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Q&A with Judy Ann MacMillan

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

What is your earliest memory?

Playing barefoot in the backyard of the house where I grew up with my little brother.

What did you learn from your father?

Never use the word ‘hate’. Do not wait till everything is perfect to act. Do something about the small things you can do something about immediately. In negotiation never shut the door completely, always leave it a little ajar so that you can come back. And if you want to help someone, help them, do not arrange for someone else to help them.

Describe your perfect day.

I get to work early to catch the morning light. It’s the final day. Work goes well without struggle. I have a rest in the afternoon and in the evening I have a friend to show my painting to, have a drink with on my verandah and share the evening meal. Maybe a game or two of backgammon and chocolates of course.

If you were advising someone about to write an autobiography, what would you say?

I would pass on the advice I was given when I expressed doubt that I had the writing skills to do it by Edward Lucie-Smith. He said, ‘Write separate beads and string the beads.’

Your ideal dinner party guests?

The best dinner guests are friends, of course, especially ones that you haven’t seen for a long time. But there was one dinner with Edward Lucie-Smith in his favourite Indian restaurant in London that I will take to my grave. He ignored the poppadums raining down on his shirt and went into a riff connecting art, history and civilisation into an unbroken aria that I wished the whole time that I could record.

What did your mother teach you?

To stand up to bullies, never listen to malicious gossip, never to court popularity and to always leave the hand basin dry and the towels hung neatly when a guest in someone’s house.

Who do you call first if you if you have a problem?

My best friend.

What are you painting at the moment?

I am working on a commission up in the hills behind Kingston for a very likeable couple who have just sold a cottage there that was their sanctuary. They want a painting to remember it by. Nostalgia is a recurring theme in my work so I’m the right artist for the job.

If you could give your 16-year old self some advice what would you say?

I would tell her to always keep a little nest egg of money for the long dry periods between sales when the bills come every month regardless. To use the early years to discipline herself as if she had an office job and to set short term goals.

If you had unlimited resources how do you think your life would change and what would you do?

I would travel to see exhibitions and friends and see as much of the world as I could, flying first class and staying in small cheerful hotels the whole way.

Do you think writing and painting have anything in common?

They both melt time in a similar way. Many times, while writing, I would start in the morning and find myself at the end of the day in my nightie with a cold cup of coffee beside me and my face still unwashed.

If you could own one painting in the world, what would it be?

Anything by Vermeer because he transformed his everyday surroundings by the way he painted light.

Why is your book called ‘Born Ya’?

Because almost on a daily basis I am asked if I live in Jamaica or where was I born. ‘Born Ya’ states that I consider my experience as valid as anyone else’s.

Who is your favourite writer? Can you recommend one book?

Too many come to mind but one stands out: ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, by Gabriel García Márquez. I have read it many times and each time with the same enjoyment as the first time.

Did writing this book make you want to write another? What would it be?

Yes. I cut this book more than half, much more than half, than I had written. I would like to expand certain sections for example about the succession of gardeners who worked for me at Rockfield. I could write a book about them.

What has your son taught you?

When I told my son that I thought people who abdicated the laws of civilised society – to the point of kidnapping children or shooting young people at a dance - should be ceremoniously killed for the good of society he gave me ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’. When I had finished it he said, ‘What do you think about killing now Mom?’ When all his money was stolen while travelling in Europe he said, ‘I just felt sorry for them that they had to steal.’ I also learned to hide the chocolates. So now you know that chocolate for me is a serious vice.

I am coming to Jamaica for the first time, please give me some advice.

Learn to say one word as we do on the plane coming down. The word is ‘Kingston’ with the second syllable dropped very low. Then when people ask, ‘Where yu from?’, say your word and if you are finding the press of human contact a little overwhelming, that is guaranteed to get you some space.

If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?

There is a fascinating book called, ‘Seeds of Change’ by Henry Hobhouse. If I could have changed the course of history I would have abolished the sugar trade in the Eighteenth Century and the cocaine trade now that has replaced it.

If you were Prime Minister of Jamaica for the day what would you do?

Banish American TV comes to mind. But making laws in Jamaica is rather pointless and my imagination quite fails me at the thought of being Prime Minister of Jamaica.

What is in your fridge?

Enough organics greens to make a rabbit very happy.

If you could save one thing from your house, what would it be?

A portrait by Albert Huie from his first show in 1940. It depicts a woman reading to her child from a book entitled, ‘The History of Jamaica’.

Suggest five songs/music for someone’s playlist.

Five? Well here goes:


‘Someone exactly like you’;

‘These are the days’;

‘Try to remember’;

‘The Tower of Song’.

How many is that?

‘Still crazy after all these years’;

‘At last’ sung by Etta James.

I love the music of my generation and the generation just before mine - the music of the nightclub era, with sexy women in smoky rooms in sequinned evening gowns singing the blues.


‘Autumn Leaves’;

‘Try a Little Tenderness’.

I could go on and on…

Why did you become an artist? How much is nature or nurture?

A combination - in my case the natural impulse was encouraged by both parents who were frustrated artists.

You have five minutes in the best art supply store in the world, what do you buy?

Six tubes of Winsor and Newton oil paint and two sable brushes, a box of Sennelier pastels, a pad of good paper.

What would you like to drink?

Rum and coconut water; red wine; a cold glass of Prosecco on a hot day; best of all water in a tall glass with lots of ice.

What is the difference in painting a portrait and a landscape?

Landscapes are never late for their sittings.

Who is your Jamaican hero?

It used to be my father. Now it is my son.

What have your grandchildren taught you?

How to be loved.

Three words which sum you up best?

I don’t know, what do you think?

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