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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, May 29, 2024
HomeNewsLocal newsOn Island: Welcome to Alvin Turnbull’s Cultural Workshop

On Island: Welcome to Alvin Turnbull’s Cultural Workshop

Of the Virgin Islands, by the Virgin Islands and for the Virgin Islands … Alvin Turnbull is the real deal.

For more than 25 years, he’s been designing, creating and selling locally made handicrafts to an ever-widening fan base of residents and tourists. Come March and April, things tend to get extra busy in his home workshop as he prepares island-themed items for display at Carnival.

This year, Turnbull has an extra incentive. In recognition of his long participation, the Cultural Fair (formerly called the Food Fair) will be named “Alvin’s Cultural Workshop.” Featuring plants, handicrafts and local cuisine, the event is a highlight of the last week of Carnival.

Windy Donovan, chairwoman of the Fair Committee, said they selected Turnbull because he’s a stalwart at the fair. “He’s shy,” she noted, but “his work speaks for itself.”

As a 20-something, working in the maintenance shop at the Department of Education in the late 1980s, Turnbull had no inkling that what began as a hobby would turn into a lucrative sideline and would bring him such recognition.

It all started one day when he saw a young man wearing a pendant depicting Africa. Turnbull said he was fascinated by it and sat staring at it, thinking, “You know, I can make that.”

So he found a picture with the outline of Africa, took a wood scrap from the shop, traced the outline and cut out the pendant. He painted it and then varnished it. And at that point, Turnbull said, he realized he needed something from which to suspend it, so he bought “a pack of shoestrings.”

It didn’t take long for him to replace the shoestrings with a more appropriate cord and – at a coworker’s suggestion – to switch from the varnish to a type of epoxy. Soon he was turning out dozens of the necklaces.

Around the same time, Turnbull started helping out another coworker who sold balloons and toys from a card table during the Carnival fair, and he offered his pendants there too. They proved to be popular items. When the friend retired and moved to the States a few years later, she encouraged Turnbull to apply for his own space at the fair.

By that time, he was expanding his repertoire and his woodworking tools. He had a jigsaw at home and files for fine work. Using a picture from a calendar, he traced the outline of St. Thomas and produced carved plaques. He did apply for a vendor’s slip at the fair, which was then held at Market Square. He was awarded a space, but being a novice, he didn’t come fully prepared.

“By the library was my spot,” he said. “I didn’t have no umbrella, no chair, and the sun was hot that day.” The vendor next to him – a woman selling items made from seashells – saved him. “She borrowed me an umbrella, a table cloth and a chair.” Turnbull said he did well because he sold all 15 plaques that he brought to sell.

The next year, he rented a tent and brought a tablecloth and a chair.

Soon people were seeking Turnbull out, bringing items they wanted mounted on his plaques: awards, certificates, pictures. One of his most popular items was a clock plaque featuring the islands.

He has continued to expand his creations. There’s a necklace of shak shak seeds, cashew seeds and jumbie beads (berries.) There are plant holders fashioned from tree stumps. There’s a wide assortment of jewelry and gifts featuring sea shells. And there are many items from indigenous woods.

Turnbull said he realized a long time ago that tourists want items that are locally made and that are handcrafted from natural products.

His progress has been trial and error. While friends have made helpful suggestions along the way, no one taught him his craft.

“I make a lot of mistakes because when you’re learning on your own, you learn from your mistakes,” he said. Case in point: the epoxy he uses as a finish is actually a two-part process. If you wait too long to apply the second layer, the first will be too hot and hard and you will have ruined the piece.

Turnbull was born and raised on St. Thomas, but both his parents came from Tortola.

“All my mother’s children were born on St. Thomas, 16 of us,” he said. As a small boy, he and some of his brothers sold the Daily News, and its now defunct rival, the Home Journal, on the street. When he got a bit older, he graduated to washing cars to make spending money.

He’s worked for 27 years at Education, where he is now an executive chauffeur. He said his handicrafts are a great way to earn extra money. From an investment of about $120, he can earn maybe $700.

“I tried to get some young guys (to apprentice) because you can make good money at these things,” he said, but, “They don’t have too much of patience.” When young people view his work, he added, “They like it, but they don’t ask me how to make it.”

Still he says, “I would teach anyone.”

The 53-year old Turnbull has one daughter who lives stateside. He’s married to Sharon Davis Turnbull.

You can view – and purchase – his work at the Cultural Fair on April 29 at Emancipation Garden.

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