnified” by Meiling’s gesture.

Anthony Reid menswear shot at Erotic Art Week TT. Photos:

A decade later, Reid, a flight attendant since 1991, is also a designer apprentice.  “Four years ago [Meiling] encouraged me to step onto the ramp to say this is who you are,” reveals Reid.  They’re now a dynamic fashion duo.  Their process: Reid distills his collection from the essence of Meiling’s women’s line, and they often show in immediate succession.  Reid builds his brand on exquisite tailoring and select fabrics, and embellishments are rendered with ribbon, intricate stitching or layered fabrics.

The other breakout apprentice from the Meiling camp is Anya Ayoung-Chee.  She launched her Pilar label in 2009 with a youthful, vibrant and afrocentric collection influenced by the Bobo Shanti.  For her sophomore collection, Anya trained her eye on uniformity.  This collection melds the functionality and notions attached to conventional, rigid and loose-fit uniforms to “make a statement about uniformity and what uniformity is about,” explains Anya.

Bobo Shanti-influenced collection by Anya Ayoung-Chee. Photos: Sean Drakes.

“I grew up with this idea that you must wear jeans and a tank-top to go to the mall,” shares Anya, a native of New York based in Trinidad.  Her mission is to challenge the encoded dress code.  “I am committed to informing Caribbean women that there is no need to dress by occasion.”  She designs clothes that are separates with multiple applications, “it’s the essence of what I am trying to do to encourage individuality.”

Anya's inaugural collection at Fashion Week Trinidad 2009. Photos:

“I’ve had the extreme benefit of having Meiling as a mentor, she’s been my foundation when it comes to figuring out the process.  She doesn’t steer me creatively [and] she’s extremely open,” attests Anya who has a degree in graphic design.  “If Fashion Week TT can mimic that…maybe a mentorship program is something they could look into.  I stand to shoot myself in the foot when I say this, I think the standard for entry (into FWTT) has to be strict.  If I apply this year and get rejected because of certain standards, then there should be programs or resources to help you figure out how to go from A to B to C.”

Designs from Anya's 2010 collection, shot at Erotic Art Week. Photos:

Anya encourages established designers to realize the value of giving back.  “It’s very important that they open their doors to young designers, the most important contribution to the industry is their knowledge and experience.”

Crystal Cunningham with designer Anya Ayoung-Chee. Photo: Sean Drakes.

Crystal + Anya. Photo:

“My inspiration continues to be drawn from [the streets],” says Anya.  “The Sartorialist has made street fashion, the fashion!  What he was seeing is what I’m seeing, but I’m seeing it in an environment where it’s not cognitive.  As opposed to the streets of Manhattan, Paris, Milan and Tokyo where it’s entirely cognitive.  At the same time, I remain committed to finding it where I’m from and merging it with elements I have the opportunity to see.  Being on the streets of New York, Paris and Tokyo is always inspiring, but Trinidad continues to feed me with the best material I could ask for.”

Last night the edgy and exotic former beauty queen stitched her ass off in the first challenge of Project Runway season 9 on Lifetime, and secured a slot as a contender to watch.  And eyeballs are glued to her.  Anya’s Project Runway Facebook page has clocked 5,500 fans, while other contenders are yet to score 500.  Perhaps viewers support Heidi Klum‘s faith in the apprentice who may be fashion’s rising star.

(This essay was updated and expanded on 8.1.11)

Erotic Art Week credits (from top left):  Jerome wears black jumpsuit with hand-dyed hoody.  Installation: “Cc: Everybody“ by Rodell Warner & Brianna McCarthy, shot at Brooklyn Bar.  Pictured right: Keive wears black suit with base stitching paired with black and claret polka-dot shirt with pleated organdy trim, designs by Anthony Reid.  Installation: “Mine“ by Chris Alexis, shot at Bohemia.

Denim half-corset with camouflage detail, silver triangle bra with velvet lining and black net circle shawl by Anya de Rogue, necklace and bracelet by Chejo.  Installation by Lisa Moore for Lismoore Drapery & Interiors, shot at Alice Yard.  Pictured right: Black net hoody and black triangle top bra by Anya de Rogue.  Patterned pleated mini skirt by Pilar by Anya.  Makeup: Kirk Thomas. Installation: “selfphone” by Palaver Pachenko Machocher George & Nadella Riley.

Erotic Art Week in Trinidad, curated by choreographer Dave Williams, is an art festival  conceived by visual and performing artists to provoke exploration and discussion of sexual identities.


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