Somewhere between 2008 and 2012, Randy Chollette’s brain exploded. It remains a mystery as to what happened, but National Gallery of the Cayman Islands (NGCI) Director Natalie Urquhart may know.
In her superb, 100-page “The Art of the Cayman Islands,” Ms. Urquhart curates dozens and dozens of pictures – bright, concise and detailed photographs of artwork drawn from NGCI’s permanent collection and unnamed “private holdings.”
Urquhart and Uzzell
Author Urquhart penned the introductory three-page “About the National Gallery Collection” and the 11-page “Brief History of Cayman Islands Art,” along with all the notes and artwork descriptions. Photographer Justin Uzzell has divided his painstaking studio shots into two sections: 20 “figures” and 61 “plates.” These are complemented at the back of the book by 61 biography sketches, across seven pages, of multiple artists.
And Mr. Chollette? Page 52, plate 33, displays “Safe Harbour,” a 2008 acrylic on canvas from the private collection of local luminary, former political figure and lawyer Truman Bodden.
Ms. Urquhart describes the painting as “a tranquil scene … from a[n] historical photograph … an early figurative work by … the self-taught artist … [and] one of several created to celebrate his Caymanian heritage.”
Strictly representational, the work depicts two small fishing boats with three crew and two men in the water close by the beach. Myriad shades of blue describe a motionless sea and sky, dotted by wisps of evenly spaced cirrus clouds.
Mr. Chollette’s page 90 bio sketch recalls his background, winning early exhibition prizes in 2002 and 2003, participating both independently and with his local Native Sons group in 2007, 2011 and 2012 NGCI shows.
As Mr. Uzzell reflected at one point about the hundreds of photographs he took during months of difficult, detailed work, he was often astonished by the creative development he saw as particular artists acquired and expressed fresh influences.
Mr. Chollette’s 2012 figure 14 indicates dramatic changes that could be accomplished only under an enormous set of influences. The giant 4-foot by 5-foot work is titled after a quote from the fourth century B.C. Chinese sage Lao Tzu, author of the founding text of Classical Taoism, the Tao Te Ching: “Therefore the Sage wears rough clothing and holds his jewels in his heart.”
Lest a viewer be discouraged by the title’s obscurity, the work itself overwhelms any doubt. A spectacular, soaring, almost shocking multicolored oil on canvas, the mosaic is a brilliantly variegated riot of reds and ancillary oranges and yellows, punctuated by cells of green, blue and white, all sharply outlined in black.
Whether “Sage” bears some deeper meaning or is a kind of allegory or suggests stream-of-consciousness associations is almost irrelevant. “Beauty,” as the aphorism goes, “is in the eye of the beholder,” and no eye can fail to be both dazzled and exhilarated by this extraordinary display.
The effect is no accident. Forward to plate 40, Mr. Chollette’s work of two years earlier, 2010’s “Kings of Satwa.”
The origins of the title are nebulous – and no less obscure than Lao Tzu. “Satwa” appears to be a Malay word derived from Sanskrit meaning “light” or “clarity.”
The reference is to his painted catboat sail, one of five, acrylic on sailcloth, hung side-by-side on steel cables as part of the gallery’s 2010 “Painted Catboat Sails” exhibit.
Each triangular sail is beautifully painted. “Kings of Satwa” is clearly the predecessor to “Sages,” two years in the future, but the influences are recognizable. “Satwa” is like “Sages,” if in shades of blue and purple, but is a sort of halfway station, a bridge between the representational “Safe Harbour” and the 2012 abstract mosaic.
The wispy clouds and blue sea, a catboat and two-man crew, are pictured, fractured into multi-colored cells outlined in yellow.
Local and resident artists
Alongside Mr. Chollette’s sail are four others, one by Miguel Powery – represented in one figure and two plates in “Art of the Cayman Islands” – and another by David Bridgeman who can be counted among the most prolific of Cayman’s visual artists.
Mr. Powery, a 1947-born Caymanian, is a “self-taught painter and sculptor,” writes Ms. Urquhart. Like Mr. Chollette, he is a founding member of Native Sons.
A strict representational painter, his 2007 figure 2, “Riding High” – given an admiring page 1 position – shows us two men in white, piloting a dual-sailed catboat through a moving palette of blue, white and green sea.
One of the men is perched high above the boat suspended over the water on a long plank wedged under the opposite-side gunwale, counterbalancing the vessel’s powerful leftward roll. His clothing is etched sharply against the blue sky, conveying a liberating sense of motion and open space, speaking of broad freedom.
In 1998’s “Paradise Found, Paradise Lost,” Mr. Powery indicates Cayman’s environmental – and, by implication, spiritual – devastation as a bulldozer, under a darkening sky and stripped landscape, denudes the site for commercial development. An abandoned stand of silver thatch palms, adjacent to a scrubby patch of tangled bush and two caiman skeletons, is all that impedes so-called “progress.”
Scottish-born Mr. Bridgeman, who in 1987, like many overseas-born artists, came to Cayman to teach, is also represented in plate 36, 2007’s “Rain Gauge,” a 4-foot by 3-foot mixed-media on canvas combination of loosely representational sea-grape trees, a barren ironshore and the broken measuring tool of the title.
Canada-born Joanna Sibley moved to Cayman in 1980, joining the Visual Arts Society. Four plates display her work in two distinct styles of watercolor, alongside her plate 20, 1995 oil on canvas of mainstreet George Town, titled “Harbour Drive.”
Ms. Sibley’s plate 18, 1986’s “Pink Cottage,” featured on the publicity material for NGCI’s July-September 2016 exhibit “A Legacy of Light: Early Watercolours from the Watercolour Collection.”
Davin Ebanks works mostly in the complex medium of glass, embodied in two plates: the enormous glass-and-cement “Adjacent,” which appears to capture 132 tall inches of seawater, as does the 3-foot tall “Blue Meridian: 80 degrees West, Old Isaacs,” the original name for East End.
Five dozen personalities are surveyed. Five plates represent Gladwyn Bush, better known as Miss Lassie. Four are from her South Church Street home. Another five plates review the gentle, rounded contours of traditional thatch weaving.
Bendel Hydes, Wray Banker and Gordon Solomon are here. The at-least-17-member Cayman Quilters’ 2001 “Love Quilt” can only be described as “thoroughly charming.” Charles Long has two plates and two figures; the excellent John Broad offers up his superb plate 42, “Fashion Shop,” an attractive 2013 acrylic-on-canvas view of quaint, if rundown, and now long-gone, shops on Eastern Avenue.
The theme of imperiled Cayman culture and environment recurs throughout “Art” and its artists, reflecting broad and deeply felt worries about “modernization” of a fragile and profoundly personal milieu, a la the sprawling urbanized horrors of suburban Miami.
But this book cannot be summarized by naming a handful of artists. “Art” is a superb primer of Cayman’s visual arts, poised to profit any reader, no matter their cultural preferences, national origins or inclination.
A couple of physical notes are in order. A reader will need at least three clothespins to get through “Art.” Ms. Urquhart scrupulously cross-references every plate and figure with each artist’s additional plates and figures, and each biography. The clothespins must hold three places and four places at once as a reader skips forward and backward. The book is so irresistibly interactive that you may be forgiven for worrying the binding may crack.
The page-and-a-half of footnotes is essential; an 11-entry bibliography/reference section points to further information – including Ms. Urquhart’s first book, under her pre-marriage “Coleman” name – for the voraciously curious, and all the illustrations are alphabetically indexed.
Photographer Mr. Uzzell observed how startling is the sheer abundance of talent on this 76-square-mile sliver in the sea. “The Art of the Cayman Islands” is a fine place to start.