Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Art in Bermuda by Philip Willey

The Portuguese knew about Bermuda but never settled. In 1610 a small English ship, the Sea Venture, on its way to Virginia, was driven onto a reef after a storm. The crew and passengers all survived, built a new ship from the remains of the old one and sailed on to Virginia. Shortly after another ship arrived and a colony was established in what became the town of St. George. The colony grew, slaves and convicts were brought in to build a series of forts and fortifications and Bermuda became a strategic base for the British Navy on a par with Gibraltar. Later tourism and cruise ships, hotels and golf courses brought wealthy visitors many of whom stayed. More recently Bermuda has become an offshore financial center.

Bermuda is unbelievably beautiful. Cedars, palms, pastel coloured houses, pink beaches and always glimpses of the turquoise blue Atlantic Ocean. The main roads are narrow and busy and sidewalks are few so walking can be tricky. Fortunately there is a disused railway track that runs almost the whole length of the island which is a delight to walk. Here you'll find an abundance of semi-tropical vegetation, home to colourful birds like the siskadee, cardinals and bluebirds. You'll get glimpses through the palmettos and hibiscus hedges into Bermudan backyards. If you're really lucky you may spot Michael Douglas mowing his lawn. 

At the turn of the last century young artists like Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth and George Ault were all drawn to Bermuda by the light and the scenery which they found ideal for watercolours. Residency restrictions were lax at the time and they found a ready market for their work among the wealthy visitors. This meant that not many paintings actually stayed in Bermuda which left something of a cultural vacuum. Enter Tom Butterfield and Elise Outerbridge who have made it their life's mission to bring together a collection of Bermuda inspired art with the intention of enriching the understanding of Bermuda's heritage. They founded Masterworks in 1987 and raised the money for a new gallery in a converted arrowroot factory which now stands proudly in the Bermuda Botanical Gardens. Here you can find work by Winslow Homer, George Ault, Prosper Senat, Ogden Pleissner, Ross Sterling Turner, Henry Moore, Jack Bush and Georgia O'Keefe.....all of whom were frequent visitors to the island. Attached to the gallery is Homer’s CafĂ©. A nice place to sit. (1)

The Bermuda National Gallery in City Hall shows work by local and international artists. Currently they are showing work by Ebony G. Patterson.  Her show is called ‘Out and Bad', a Jamaican expression of joy with connotations of ‘coming out’. Ebony is from Jamaica and her highly decorative tapestries and installations deal with race and gender issues based on the vibrant Jamaican dancehall culture. Campy, queer, it's hard to know what Bermudans think of these sensational expressions of personal identity. The highly decorative outfits worn by the young male mannequins make Bermuda shorts look straight-laced by comparison. Unfortunately I wasn't permitted to take photographs but Ebony has a website. (2)

‘Bermuda is a microcosm,’ says April Branco. April is a talented young artist who runs her own gallery in the Washington Mall, Hamilton. She studied under Sharon Wilson, an artist who manages to combine commercial success with social concerns. April’s gallery is well worth a visit and she is happy to talk about art in Bermuda. She suggested I go to the Windjammer Gallery in the Fairmont Hamilton Princess, one of Bermuda’s luxury hotels where I found work by Christopher Grimes, Sharon Wilson and others. Another good place to look at paintings is the Bermuda Art Center located at the Old Naval Dockyard. Here you’ll find high quality watercolours by Christopher Marson and Jill Amos-Raine, sculpture by Chesley Trott and the vivid oil paintings of Jonah Jones, also work by Graham Foster who painted the spectacular historical mural in the Commissioner’s House.

Locals like to complain about the bus service on Bermuda. It seemed pretty good to me though I can see how they might have problems when the cruise ships arrive. Buses run up and down the island from the main station in Hamilton and it isn’t hard to figure out the system. At the other end of the island is the quaint old town of St. George. Here you’ll find the Masterworks Artist in Residence. At the moment it’s Karin Leff who comes from New Jersey. I found her in her residence surrounded by her work. Karin told me the job lasts 6 months and the only condition is that the artists produce a body of work on a Bermudan theme. This is shown at Masterworks at the end of the contract. Karin said she found no shortage of subjects. She kindly took me round the corner to Featherbed Alley and introduced me to some other artists, Emma Ingham, Jeannine Smith and Liz Jones, in their shared studio.

Bermuda has no franchises and no garish signs, an act of resistance which makes for an overall aura of tasteful calm. Not that the island is immune to social problems but the casual visitor would never know it. Like the rest of the world Bermuda is experiencing difficult economic times. Racial divisions are surfacing.
The sun shines, the beaches are wonderful and the people are friendly….still it’s hard to shake a feeling of paradise lost. A few artists are confronting it head on, Manuel Palacio's 'I Hate White People' being an extreme example. Manuel caused quite a stir with that one. He also shows flower paintings at the Port Royal Golf Club.

Tony Brannon is a busy man. Apart from being a major mover on the Bermudan music scene he is also producing the Lennon Commemorative Tribute which he sees as an opportunity to put Bermuda on the cultural map.

John Lennon arrived in Bermuda by boat in 1980. He rented a house in Fairylands called Villa Undercliff. He liked to spend time in the Botanical Gardens and sit in the cafe that preceded Homer's. It was here that he saw the freesia called Double Fantasy. It had been five years since he’d written a song. Inspired possibly by sailing the boat through a storm, the tranquillity of the island and separation from Yoko he began to work on the songs that became the Double Fantasy album.

The Memorial Tribute promises to be a major event. It will be held at the Masterworks Gallery in June. Four thousand Double Fantasy freesias will be arriving from Japan, numerous artists and musicians will be contributing, and the John Lennon Memorial Sculpture by Graham Foster will be unveiled. (3)

Later, back in Victoria it all seems like a dream. Putting my notes in order and wondering what kind of tone to take, it occurs to me that I could write half a dozen articles about Bermuda, all from different perspectives; such is the richness, and the strangeness of the island. And if you’re wondering about the artist in residence job you can apply here…

March 2012

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