Tag Archives: history

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

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Two Girls Downtown

Sand and sun, tanzanite, johnny cakes and chapels. Downtown Philipsburg is as eclectic and international as you could ask. Philipsburg is the capitol of Dutch Sint Maarten, and its narrow streets hold a mixture of history and modern trends. Alyssa and I took an afternoon to explore this mix of past and present.

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Visitors to Sint Maarten often arrive by cruise ship. The first thing these tourists see is the Boardwalk, which is a sunny strip of sidewalk that borders Great Bay beach.

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Philipsburg was founded by a Dutch Navy captain named John Philips in 1763. Until the 1950’s, this area was relatively quiet, as far as tourism goes. At one time, it contained Sint Maarten’s only port, and saw just a handful of large boats each year. Later, as the island’s tourist industry expanded after World War II, bigger piers were built to accommodate cruise ships. It became one of the Caribbean’s busiest ports, and today thousands of vacationers stream off the gangways each week.

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The Saint Martin of Tours Catholic Church is located on the Boardwalk. The St. Martin of Tours Parish is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year! The church was named after the island’s own namesake, a 4th-century bishop whose feast day is November 11. When Christopher Columbus “discovered” Saint Martin on November 11, 1493, he named the island in honor of Saint Martin’s feat day. Naturally, the island’s  first Catholic church was also named after this saint.

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The Boardwalk holds many lovely surprises, like the reggae band we found and the little open-air restaurant where we stopped for icees.

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Iced drinks are the perfect refreshment on a warm February day in the tropics.

 

 

For many, the Sint Maarten experience stops here, on the edge of the aquamarine bay with a beach chair and a bottle of Heineken. But there’s so much more to downtown than just the boardwalk! Take a quick stroll down any one of the alleys leading to Front Street, and you’ll enter a whole new layer of the tourism district.

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Front Street is a wonderful place to shop if you’re not into paying sales tax and don’t mind dropping a good bit of cash of fancy goods. It’s also a good place to get a snack from local street cart vendors.

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Apparently, it’s also the perfect street for walking your pet iguana.

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The man who photobombed this picture was a pretty good salesperson. He caught our attention by jumping into this shot, and then managed to convince us to sample his wares. The face cream was nice, but neither of us were willing to pay $120 for it!

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The Sint Maarten courthouse is the most recognizable building on the island. It’s even featured on the country’s flag. It was built in 1793 and still serves as the courthouse.

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Front street is also home to a beautiful Methodist church. We stopped to take a look inside. This building was the first Methodist church on Sint Maarten. It was built in 1851, about century after the Methodist denomination was introduced to the West Indies by Nathaniel Green.

Beyond Front Street is (you guessed it) Back Street. There are many paths to Back Street, but my favorite is Old Street.

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Old Street isn’t really that much different from the rest of downtown, but it does have a certain charm about it. Maybe it’s the 50’s-era car permanently parked in the middle of the walkway, maybe it’s the big blue castle at the end of the street.

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My personal favorite place on Old Street is the art gallery. The family who owns it came here recently from Holland. The wife creates beautiful and unique art for her gallery and teaches art classes on the weekends. Her husband has a windsurf business at Le Galion Bay. His most recent work of art, he told me, is a crayon drawing of Winnie-The-Pooh.

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Back Street is for the locals. The prices here are significantly lower than those on Front Street, and you can find anything from Nike shoes to a washing machine in the stores. The look of Back Street is unique– huge stores sell appliances, old Dutch homes buzz with modern life, and local art covers the walls.

Cannegieter Street, or Third Street, as some people call it, comes next. Every day that a cruise ship docks at the port, Philipsburg Market is open. Dozens of vendors sell their goods along both sides of the road. Shoppers can buy all kinds of islandy things here. The crocheted cover-ups are my favorite.

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Pondfill Road comes last. This street is part of the main road that travels the perimeter of the island. Pondfill also runs along the Salt Pond, where slaves used to harvest salt for their masters. Salt slavery on Sint Maarten began in the 17th century. In 1848, slavery was abolished on the French side of the island, and subsequently Dutch slaves began to escape across the border for their freedom. Because of this, Dutch slave masters released their slaves and began to pay them wages for their work in 1848, although it would be 15 years before emancipation was officially legislated. There is now a monument to the salt slaves in the center of the round-a-bout on Pondfill Road. I took the picture below on Sint Maarten’s Day, when paraders marched down Pondfill dressed as salt pickers.

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As you can see, downtown Philipsburg is more than a place to tan or shop. It is the center of Sint Maarten’s history. There is so much to do and see here, but you have to go beyond the tourist district to see it all! Wherever you are, get out and go exploring. Happy adventures!

 

Some photos courtesy of Alyssa Fry. Visit her blog at ColorMeYellow.net

 

 

 

The Haunting of La Belle Creole

They have forgotten us. We have faded from memory, like our flesh faded from our bones centuries ago. Yet we are here, invisible yet seeing, inaudible yet hearing, intangible yet sensing. Our spirits laugh with the lapping waves. We cry with the soaring birds. We moan with the wind. And we rage with the storms.

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There was a time when warm blood flowed through our bodies and warm flesh wrapped our bones. We walked on the shore then, cooling our feet in the ancient and everlasting waters. We ran under the tropical sun from shore to shore. Our children dove from the cliffs—how different they looked then!—into the clear waters of the reef. We tasted the sweet meat of the crab and danced in the firelight to the rhythm of the tide.

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Then they came—the strange men with strange words and strange clothing. They were harsh and resolute, and we hated them. They brought with them their vicious dogs, their explosives, and their lust. We grew weak, and our children died with raging heat in their bodies. Our women and men died with boils and scars. We wailed as our loved ones died, and we buried them with broken hearts near the sacred islet. I died, and I lay in the chill earth, away from the warm sunlight.

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They left, and came again, this time with their cannons and ships and slaves. They had already forgotten us, and they walked on our graves. I heard their footsteps on the ground above. They dragged their cannons over our graves and shattered our silence with their wars. They annihilated our peace with the crack of whips on human flesh.

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They left, and others took their place. Generations lived and died. We slept in peace for a hundred years, with only the occasional wanderer to stir us.

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They came. Their machines roared, rattling our bones. They dug over our resting places, and built great structures over our graves. I felt the pressure of a great tower over my body. We groaned under the weight. Many people came from the whole world over, and trod on our sacred tombs. We moaned, but our cries were lost in the wind. Our bloodless beings saw the blush of the new bride. Our bleached bones saw the sun-kissed skin of the happy travelers. We remembered what we had been, and what we had lost. And we remembered that we were forgotten.

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Our moans whirled as wind around the whitewashed walls that had become a monument to our destruction. Our screams filled the air, and our souls ripped from our broken bones. We broke through the sandy earth, through the cracking concrete to the surface. We felt again the humidity of the air. We knew again the roar of the sea. Our tears of rage and loss poured from the heavens, and the rush of our agony ripped through the trees. We stirred the elements and raged from sea to sea, screaming our anger through the darkening sky. We saw them pour from buildings and take flight from our island home. We saw them take cover in every nook and cranny. We saw that they were afraid, and we took our vengeance.

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We tore through the quaint buildings, tearing with invisible claws at the rich furnishings of each room. The sound of shattering glass was lost in the volume of our screams. We threw the books, the paintings, the decorations out of the windows and doors. We destroyed their world, just as they had destroyed ours.

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We satiated our lust for vengeance, and we regarded the havoc we had wreaked. Shredded curtains floated in the gentle breeze. Glass and splinters carpeted the earth. Not a living soul was to be seen.

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Only dead ones.

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We could not return to our graves. We could not penetrate the earth again. So we haunted the empty rooms, weeping in silence. We could not return the decayed flesh to our bodies or our island home to our children. We could only swear to defend the site of our sacred graves to the end of time.

 

These eerie photos are were taken in the ruins of La Belle Creole, a resort that was deserted after it was heavily damaged when Saint Martin was struck by Hurricane Luis in 1995. Local superstition states that the resort was built over an ancient Arawak grave site, which is why no modern building projects have been successful on the peninsula. Of course, I don’t believe in haunting spirits or jinxes, but I found the legend interesting and the ruins creepy enough to warrant a paranormal telling of La Belle Creole’s story. 

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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