Tag Archives: French

Seeing Myself on the Canvas

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It’s not every day that I get to model for a famous artist. But today was not just another day!

Sir Roland Richardson is called “The Father of Caribbean Impressionism.” He’s one of Saint Martin’s foremost citizens, and has made significant contributions in the art, history, and literary aspects of the island. Internationally, he is best known for his vibrant oil paintings. He and his wife, Laura, run his art gallery out of a historic building in the French capitol, Marigot.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may have read about the day that Roland painted Stacey. Today, it was my day to sit for the master. Last time I visited the gallery, I mentioned that my husband, Ben, is from Africa and I have a few sets of clothing from Tanzania. He asked me to wear one for a painting, so I chose a colorful dress and head scarf that Ben gave me for our first Christmas and a cowrie shell necklace from Ben’s mom. The outfit not only reflects the Johnson family heritage, it also represents the island’s African influences and the narrative of many of Saint Martin’s citizens.

The painting took about four hours. As he worked, Roland told Stacey and I about the island’s history. He knows more about Saint Martin history than almost anyone! If you’re around Marigot, French Saint Martin on a Thursday, stop into his gallery to watch him paint a portrait and ask about the island’s past. Roland is a wealth of fascinating information on the Caribbean.

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Don’t you love how the painting turned out? I can’t wait to see it displayed in the gallery! What a wonderful experience.

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You can see more of Sir Roland Richardson’s work at his website here.

Photo Credits: Stacey Culpepper

Grocery Shopping in French

“Ground beef. Like, beef– cow meat– but it’s all ground up in little bits.” I did my best unofficial international sign language to accompany my explanation.

“Ah! Bœuf haché?” The grocery store employee led me to the freezer and pointed at the package of meat, eyebrows raised. “This?” He asked. It didn’t look exactly like the ground beef at Walmart, but it appeared to be ground beef nonetheless. I smiled and thanked him, placing the package in my cart.

There are only a handful of affordable grocery stores on the island of Sint Maarten, and my options are to pay $170 a trip to shop in English or $102.75 to shop in French. I choose the language barrier and saving seventy bucks.

I spend a lot of time staring at labels, trying to make out what this can or that box holds. I’ve become pretty good at guessing, and I’ve even picked up some French in the process (although don’t ask me to try to pronounce it). Whenever I learn to speak French, I’ll have a head start. I will know the word for every single food item ever invented.

Some of the labels are easy. I babysat for a bilingual family, and their kids called milk lait at all times. The cow on the front also helps.

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Others aren’t so easy. I always thought fromage was just the word for “cheese,” but apparently it’s the word for every single dairy product on the planet.

This is not cheese. It’s yogurt. When I bought it, I needed yogurt, but it looked like it could be  cottage cheese or whipped cream. I decided that the risk was worth it. Ben hoped it would be whipped cream, so he was disappointed.

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This does not say fromage, but it IS cheese. Thank goodness this bag is see-through, or I would have been even more confused than I already was.

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The hardest products to find are the ones I don’t know the French word for, can’t see through the packaging, and don’t even recognize the packaging. It took me a few trips and some asking around to find baking soda. I was looking for the small orange box, but apparently Arm and Hammer doesn’t do French.

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I suspect the packaging issue is why I still can’t find baking powder. My friend Aqiyla went shopping with me yesterday, and she couldn’t find it either, although she speaks French. You don’t realize how powerful branding is until you’re dropped in the middle of unrecognizable foreign brands.

One thing that is not hard for me to locate, however, is Nutella! I think I have a Nutella radar built into my brain. I’m OK with becoming more European, if it involves chocolate for breakfast. Yes, please!

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I have encouraging moments, too. I’m getting to the point where I can read a lot of French words, even if I couldn’t use a single one in conversation. I can understand most French signage around town, and I can tell the difference between all-purpose flour and pastry flour. I can even scan package ingredients for allergens and be fairly confident that I won’t send anyone into anaphylactic shock.

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I never thought I’d say this, but there are days that I really miss Walmart. But at the same time, I’m glad I have the chance to make shopping a bilingual adventure. After all, I never quite know what I’m going to come home with…

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A Day with the Coast Guard

One of the most important jobs in the Caribbean is that of the Coast Guard. These brave men and women are ultimately responsible for the safety and security of the islands. They are often an unseen presence, but Ben, Stacey, Turner and I had a chance to meet them up close during an event this week.

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Protecting Caribbean waters is an international effort. There are four primary countries that protect Saint Martin: Netherlands/ St. Maarten, France, Great Britain, and the United States. We had a chance to explore a boat from each of these nations and talk to the crew.

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This is the Poema, a Dutch ship outfitted to stay at sea for two weeks at a time. We thought the gun at the front of the ship was pretty snazzy. Not something you’d want to have pointed at you!

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I never realized how many knobs and buttons it takes to drive a military vessel. The more I learn about the military, the more I respect and appreciate them. You can see one of the ship’s officers through the window, giving a tour and answering questions.

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Jay and Sandy gave the Poema additional cool points just by stepping on board. Sandy is a classmate of Ben’s at American University of the Caribbean. We stopped to say hey before making our way to the next vessel.

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The biggest boat I’ve ever driven is a canoe. I was happy to sit in the driver’s seat of this police boat, but I’m glad I don’t have to actually steer it.

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After leaving the friendly Nederlanders, we boarded a small floating piece of home.

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We approved of the name.

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As much as I love being an expat, there was something wonderful about seeing the flag of the good old USA. I didn’t realize how much I miss seeing the Stars and Stripes until I stopped for a moment to watch it flutter in the Caribbean breeze.

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Here’s Captain Stacey, ready to embark on the Reef Shark.

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It was nice to stop and talk with some of the American Coast Guard. Expats, no matter their situation, are always eager to talk with someone from the home country. We compared overseas experiences, talked about where we’d been born, and discusses what’s best and worst about the change in location. Suddenly, Arizona and Georgia and Michigan didn’t seem to very far away from each other.

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Turner enjoyed the maps in each boat. Some of them were extremely detailed.

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I had to smile at this quirky hula girl on the dash. She’s a little out of place for a ship stationed in Puerto Rico, but I appreciated the touch of humor in this room of gadgets and gizmos.

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I attempted to quickly attune my ear to French accents after the familiar U.S. drawl of the American officers. The Sualouiga is a fairly large boat, with a massive engine and a larger crew than the vessels we previously toured. What struck me most about the tour was the number of back-up safety features that our guide pointed out to us. Nobody is going to die on this boat!

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Ben admired the wood interior of the control room. He especially liked the classic wheel.

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I wish I could remember how many horsepower this engine has. The boat had two of them, in addition to a couple of large generators. To put the size in perspective, the engine came up to my shoulder. I would have liked to stay longer and look closer, but the engine room was hot and stuffy. We moved on.

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Our next stop was a Sint Maartin rescue boat. It’s a little orange boat suited for choppy seas and quick returns. Everyone on board was relaxing with cool drinks on the hot afternoon, so we took a quick look around, thanked them, and went back to the pier.

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We watched the patrol boats perform crazy maneuvers in the bay.

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What’s a military fair without camo face paint?

We tried shouldering the 100-pound packs the Coast Guard wear to train in. Thy bulletproof vest was heavy enough for me, but Ben and Turner could join the Coast Guard if they wanted to!

Since guns are illegal on the Dutch side of the island, this is the first time any of us have held a firearm in months. They were unloaded, of course.IMG_2183

Our final stop was a huge Dutch ship. We had to wait a bit to go on board, since the commanding officer was preparing to walk down the gangway. It was cool to see the show of military order and respect that accompanied this event.

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The gun at the front of this ship was gigantic. We’ve come a long way since cannons!

 

Ben especially appreciated this helicopter on the ship’s landing pad.

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It’s good to know that our security is in good hands. I’ve always had a lot of respect for US military, but now I have a high regard for Dutch, French, and British military as well. Experiencing the work of international military alliances firsthand is something I’ll always remember. I hope they come together to do this event again next year! It was definitely one of my favorite things that we’ve done on the island so far. Where else can you freely tour and photograph military vessels from four different nations?

The Perspective of a Painter

If you take a stroll down the Rue de la Republique of Marigot on the island of Saint Martin, you will find a tall, 200-year-old building with red gingerbread doors and shutters. On most days, the doors and windows are flung open to allow passersby to admire vibrant artwork within. This is the art gallery of Sir Roland Richardson.

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It’s a Thursday, the day when the gallery is most interesting. On Thursdays, Roland paints portraits. Today, my friend Stacey is the chosen model, and I have come to watch.

Roland welcomes us inside his gallery and begins to show us around. The first thing that catches our attention is the bright reds and oranges of the flamboyant trees in Roland’s paintings. As he opens the gingerbread shutters, sunlight floods the gallery and illuminates the artwork– a scattering of flowers on this canvas, a still-life print on the shelf, a field of sunflowers on that canvas. Roland tells us that every single painting in his gallery was done from life. “If I’m not looking at it, I don’t paint it,” he says. For Roland, a painting is a historical object. He doesn’t want to invent something that doesn’t exist; he doesn’t want to extrapolate on a photograph. He wants to capture a moment in time.

We can see that he captures moments in the most beautiful way.

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Roland continues to set up shop, and we wander into the garden. The back wall of the garden is perfectly picturesque; it is one of the island’s oldest buildings, a French barracks that housed the army while they built Fort Louis. The garden itself is charming. We admire the voluptuous tropical flowers and chat with some of the other gallery guests.

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It is late in the morning, and the tourists begin to trickle in. Roland welcomes them with his usual zeal and immediately begins to instruct on art and light. He sets a prism on the sidewalk outside and snatches up a blank canvas to capture the rainbow it throws into the room. Light is everything to us, he explains, because it defines everything we can see. Except for the things within our reach, the only reason we can know anything exists is because of light.

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He gestures to the rainbow on his canvas. While our minds think we see seven colors, he says, there are really only three: red, yellow and blue. In religion, there is the Trinity, and in the physical world, there are three dimensions. In the world of light and color, there are the primary colors. Light goes back, it goes forward, and it goes outward in a glow. Three dimensions, and three elements to light.

Roland’s wife, Laura, arrives to manage the gallery, and Roland takes leave of his visitors. Up the stairs we go. On the second floor, There is still more art– mostly portraits. Roland sets up his canvas and tries every combination of shadow in the room to find the perfect light in which to paint Stacey. We open and close all the windows and all the doors until he is satisfied with a soft, sunlit glow from one side of the room. He focuses for a moment on his subject and then on his canvas, tracing invisible shapes on its surface with his hands. “The first gestures to me are the most important, because it is the way the subject wants to appear in the space you have,” he explains. The canvas, he tells us, is a unique space. in order to create art on the canvas, you cannot simply determine what you want to put there. Part of the art of painting is the art of discovery. You must discover how the subject wants to fit within the space of the canvas; you must draw it out of the canvas. “A painting is not a picture of something. A painting is a thing in itself.”

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The first strokes of the master are light, but strong; purposeful, but free. I watch in fascination as the image appears on the canvas. Roland talks as he works, explaining what he does and why. He works on all the pieces of the painting simultaneously so that it can grow naturally. That’s how babies grow, he says– the whole foot doesn’t develop first and then a leg and so on. A painting can’t develop that way, either.

To Roland, painting is not just an art. It is not simply a form of self-expression. “Self expression is not art,” he states. No, art is something more than that. Art is something spiritual. “I believe that paintings are an essential aspect of humankind that is really unique and that an awareness of the importance of art…is intended to nourish our beings. Our spirits.”

My mind ruminates on this thought as Roland continues his work. Art really does nourish our spirits. Supposing that the universe is random and has no meaning, then what is the purpose of beauty, and why are we drawn to beautiful things? We inherently love sunsets and recoil from spiders. God placed something within our souls that craves beauty. And He created beauty all around us. Beauty in our lives is the thumbprint of God on the world; it is His signature. Every flitting butterfly and every turquoise hummingbird whispers to us that God loves us and that there is a meaning to life.

My thoughts are interrupted as a group of students from nearby school enter the studio. They are part of an art class, and they are here to interview Roland for a school project.

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“Why did you decide to become an artist?” asks one student. Roland turns from his work, fistful of brushes in hand. “You don’t decide to become an artist,” he says. It is not a decision. It is a calling. Being an artist is more than simply a job, he says. It is the purpose that the Creator made him for. He tells the story of how he became the first St. Martin-born professional painter, from the seventeen-year-old painting his very first piece to the successful artist he is today.

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The students finish their questions, say goodbye, and file down the stairs. The painting is becoming more and more lifelike. With every stroke, it becomes more Stacey. As he paints, Roland tells us the difference between painting a person and painting anything else. With an object, you can decide what you are looking at. With a person, you must discover what you are looking at. Painting through discovery brings respect to the human subject, he admonishes. This strikes me as profound, and I wonder if biographers and photographers also think this way. Perhaps if we all approached one another in this way– not just in painting, but in everyday life– we would have more grace and respect for one another.

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It is now mid-afternoon, and the shafts of light angle differently through the windows than they did when the canvas was still white. The room is airy, and I can smell the sweet fragrance of the garden flowers. Outside, the bells break through the sound of downtown traffic to chime three o’clock. Roland puts the finishing touches on Stacey’s blue eyes. He invites her to come see. A smile lights up her face as she sees herself in fine art on the canvas. It really is beautiful.

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We take in a few more quick lessons on art and color from the artist, bid him goodbye, and emerge from the cool of the studio to the warm sunlight of the West Indies. Time ticks on, the bustle of town swallows up the moments. The ferry pulls out of port, someone is born, and someone dies. But upstairs in the studio, a moment of time is forever captured and will never be forgotten.

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One Hour in France

One week after the attacks on Paris, the French flags in Marigot, French St. Martin fly at half-mast. Although the crowds of tourists seem to obliviously enjoy the sun, sand, and sea, the denizens of Saint Martin–on both sides of the island– feel a change in the atmosphere.

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Fort Louis in Marigot, French St. Martin flies the French flag at half-mast

 

Although French St. Martin’s port flies only France’s flag at half-mast, the Dutch side of the island is hoisting all flags at half-mast, a gesture of support and compassion for its French counterpart. “Je Suis France,” cries a sign in Simpson Bay. It is times like these that the unity of the nationally-divided island is most evident.

The significance of the bombing hits close to home for many– for us, exactly .70 miles from home. I’m sure you can image the underlying fear that many people on our island feel. Besides sharing our land with the French, many of us, Ben and I included, have loved ones who live in Paris.

Security on the island is tightening as events continue to unfold. On Monday, the Dutch-side newspaper announced the arrival of a small group of Arab men with false Greek passports. The men were detained as suspected potential terrorists. I’m pretty sure they’re not– real terrorists would certainly have more realistic passports and would know better than to use Greece as their cover country.

Tuesday, the police created a road block and checked every single car on the route to the capitol. I’m not sure why, but it certainly slowed down traffic and I was glad to be coming back rather than heading toward Philipsburg.

The attack in Paris not only brought our attention and compassion to Parisians, it also (finally) opened many Western eyes to similar tragedies around the world: West Bank, Somalia, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Chad, and Cameroon all experienced acts of terrorism in the month of November, 2015 before Paris was bombed. We did not hear about those on the news because terrorism in Africa and the Middle East no longer shocks us.

Perhaps our horror at the attack on Paris will give us renewed perspective on terrorism in any country.

Maybe it will get our attention so that we will stop re-posting and start doing something about it.

Dutch Sint Maarten is not the only place Syrian refugees showed up with false papers. I heard of incidents in both Honduras and Texas in the last 24 hours. Of all the people currently affected by terrorism, certainly Syrians are at the top of the list. It seems they have nowhere to go, so they are going wherever they can. Wouldn’t you?

Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do for the suffering of Paris except put up a French flag on my Facebook account and bear with the haters and the cries of “white supremacy.” It’s not much, but it’s a way to join with St. Maarten in supporting St. Martin and France.

Fortunately, there are tangible ways that you and I can help the people escaping violence in Syria!

I found this article from a UK-based news source that gives practical ways that “regular people” can be a part of the solution.

One of my friends offered this updated Amazon link. You can spend that unused Amazon gift card and send needed items to be distributed to refugees.

Friends, the world can be a terrible place. The acts of wickedness shock us, petrify us, make us weep. But we don’t have to live in fear, without hope. We can be the hope. We can be part of the solution. We can pray for God to bring comfort, peace, and justice. Then we can stand up and be the answers to our own prayers. We can bring light into this dark world. We can extend the hand of compassion to those who are hurting. This is what God has called us to do, and we can all do it, wherever we are.