Date of Birth: 26 Oct 1934
St Mary’s College, Port-of-Spain
- The Anthony Williams Award for Innovation in Arts and Culture, NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology, 2013
- Lifetime Literary Award, NALIS, 2012
- Chaconia Medal (Silver), Government of Trinidad and Tobago, 2006
- Award for Art and Culture, San Fernando Constituency, 2005
- Art Award, San Fernando Art Council, 2004
- David Hough USA Literary Prize, University of the Virgin Islands, 2003
- Cacique Award for Stage Design, “ThunderStorm”, National Drama Association ofTrinidad and Tobago, 1994
- 1st Prize Stage Design “A Street Car Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, National Drama Association of Trinidad and Tobago, 1996
- Hummingbird Medal (Silver) Government of Trinidad and Tobago, 1989
- 1st Prize for Sculpture “SOLAR MARINORAMA” , Central Bank, 1988
- US Writers of the Future Contest Award, L Ron Hubbard, 1984
- 1st Prize Harbour Painting Contest, Shell Company, London, 1963
Businessman, author, painter,sculptor
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 4
Willi Chen is one of Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural icons, most famous for his wide-ranging inventions and innovations in the arts. His creativity and accomplishments are all the more important given that he is largely self-taught and demonstrated tremendous ingenuity and resourcefulness in his creations, particularly with the use of indigenous and unusual materials and objects. Chen’s works have been showcased on buildings, art galleries and theatres and stages both locally and internationally.
NIHERST interviews Willi Chen
Q: Which achievement or work of yours are you most proud of and why?
A: That would be the “Solar Marinorama” which is a steel-sheeted abstract mural commissioned after winning a competition organized by the Central Bank in 1988. The competition was judged by the curator of the University of Modern Arts in New York and his team. I was the only competitor to send two entries and the second one placed in the first five also.
This massive mural, 64’ x 14’ and composed of individual pieces, had to be arranged for proper balance and placed between specific spaces. The
components had to be transported to the sea coast for proper cleaning and sand blasting to remove all impurities, rust and undesirable parts.
Q: How did the idea or concept for the mural unfold?
A: The name of the mural came to me instinctively. For the wide open spaces I thought of the world and skies, the “Solar” came to mind and “Marinorama” – pertaining to the oceans followed. Thus I coined the name “Solar Marinorama”.
Q: And how was it made?
A: We used my Marquette which was really a three-dimensional model made out of cardboard and which was submitted as an entry in a box for judging. So using my marquette, large pieces of plain steel sheets were cut to shape and size and beaten to accommodate their iron structures that keep all components place. Each part was constructed according to plan and texture accomplished by adding a specially made paste of durable quality for adherence to the body. Other bits and pieces, out of other materials, were also used.
Six trucks transported the mural parts to the Central Bank on a Saturday morning. A team of 10-12 strong-bodied men hoisted each part to the wall of the bank. Using scaffolding and chain pulleys, and working under my direction, we succeeded in pinning the pieces to the wall with pegs and bolts, each individual part positioned in order. We worked on Sunday too. On Monday the whole mural was completely affixed on the wall- so that the Bank workers were amazed as the new work of art was displayed on the premises.
Q: Have you done another large-scale sculpture or just that one?
A: I did one for the entrance of the Christ the King R.C. Church in Les Efforts, San Fernando – named the Triumphant Christ. This is a 12 x 30 foot metal mural. Also at the Pointe-a-Pierre roundabout, I have installed a metal column called the Escriva Lighthouse Tower. Some years ago Petrotrin, formerly Trintoc and Trinidad Leaseholds Limited, approached me to decorate their premises for their Independence Day celebrations. They specifically stated that they did not want any use of flags, buntings or banners. This tower was made out of plain galvanized sheets that looked like refinery fractionators. The relevance of this tower with the name Escriva is that Monsignor Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer, founder of the Opus Dei movement, had advocated that prayer and work was the means of attaining heaven. So that Petrotrin is providing labour and the Escriva tower is identified with the priest for his duty (prayer) and the gases that rise from the tower represent the human spirits who ascend to heaven.
Q: Have your interests extended to inventions?
A: Yes, I invented a boom and a hammer consisting of 4-inch steel pipes filled with concrete which was attached to a Land Rover jeep. The hammer was attached to a cable that was wrapped around a steel drum which was activated by the four-wheel apparatus of the vehicle. This device was
simple to use and it drove steel pipes up to 100 feet into the ground. By this method a whole barrier was installed on a riverbank that made it possible to reclaim land.
Q: You have also been very involved in the theatre, writing plays and designing stage sets. How did you acquire the skills to get into that arena?
A: I was always interested in writing. After Form Five at St Mary’s College, I went to Higher Certificate which is Form Six. So you either went in the Languages, Modern Studies, Science or Mathematics group. The principal put me into the Modern Studies group because he said I wrote good
essays. In those days at college I used to go to the library and borrow books. I read books by Anton Chekov. He is a great storywriter. At that time I used to read a lot of stories and that prompted me to become a writer. I wrote stories and from that I graduated to writing poems and then I went on and designed stage sets and wrote plays. Well, when I read a play, I have an instinct of what the set design ought to be and I formulate it in my mind. This is not so hard.
Q: So you had an innate ability?
A: Yes. Mr James Lee Wah from the San Fernando Theatre Workshop, a drama group, called me to do a stage set. It was for the Walcott play Ti Jean and His Brothers. That was the first stage set I did and then I was asked to do more. I drew out a set for the play A Streetcar Named Desire. I won the first prize for set design for that play from the National Drama Association of Trinidad and Tobago and also won a Cacique Award for another one
I did, a Chinese play titled Thunder Storm for Raymond Choo Kong. And from designing stage sets, I went on to write about 20 plays. One was One Love and there was also Freedom Road. Freedom Road was quite successful and played in Canada as well. This play won the first prize for drama in the drama competition of the National Cultural Council (NCC).
Q: What did you do in set-making that was especially innovative?
A: Innovative is the right word. I like that word. I will tell you why. When other people designed their sets and so on, they went to the furniture store and borrowed chairs and mirrors and it all came out nice and pretty. But I didn’t go that way. I cut bamboo or I cut wood, I used cardboard or coconut branches, and I used fibre. I used paper from my printery – the off cuts – to make the walls. So every part of the set was made of things or materials I found. Thus my sets were always different. The essence of the play must be reflected in the set design. The designer has to read the play and then get a sense of what he wants and then use his skill, his imagination. If you go the way of doing your own thing, the original way, it will carry more weight. Being original.
Q: So all of this work you did, was it self-taught?
A: Yes. As a designer I was open to many ways and means of doing things. But there was my mentor, he was a painter, a ceramicist and Carnival costume designer, Carlisle Chang, who had an influence on my life.
Q: Your record for accomplishing a lot – the sculpting, inventing, writing and designing while also managing a bakery and printery is quite remarkable. How did you find the time to do all of this?
A: I am an artist as well. All three activities were in control because I manage my time well and I must say that I am inquisitive, impatient and impetuous – wanting to find out how everything works. The bakery kept me very busy because I had to awake at 2:45 am each morning and work 18 -20 hours per day. It was just my nature.
Q: What advice would you give to persons for achieving success in whatever they do?
A: Believe in life that nothing is impossible and that no mistake is too big to change. Be determined about what you want to do and work hard.
Q: So has your outlook on life and work been influenced by eastern or western culture?
A: Both the Eastern culture and the Western have had an influence on my life. My parents taught me all the noble things of life in China. They encouraged me to be obedient, frugal and to respect everyone, especially the elderly, but most of all to help out in house work, to work hard and to be able to speak the Chinese dialect, Hakka. This is most important. Very few Chinese who were born in Trinidad can speak Hakka. I am one of the very few.
Q: Are there any projects forthcoming for the future?
A: Yes. I am preparing for a one-man exhibition of all my works- literary, steel panels, murals designs, etc.