ST. THOMAS — The St. Thomas Historical Trust is celebrating the life of Kenneth Richards, a cultural bearer, by preserving the tradition of chair caning with the Kenneth Richards Memorial Chair Caning Workshop.
Caning has played an important role in Virgin Islands culture, and the workshop, a 10-hour class spread over two weekends, endeavors to keep the forgotten art alive. The trust submitted a grant application along with My Brother’s Workshop. It was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, with the support of the V.I. Tourism Department.
Richards was taught the art of caning by his uncle Hubert Raimer, who installed many of the doors found along Main Street, and was looking forward to teaching the class at the St. Thomas Historical Trust.
“Mr. Richards loved to teach this art and skill to young Virgin Islanders who would carry it forward,” said the trust’s president, Pamela Montegut.
The class was postponed when Richards became ill, and he recently passed away. Montegut reached out to other caners she knew of, but since most are advanced in years, finding one willing to teach a class during the pandemic was a challenge. The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands was able to contact Lavonne Wise of St. Croix, who has been caning since 1994, to teach the class.
“We are so glad to have Lavonne because we wanted somebody who appreciated the tradition in the Virgin Islands and we have a continuation of that tradition happening here,” said Montegut.
Another challenge for the workshop was that materials for the extra kits were held up in Customs in San Diego. The trust reached out to the community to bring in their broken chairs, Montegut said, and the community answered, taking the time to go into their storage units to find chairs for the class to work on.
Most of the participants are native Virgin Islanders looking to keep in touch with their past. Kathleen Stiehler said she signed up “because it’s part of my heritage.”
Shirley Honoré continues the tradition of her grandfather, who she said wove baskets and mats. She accompanied him as a child to cut materials for his craft.
“As a native Virgin Islander, I think it’s important to continue this amazing art form and hopefully teach my girls,” said participant Tina Comissiong. “It’s such an honor to be here today.”