Like most Caribbean islands, St. Martin is steeped in a rich and long oral tradition that permeates the identity of its people and shapes everything, from the art produced on the island to the very diction of local parlance.When it comes to storytelling, though, few could compete against the inventive prowess of Ruby Bute. A multi-faceted artist in the richest sense of the term, she was born in Aruba, where her parents (from St. Martin) lived, like so many other Caribbean nationals, in the Village—the housing complex developed by Jersey Standard for their workers at Lago refinery.
Bute has lived on St. Martin since the 1970s, and she’s earned a reputation above all for her warm chronicling of island life. A trained and highly successful artist as well as a well-loved teacher, Bute’s art and literature are but complementary means for her to build a comprehensive narrative of life—and particularly of women’s life—on this corner of the Earth. She became the first woman in St. Martin to publish a book of poetry when House of Nehesi launched her Golden Voices of S’maatin in 1989. Her second collection of poetry, Floral Bouquets to the Daughters of Eve (1995), focuses on the lives and roles of women, whose existence is extolled in beautiful, mellow descriptions of even the most challenging moments.
Bute’s Silk Cotton Grove Art Gallery is located in Friar’s Bay. Recitals are often arranged at her home/studio, though in all likelihood any visit would result in a storytelling session of some sort—a highly enjoyable, insightful and advisable experience indeed.
Following in the footsteps of the likes of Ruby Bute, Lasana Sekou and Papa Umpu is a new generation of committed, outspoken and hugely talented voices—the youngsters heeding the call and taking on the mantle. One of the most visible members of this new generation is Drisana Jack.
Born in the Netherlands, Jack grew up in St. Martin, her mother’s homeland, before she headed out to SUNY in Buffalo where she obtained an MFA in 2002. Her first poetry collection, The Rainy Season, came out in 1997 but further training and influences from performance disciplines such as theater and dance influenced her literary production dramatically. A consummate artist as well as a writer, Jack’s second collection, Skin (2006) reveals how for her poetry is as much music as it is spoken word, a fact that ties in perfectly with her conception of art as a form of expression in which the visual and rhythmic elements are equally important. Jack teaches at New Jersey City University and her work is published by St. Martin’s House of Nehesi.
For those looking to explore the vibrant young art scene in St. Martin, Axum Art Café in Philipsburg is the place to be. Owned by the eclectic artist Ras Mosera, this distinctive venue is constantly hosting spoken word events, jazz concerts, art exhibitions and the likes.
The Caribbean has long been a source of inspiration for artists, foreign and homegrown alike—there is just something in the sun and the sea, the light and shadows here that triggers that je ne sais quoi. From Pissarro to Gaugin, from Winslow Homer to Wilfredo Lam, Henri Robert Bresil or Armando Reveron, they all found in the Caribbean—its nature, its hue, its people—the crucial ingredient to break through, to pioneer and shine a new light, quite literally, on a tradition that is as ancient as mankind: art.
St. Martin is no exception to the rule, as can be attested from a quick look at the phone book or a brief drive around the island: it’s packed with galleries—and they’re good ones too!
When it comes to painting in St. Martin, though, one name emerges from the crowd and rises monumentally to cut a large and friendly father figure. That name is Roland Richardson, the patriarch of outdoor painting. For an art lover, visiting Richardson’s gallery in Marigot is a must: vivid and colorful, simple and yet tremendously engaging, his work is evidently shaped by his technique—always painting outdoors, always in direct contact with his subject, always exposing his eyes to the light before conveying that very experience on the canvas. But the trait that truly makes Richardson’s painting stand out is this: it’s genuine.
Roland Richardson is a true island son, having been born here in 1944 to a family that has spent the last couple of centuries in the region. This seemingly circumstantial detail weighs heavily not only on his work—where he strives to further the Caribbean strand of a pictorial tradition—but also on his lifestyle, which in many ways is his most ambitious oeuvre. Nowhere is this more evident than in his beautiful gallery in the Rue de la République, a stunning building from the first half of the XIX century where his charming wife, Laura, always greets you with a smile.
Clean, tidy, impeccably restored and tastefully decorated, the grounds and the gallery conspire to offer the visitor a glimpse of the vast tradition that envelops Richardson’s life and works—a tradition that dates back to the days leading up to the French Revolution and starts with a disenfranchised royalist officer suddenly found on the wrong side of the conflict, a tradition that many generations later continues with Richardson himself, who has been knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who speaks to you in English (rather than French or Dutch), who, in other words, brings together in a single existence many of the singular elements that have shaped life in this tiny Caribbean island,
There is, however, more than one way to influence, partake in or interpret tradition, and Francis Chapon’s approach is no less enticing than Roland Richardson’s. A French émigré arrived from Bordeaux in the 1980s, Chapon comes with a background as a photographer—which might have given him a head start in terms of aesthetic sensibility but which didn’t help much in terms of technique. Because before getting to St. Martin Chapon had never tried his hand at painting. Quite remarkable, really, if you see his progression over the best part of the last three decades.
Chapon’s style is all the contrary to what you might expect from a photographer: lyrical, evocative, even somewhat dreamy in a strangely lucid, captivating way. Presented with the wealth of stimuli, with the overwhelming beauty that St. Martin keeps in store for anyone who cares to notice, Chapon—who very much cares to notice—turned to brush and pallet to project the effects of all that beauty back onto the world. The result is a heartwarming interpretation of the reality of Caribbean life seen through the eyes of a foreigner—an outsider—who all these years later continues to be awed by—to be in love with—his surroundings. Chapon’s works, sensitive watercolors and slightly more dramatic oils, can be viewed in his home/gallery in Cul-de-Sac.
But these are just two of the many different creative interpretations found in St. Martin. Equally noteworthy is, for instance, Francis Eck’s rich, colorful production. Opting for abstract compositions, Eck chooses to convey meaning through emotion using weighty textures, often applied with a palette knife, that deliver more intense results. His work is on display at his home in Orient Bay which also doubles up as his studio.
Another outstanding local artist is Cynric “Griff” Griffiths, originally from St. Kitts but a long-time adopted son of St. Martin. His portraits are especially soul-searching and his full body of work stands as an exercise in exploring the identity of the island beyond political boundaries, beautifully and insightfully representing the architecture, the vegetation, the landscapes and views that on a daily basis offer S’martiners a taste of the sublime. His work can be seen at the Art Line Framers Gallery on Well Road, Cole Bay.
Theo Bonev: Perhaps the island’s most recognizable work of art is Theo Bonev’s Lady Liberty statue, unveiled in 2007 on the Agrément roundabout in Marigot. Born in Bulgaria, Bonev studied Fine Arts in Sofia before traveling to St. Martin more out of coincidence than with any true intent. An adoptive son of the island for over 25 years, he primarily works as a sculptor in stone or bronze although his watercolors and drawings are also on display at the Tropismes Gallery in Grand Case.
Lady Ruby Bute: More than a painter, Lady Ruby is the local raconteur extraordinaire who exploits all modes of expression to chronicle the island of her love. Born in Aruba to St. Martin parents in 1943, she has been living on the island since the 1970s. Quaint, vivacious and deeply narrative, her paintings evoke memories of days past and are displayed at her Silk Cotton Grove Art Gallery in Friar’s Bay.
Antoine Chapon: When Chapon arrived in St. Martin in 1983, he was a photographer, not a painter. Born in Bordeaux, France, in 1952, he organized his first exhibition in 1990 and has been working in his beautiful house overlooking Cul-de-Sac since 1995, where he also exhibits his pieces. Over the last two decades Chapon has cemented his reputation as one of the most lyrically soothing and aesthetically pleasing creators in the region.
Francis Eck: A trained teacher in physical education, Eck was born in the Alsatian town of Dannemarie, France, in 1949. He came to the Caribbean via St. Barth and Guadeloupe in the mid 1980s and finally settled in St. Martin, where he is based much of the year. Rich textures, colorful scenes and the marriage figurative and abstract tendencies characterize his paintings. His home/gallery at 47-2 Les Jardins d’Orient Bay can be visited by appointment. Other wise his work is on display at the Bistro Nu and Mario’s Bistro in Marigot and at Bistro Caribe, Restaurant Villa and Restaurant Le Soleil in Grand Case.
Cynric Griffith: “Griff,” as he is commonly known, was born in St. Kitts but he first came to St. Martin in the late 1950s. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in New York in 1972 but has been exhibiting his art since 1955. A singular portraitist and landscapist, his work is sober and attentive, relying not so much in color as in the mood to convey its meaning. In 2013 he was awarded the Culture Prize by the Prince Bernard Culture Fund and his paintings can be seen at the Art Line Framers Gallery on Well Road, Cole Bay.
Ras Mosera: Born in St. Lucia in 1955, Ras Mosera is an eclectic artist and musician who taught himself painting as a means to earn a living. In the process he has become one of the most respected and distinctive painters on the island. Complex compositions caught halfway between the lushness of the Caribbean and the intensity of expressionism, his work is showcased in his own Axum Jazz Café in Philipsburg.
Sir Roland Richardson: The word art is synonymous in St. Martin with the name Roland Richardson: the maestro of outdoor painting is a true native son, with his family’s Caribbean roots dating back over 200 years. Born in 1944, he has been cultivating his colorful impressionistic style for over 45 years. He was knighted for his artistic contributions by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 2007 and his work is aptly displayed in the gallery/museum at #6 Rue de la République in Marigot in an absolutely stunning historical building from the XVIII century.
Buying Art in St. Martin
In Marigot Sir Roland Richardson’s gallery/museum is a must, while the GingerBread gallery has a rich selection of Haitian art. Grand Case offers a confluence of fine cuisine and fine art between January and April on Tuesday nights, and is also home to the Tropismes Gallery, which represents a number of artists from the region, including Theo Bonev and St. Kitts-based Kate Spencer. Elsewhere, Lady Ruby Bute’s Silk Cotton Grove Art Gallery in Friar’s Bay and the Minguet Gallery in Rambaud are certainly noteworthy, as is Francis Chapon’s house gallery in Cul-de-Sac. Francis Eck opens his house/gallery in Orient Bay by appointment only, but no previous arrangement is necessary to experience the creative buzz of Ras Mosera’s Axum Jazz Café in Philipsburg. Other galleries of note are the Art Line Framers Gallery in Cole Bay, the ArtLovers Association gallery in Porto Cupecoy, and noco Art Studio in Terre Basses.
Parts of this overview were published separately by Experience Sint Maarten/Saint-Martin in 2015 and Visit in 2016. The featured image is a painting by Francis Eck.