How an artist found his subject
Before Roland Richardson painted the iconic flamboyant with its fiery red blooms, the tropical tree wasn’t well known outside the artist’s native St. Martin.
“I was in a field and I sensed someone, a presence,” he recalled. “I realized I was looking at this great red tree thinking: ‘could this tree somehow be aware of me?’”
His transcendent experience awakened his consciousness of the eastern Caribbean’s pure light and intense color spectrum. “I was having a unique experience of being provoked by color,” he said in an interview.
The flamboyant has since become his signature subject, and he’s popularized it far and wide. Today Richardson, 64, is a leader of Caribbean impressionism, and the best-known artist in the French West Indies. An impassioned colorist, he’s an en plein air painter whose reverence for the pure Caribbean light is deftly reflected on his canvases.
He also creates woodcuts, copper plate etchings and pastel drawings. Martha Graham, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Harry Belafonte, Ivan Lendl, the Getty family and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands have all bought his work.
His fame notwithstanding, he can often be found perched on a St. Martin hillside, shaded by his wide-brimmed straw hat, and painting the lush green mountains that reach down to the azure ocean.
When the Harlem renaissance painter Romare Bearden saw Richardon’s work at the National Urban League in New York in the 1980s, he was impressed.
“Richardson sees the island with both the lens of a painter and the inward gaze of a poet,” Bearde wrote about Richardson’s work while it was on exhibit at the National Urban League Gallery in New York in 1986. “He is absorbed with delicate renderings of his island in a morning and afternoon light. He responds, moreover, to the sensuous color of St. Martin and, indeed, to the full glow of nature.”
Richardson’s route to the flamboyant was circuitous.
Growing up on the tiny island his French ancestors helped settle in the 1700’s, he would help his grandfather pull fish-pots in Grand Case Bay, or milk the cows. Then he’d walk barefoot to school, carrying his good shoes, to be worn only in the classroom. In his hometown of Marigot, a beautiful seaside village of cobblestoned streets, there were no artists or galleries (today dozens of artists live and work in this tiny French-side enclave, and have founded an Art Lovers Association, an annual festival to promote Caribbean visual arts.
Richardson sensed his talent, but didn’t understand it. So kept it secret.
“I knew I had a special gift somehow, but I never believed that it was in art, because it wasn’t part of my vocabulary,” he said. “I wasn’t an American boy who was exposed to things like museums.”
He might have been born American, though, if not for a business disaster. In the 1800’s, an expedition led by his American great grandfather, a sea captain who traded between St. Martin and the U.S. northeast coast, was caught in a terrible storm. The captain’s cargo of salt melted away. Unwilling to travel back to the states with an empty hold, he stayed on St. Martin – and made his future there.
Several generations later, in the 1950s, Richardson’s grandfather, daughter and her six children emigrated to the United States, settling in New London, Connecticut. Richardson was 13. A high school teacher was the first to notice, and encourage, the shy boy’s artistic talent. He eventually became one of a select group of art students accepted to the University of Hartford’s Hartford Art School.
“I never dreamt I could go to art school,” Richardson admitted. “I still felt a lack of confidence. I had no bravado.”
Uncertain about his ability to fulfill class assignments, he would overcompensate.
“I couldn’t just create one painting of a mango – I had to paint several, each in different light, different colors, different sizes,” he recalled. “I wasn’t complacent, and I set my own precedent for being prolific.”
Eventually he returned to St. Martin, where he took his paints and brushes outside to rediscover Caribbean nature. That’s when he connected with flamboyant.
The showy tree, native to Madagascar, grows in China and South Florida, but is most associated with the Caribbean. Others have fallen in love with it, too. Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra all recorded a romantic song about it: “Poinciana,” (Song of the Tree).
Today Richardson lives and works in the Marigot building, to which his family has a 300-year-old connection. King Louis XVI commissioned a Richardson ancestor, the knight Sieur de Durat, to build it as a garrison, to protect the harbor on the then all-French controlled island. The original garrison was hand-laid in stone. As Louis XVI was beheaded in 1789, at the start of the French revolution, the family never saw fit to return to France.
France and the Netherlands, which amicably divide governance of the island, each honored Richardson in 2007. The French gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Dutch awarded him a knighthood – the Order of Orange of Nassau, bestowed by Queen Beatrix.
A seven-foot long original painting of the flamboyant now hangs in the governor’s mansion in Curacao.
He’s still going strong. “I have been painting for 42-plus years,” he said, “and I have sworn to never retire.”
Abby Luby is a writer based near New York City.
Experiencing the Arts on St. Martin
You can visit Roland Richardson’s Marigot Gallery, in Marigot, on the French side of St. Martin. #6 Rue de la Republique, tel & fax, 590-590-87-32-24, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, www.rolandrichardson.com, email@example.com.
The Art Lovers Association, to which some 50 local artists belong, holds an annual festival/open studio to promote Caribbean art. www.artlovers-sxm.com/index.html
Music. Try to catch a performance by Tanny and the Boys, St. Martin’s premier string band.
Flamboyants were featured in a recent island photo contest: http://thedailyherald.com/photo-contest/flamboyant2008/
What to Read
“St. Martin Massive! A snapshot of popular artists,” brought out by the local publisher House of Nehesi (2000) $25. www.houseofnehesipublish.com
“The Salt Reaper: poems from the flats,” by Lasana M. Sekou (2005). “[Sekou’s] calibanic voice moves between the public, revolutionary political rhetoric of Linton Kwesi Johnson and the lush, esoteric wordplay of Dylan Thomas.” - Ervin Beck, World Literature Today
St. Martin Book Fair. Annual festival showcasing the work of Caribbean writers.
The Daily Herald (daily newspaper) www.thedailyherald.com/news/daily/j114/tour114.html
Blog. SXM (the code for Princess Juliana Airport, and a nickname for the island) www.sxmpages.com
St. Martin Tourism Office www.st-martin.org
Everything St. Martin www.best-stmartin.com
What Else to Do
Plantation Mont Vernon, a two-acre outdoor eco-museum on a defunct plantation, features island economic development. 2 Main Road ,Cul-De-Sac, St Martin, (599) 590-29-50-62, 9 p.m.-5 p.m. daily, http://www.plantationmontvernon.com