To express it as succinctly as possible, Kenwyn Morris was one of greatest revolutionaries of art to have emerged from Trinidad and Tobago. His ability to apply breath-taking repoussé – the shaping of sheet metal via hammering/knocking from behind – to first Carnival costume designs and then to larger murals and sculptures, earned him both global and nationwide recognition as one of this country’s greatest self-developed artists.
At one point his skills in creating copper helmets, breastplates and standards was in high demand by carnival band leaders and designers during the 1950s – a peak period for history-themed presentations that required realistic metal recreations. Among the legends of the game with whom he collaborated over the decades were Harold Saldenah, Cito Velasquez, Carlisle Chang, Stephen Lee Heung, Peter Minshall and Edmund Hart. His murals and sculptures were featured throughout Trinidad and Tobago, including major Port of Spain buildings such as the Trinidad Hilton Hotel, Furness House and the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago. His work would also feature at international events and would eventually grace private collections across the world.
Growing up in a Carnival costume-making family in downtown Port of Spain and then in Belmont – where he would be based for most of his life and career – Morris worked alongside his parents. He became adept at working with beads and wire by an early age when he came up with the idea of using metal to create helmets and breastplates for gladiator/soldier-type characters, rather than the papier mâché material that had traditionally been utilised in crafting such masquerades. Deciding on copper because of its easy availability and malleable nature, Morris eventually perfected his repoussé breastplates and helmets to such an extent that the introduction of these accessories for the 1954 Trinidad and Tobago Carnival season proved to be an instantly trendsetting hit. He would be a busy man over the next few years and it was not uncommon for him to be working with six bands at the same time. Perhaps the height of his involvement came in 1958 when he executed the designs for both of the joint Band of the Year champions, Saldenah’s Atlantis and Holy War by Bobby Ammon.
The gradual use of fiberglass and then plastic during the 1960s and ‘70s reduced the demand for metals, though there was a mini-revival hemmed by Peter Minshall between 1980 and 1985 when he collaborated with Morris, who had his own Belmont-based band for 14 years. By then, the latter had established himself as an icon beyond the boundaries of Carnival. He had started doing commissioned work during the 1950s with the tiling for architect Colin Laird’s George Street school. He later worked on the maritime-themed plaque that enlivened the lobby of Furness House as well as individual pieces within the Governor of the Central Bank’s suite. But the most well-known work is the 16-foot mural within the Carnival Bar at the Trinidad Hilton – which was accompanied by four designs for elevator door panels at the property. It was a project on which he worked in 1961 with Chang, who later enthused about the tour-de-force that was Morris’ effort – working with different metals and exploring subtle gradations of colour with iridescent nuances.
Morris would then focus on his own, independently-designed depictions that would generally be acclaimed for the realistic and emotive facial expressions of the characters portrayed within and the visual effects created by external light sources on the displayed shapes. Apart from featuring in private collections, some of Morris’ work also wound up in exhibitions such as Caribbean Festival Arts in St. Louis, Missouri in 1988; at The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the following year; the Seattle, Brooklyn and the Royal Ontario Museums and the Folklore to Festival event at the Port of Spain Museum in 1998.