Thank you to all who came out Friday night for the exhibit opening! To learn more about these paintings and the sources of inspiration, search this blog using key words “Harbour Island.” You can also visit http://arttalkkabf.blogspot.com or click here to listen to artist, curator and radio host, Rachel Trusty, interview Laura about her work and about the current exhibit.
I think often of an island that fills my childhood memories. My mind goes straight to certain places there: a sweaty dance floor at Sea Grapes before it was rebuilt and then after, the overturned beached dingy with a litter of puppies underneath, a horse named Francis in the living room of a house, Sunday breakfast at Pink Sands before Hurricane Andrew hit, the old Greek magnet’s burned down yet palatial ruins. I remember certain people and realize they are frozen in my memory untouched by time. Larry Cleary singing Night Shift, Dawson kindly walking me home, Gus behind the bar and at the pool table, Carol and Roger in their library, Angela barking orders. Sometimes we presume the people and places in our memories to be accurate accounts in the present. But time does not reach and alter places or people in our memories. They are frozen there until our minds can no longer play that slide show.
Mistakingly, I thought I was a part of this place. But it was and is a place of its own – I was just a shadow passing through. Now, after many years, I look back and ask, how can a place be so important to me, yet I am not important to that place? This is a question to ask ourselves as visitors when we do not contribute to a community with long term commitment, when we are not there through the good and bad, through the reality of living. When we visit a place, we are experiencing an alternate realm, that of a tourist. There is a closed door to the real life there. Considering the local people, their history, lives, families, work, personal struggles and celebrations, we realize how inconsequential we are as visitors. Fondness does not equal belonging.
Despite my fleeting time there, I started a group of paintings about a year and a half ago after visiting Harbour Island for the first time in over 20 years. Returning to a place after many years can be jarring because the present can show us the flaws in our memories, how we romanticize or selectively choose to store certain details and discard others. How we recreate the truth, rewriting our past to fit a script we want to believe. Even when our memories are relatively clear, the passage of time changes a place so we realize what we remember does not really exist anymore, except in our minds.
In some ways, I started working on this group of paintings when I was 8 years old…I remember being obsessed as a child with the disheveled graveyards sprinkled around the island, with their cracked headstones, and overgrown wildness. Some of my first drawings and paintings were of those headstones, entangled in vines and home to flocks of chickens.
Using memories, photos and sketches from the island has become a vehicle to articulate ideas I’ve tried to convey for years through painting: that everything we see is a partial image altered by individual perception, that all things fade as time passes, and that our memories are altered by our minds plus the passage of time. This group of work is also influenced by the writings of Dr. Alan Lightman. Lightman is unique in that he has dual tenureship at MIT, in the Writing and in the Physics departments. Perhaps he is able to so eloquently write about memory and time because he understands it, not like most of us, in a vague and abstract way, but from a scientific perspective.
In the NYT article, “Ghost House of My Childhood,” Lightman writes, “Some philosophers claim that we know nothing of the external world outside our minds – nothing compared to what sways in our minds, in the long, twisting corridors of memory, the vast mental rooms with half-open doors, the ghosts chattering beneath the chandeliers of imagination.”
Some of the pieces in this exhibit are snapshots, like a frozen moment captured that can never be seen again in just that way. Some of the paintings reference nature overtaking a manmade structure, which alludes to the passage of time. And some of the paintings combine images like our memories smooshing together poignant moments into one illogical snapshot that we accept as a true moment in the past. For example:
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy the paintings and the ideas that inspired this group of work. Laura
It is hard to imagine how art could possibly capture the essence and beauty of Harbour Island, a tiny slice of heaven off North Eleuthera in the Bahamas. While sketching and photographing during a recent visit, I realized there are countless images and ideas that could be conveyed with drawing and painting. Abstractions could aim to capture the onslaught of brilliant light and color. The abundant foliage could make a limitless subject for botanical themed work. As a figurative artist, the temptation to capture the beauty and kindness of the people is irresistible.
But I can’t seem to escape the ideas mentioned in Part 1 (the previous blog entry) about the visual cues of time passing, and sometimes standing still, and of history, and of nature always altering, and reclaiming and continuing with or without us. So I’ll use images that prompt us to go back, to see the past, to wonder about our memories and the time before us. Perhaps in a strange combination, I can evoke the past while presenting figures who now have their turn at this magical place in the present.
One way to sort through the ideas and options is to seek inspiration in the work of others. Luckily, there is an fine art gallery nestled amongst the cottages and business in town. Upon entering the Princess Street Gallery, one quickly becomes aware of the talent – from both local and international artists – behind the poignant drawings and paintings. The work includes a variety of styles and subjects ranging from landscape to figurative. The overall impression when entering the space is much like the visual impression of the island – both the art and the island present breath-taking beauty, vivid color, creative patterns and vibrant people.
Though he was busy preparing for a customer meeting, owner Charles Carey gave me a few minutes of time to talk about his business. After growing up in Nassau and working in New York City, Carey relocated to Harbour Island and noticed “numerous artists on the island creating work with no where to show it.” With the grin of someone who loves his job, he explained that opening the gallery “was an experiment, really.” Nineteen years later, I’d say his experiment produced success for Carey, for the artists on his roster, and for collectors.
I was particularly drawn to two artists whose approaches, style, and subject matter seem to be opposite of each other, yet each artist captures a deep truth about island life. Native Bahamian and former house painter, Amos Ferguson uses repetition and bold shapes to create recognizable imagery in an abstracted environment full of color, texture and pattern. His work is immediately delightful, and on closer inspection, viewers notice a narrative or deeper meaning behind the deceptively simple figures. While the paintings can be perceived as child-like, don’t be fooled. The compositions are masterful and indicate a natural talent and gift.
I first saw the work of Stephen Scott Young in a private collection, the same collection that inspired me to study figure painting in grad school. So it was a meaningful treat to view several pieces displayed at Princess Street Gallery. His ability to perfectly execute anatomy, from expressive faces down to each carefully placed finger and toe, is unrivaled amongst watercolorists. But it is the choice he makes in the details, guiding our eyes and thoughts, that describes the mood, character and lives of the figures with brilliant clarity. He shows us the outside of each person as well as the individual spirit and circumstance which is perhaps one reason for his international success.
As I search for a way to present people, define space, and share the spirit of this place, I think of other artists and their methods. Those at Princess Street Gallery show me capturing the essence of Harbour Island is possible. The opportunity to spend time here, a place of lush growth, crystal clear water, and deeply kind people is a delight for anyone and a visual cornucopia for an artist. Creating meaningful art to represent such a magical place is a challenge for which I am deeply grateful and ready to face. Perhaps next entry, I’ll share a few pieces from current painting efforts. Until then, below are are few early sketches.
I hope you are having a lovely summer. Thank you for reading!
This is part one in a two part series about a recent visit to a magical place that remains in my heart and mind no matter how far away I am. When I was a girl, I dreamed about living on Harbour Island in the Bahamas and believed I would someday grow up to become a resident art teacher and artist there. But sometimes we pursue our dreams and other times we shelve them, assigning them to the wide realm of childish fantasy.
It feels somewhat disrespectful to say that frequent family visits to the island led me to consider the place a home…there were and are Bahamian residents with long and rich histories, and we were simply tourists, no matter how attached we became to the people and place. Our visits, sometimes several times a year, were always temporary and fleeting. Despite our status as visitors, my brother and I became friends with many of the islanders, especially the children near our age who we met on the beach, or on the streets, or on a makeshift dance floor somewhere, or on the sand flats at one end where we could walk way out into the ocean at low tide.
This year, encouraged by my brother, my parents generously broke our hiatus from Harbour Island and invited the family to revisit this place so thick with memories and stories and natural beauty. Some of the stories are our own, like when I was 8 years old, we entered an Inn called Ocean View to find a donkey named Francis milling about in the living room. Or our visits to Angela’s for countless dinners sitting under the stars amongst the roosters. While sitting at Angela’s this time, listening to her great-granddaughter read a book, I realized that instead of isolated moments in time, the stories and memories continue to evolve, and that life continues with or without us there.
Some stories, belonging to others, became our own folklore as we watched island families grow, events occur, and traditions unfold. For example, when my parents first visited 40 years ago, they explored an abandoned palatial home on one end of the island. As the story goes, a Greek shipping magnet built the opulent home for his new bride. In addition to the home and gardens, the compound included a short airstrip that ended in the crystal clear bay known as starfish alley (though as children we knew it as a barracuda den) and a dock for multiple yachts. A few days after the wedding, the bride ran away in the night, deserting her new husband and home. The grief stricken man walked way, never to return.
My parents tell of walking through the house where they found furniture such as a dining room table, frozen in time, with beautiful place settings, stemware and candle sticks, as if the home was waiting for its occupants to return. Soon after my parent’s initial visit, the mansion was partly destroyed in a fire, and the remaining objects found new homes. My brother and I carefully explored every nook and cranny as children, imagining the missing tenants and expecting ghosts to drive us away. And each year, from age 8 to 25, I watched nature reclaim the structure. This year, I was relieved to find so much of it still standing tall and proud.
As I walked around the island this time, amongst the schools, the restaurants, the shops and the homes, I considered a line I recently read in a novel by Orhan Pamuk: “When you love a city and have explored it frequently on foot, your body, not to mention your soul, gets to know the streets so well after a number of years that in a fit of melancholy, perhaps stirred by a light snow falling ever so sorrowfully, you’ll discover your legs carrying you of their own accord toward one of your favorite promontories.” While this is not a place of snow, there are other elements to stir my melancholy and my legs each morning carried me to points I’d long forgotten.How will I capture the sheer beauty of this place in my paintings? Will I even try? The beauty I see is filtered by concepts about life and death, the passage of time, ideas about the closed chapter of childhood, and a hyper-nostalgic longing. As I sketched and photographed during endless walks on the island, I found myself searching for something that no longer exists. But fragments remain, such as the narrow swath of rough concrete that once was the airstrip but is now covered with heaps of rusted metal and the island’s natural growth reclaiming what man once built. Fragments such as the fig tree decorated year round in Christmas lights led to a longing for a place that is now only memory intertwined with what exists in the present.
Will I paint in an attempt to capture profound beauty? Or I am compelled to incorporate evidence of history and time passing? Perhaps a worthy artistic attempt could be made with painting specific objects, such as shoes, shells, bouys, and remnants of previous lives. In the recent New York Times magazine article, “On Photography,” Teju Cole writes, “Objects have the strongest memories of all…” and “objects are what remain, remnants of something that was before, a moment, experience, person, situation that no longer exists.” Perhaps I can take a cue from Cole and simplify complex ideas, memory, history and the beauty of Harbour Island into paintings of meaningful objects.
Inevitably, I will over analyze and complicate as I produce this body of work; the consequence of allowing too much emotion into the process. I will think of my childhood friend, Dawson, who I looked so forward to seeing this visit but who, I learned, died in a boating accident two years ago. And I will think of others who are gone and some who have arrived and how everything changes while so much stays the same. I can hope these ideas and the accompanying emotion will make an appearance in my paintings and allow viewers to deeply connect with the art while I express years of impressions of Harbour Island.Next up: Harbour Island Part Two will cover island art as a source of inspiration. Thank you for reading!