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Art champion Chameau says our traditions must go on

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Ronnie Chameau has spent 15 years constructing and furnishing the dollhouse behind her (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Veronica “Ronnie” Chameau is well known for her dolls and Christmas angels made from banana leaf, palm and other fibres.

But the 79-year-old, who taught herself carpentry, does a range of arts and crafts – from painting to bark art and shadow boxes to large doll houses.

She credits her intense creativity to childhood learning challenges.

“I did not do well in school,” she said. “I am dyslexic and in those days they did not really know what that was.

“One of the teachers said to me that my mother must have fed me with cement for porridge because my head was like concrete.”

The kinder teachers just let her sit at the back of the classroom, drawing or making paper dolls.

“All I ever wanted to do was art,” she said.

At home, she would get into trouble for drawing in her father, Reginald Smith’s, reading books.

She left St George’s Secondary School when she was 14 and helped her mother, Nina, with work around the house “or babysat children on the base“.

In her late teens she worked as a receptionist at Fort St Catherine.

“Sometimes, at the end of the day, I would sit and draw,” she said. “Taxi drivers would come in and look at what I was doing and say wow, that is really nice. You should really pursue your art.”

Ronnie Chameau with a banana-leaf doll made by Marie Gleeson in the 1930s (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

But life went along uneventfully until she met her husband Michel Chameau.

“He came in 1962 with 21 other French guys from the Hotel School of Nice to work at the Bermudiana Hotel when it opened, the second time,” she said. “He came in the summer and I met him just before Christmas. I put my little hook out and got him.”

Her father, who worked for Belco, was nervous when they announced their engagement.

“I was their only daughter,” Ms Chameau said. “All my father knew was that Michel was a foreigner. He was worried that he did not know Michel’s family.”

Ronnie Chameau on her wedding day with her father, Reginald Smith (Photograph supplied)

Her father wrote to Mr Chameau’s family in Nice and they invited the Smith family to visit.

“Of course, my parents could not afford to go to France,” she said. “So Michel and I went to France together for Christmas 1964. I had never been away from home before and I was so homesick. But Michel’s family were so kind to me.”

They married at the Chapel of Ease in St David’s in 1965.

“I wore a white, sharkskin suit,” she said. “When I tell people that, sometimes people say, you mean you saved the skin from a shark? I [have to explain] that there is a fabric called sharkskin.”

The couple moved to Pembroke. Ms Chameau joined the Bermuda Society of Arts and started exhibiting her paintings in different shows.

Ronnie and Michel Chameau on their wedding day at the Chapel of Ease in St David’s (Photograph supplied)

Aside from art, her other passion in life has always been Bermuda history. She is the treasurer of the St David’s Historical Society and has also been heavily involved in the St David’s Islanders and Native Community.

“I have native ancestry on both sides of my family,” she said.

As a child she would race to the home of a neighbour, Joseph Lambe, to hear his stories after dinner.

“He would talk about the old times,” she said. “He was in his eighties then and I was about ten.”

They lived in an area of St David’s called Cocoa Bay, near what is now Clearwater Middle School.

“Today there are different houses there but when I was growing up it was mostly just open land,” she said. “Uncle Joe had a little wooden house on top of the hill. He used to farm all of that property. He would plough it with a pitchfork and hoe. He did not use any machines back then. He was well-known for his sweet potatoes, pumpkins and onions.”

After she married, Ms Chameau got a job with Trimingham Brothers. She started at 22 as a shop assistant and worked her way up to assistant buyer and floor manager. In the 1970s, she ran the perfume and cosmetics counter.

"In 1974, they sent me to Paris for training,“ she said. ”I worked at the Dior Boutique on Avenue Montaigne for about three weeks.“

Trimingham’s helped cement her reputation for making banana-leaf dolls.

“I wanted to branch out from my art in 1986,” she said. “I said I will revive the dying art of these dolls because they are so beautiful.”

She had loved them ever since she was eight, when her parents gave her one made by Marie Gleeson, then a well-known Bermudian artist.

Ms Chameau called Ms Gleeson and asked her how she made them but she was reluctant to share her methods.

She recalled: “She said, ‘Young lady, I taught myself how to do it, and you can too.’”

So Ms Chameau carefully deconstructed her beloved Gleeson doll and then put it back together.

“I wanted to see how it was made,” Ms Chameau said. “I did my own doll and took it in to Trimingham’s. Eldon Trimingham said, ‘Oh what have you got there?’ When I explained, he said leave it in the shop and see it how it sells.”

They sold well.

After 39 years with Trimingham’s, Ms Chameau retired “a little before I turned 65”.

Today she is determined that the art form will not die.

Janet DeBraga has a shop below the St George’s Historical Society, exactly where Ms Gleeson once had her store.

“I go there every Wednesday and teach her how to do different things,” Ms Chameau said. “She is doing very well with it. It must go on. It needs to go on.”

In 2016, Ms Chameau was awarded the British Empire Medal for her contributions to Bermuda culture.

• Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens each week. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published January 18, 2023 at 7:58 am (Updated January 20, 2023 at 8:24 am)

Art champion Chameau says our traditions must go on

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