“I was in Barbados and I was given this box of paints and I started by coyping an image, and I thought “Wow, I can do this!”. Then, I had 20 small works and they were all exactly the same size (24 x 19 inches); they were exhibited there and, to my amazement, every single one was sold, and then is when I thought “Well, there might be something to this!” (laughs). I became very interested and soon afterwards I went to England, started looking at art and looking very intensely at the work of the great masters. I was very fortunate in that I had art all around me. I went to every gallery and exhibition.
It’s been 50 years since I became a professional artist so I’ve been doing it for some time now. It hasn’t always been easy, there were issues I had to deal with as an artist, but now there’s a great interest in what I do.”
The most prominent Saint Lucian artist and one of the most celebrated artists from the Caribbean, Llewellyn Xavier was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, OBE, by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 2004 for his contributions to the art of the Commonwealth. His work is held in the Permanent Collections of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Ulster Museum, Northern Ireland, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto amongst others.
Llewellyn took a break from his studio to tell us about his career, his experiences and his vision of the evolution of the art world:
My paintings are the result of fiftyyears of observing the behaviour of paint, thejuxtaposition of colours in close proximity to oneanother, creating texture and attempting tounderstand the paradox of form.
“I come from a very, very small village on south side of Saint Lucia. I had absolutely no artistic influence whatsoever. Of course, Saint Lucia is one of the most beautiful islands in the world and its beauty has inspired me. When I was about 14, I went to the north of the island and stayed there for about two years. I wasn’t even 16 yet when I moved to Barbados on my own, and there I became aware of art. Short after, I went to England, France… I saw a lot of work of the impressionists, which made a tremendous impact on my career and on my life, really. I lived in the heart of London so I could walk to the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery… there was art all around me! I inmersed myself. On of my favorite paintings is actually in the National Gallery, “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid” by Bronzino; everytime I’m in London I go to see this painting.”
“At the beginning of my career I was very influenced by the French impressionists, but particularly funnily enough someone thought my art ressembled Van Gogh’s but I wasn’t concious of that. It’s ironic, because I’m not a figurative painter. The artists that really inspire me are the American abstract expressionists. I love their work. Of course there were counter-artists.”
The first thing everybody asks me is “How do you do the shells?” but they’re actually not shells, they’re oil paint. I don’t think I’ll do them forever, I’m already breaking away from them.
If you look at the work that I’m doing now, you see how it loses a tight construction and it becomes much freer. It’s less constrained. I’ve relaxed a little bit. I’m doing work that is more aesthetically pleasing to a larger section of viewers. It’s much broader.
“Initially my travels did reflect in my work. I traveled quite extensively, I even took a travel around the world. But now what is reflected in my work is Saint Lucia. It’s extraordinarily beautiful. The colors are staggering. From my studio I can see almost the entire island: the huge trees, the orangey-red tropical rainforest flowers… the paradise. This is way my work now is very bright, and I think we need this now. I think this really is the age for us to appreciate the colors around us, because of environmental issues. Recently London was experiencing a fog for the very first time in a very long time. It would do a world of good if we really see these amazing colors that are around us. Bright lights, fantastic sunsets, rainbows are popping up all over the place.”
I always wanted to forge an art that was me, an art that was coming from within, to express my own experience. All artists had their own experience and that’s why I think perhaps it would be a very good thing for young Saint-Lucian artists to go out and see what’s been done out there. But of course my art is influence by the great masters, like Leonardo Da Vinci or Raphael.
(On receiving the Order of the British Empire in 2004 in recognition of his contributions to the art of the Commonwealth from the Queen of England)
“I thought I would go to England, meet the Queen and get that little insignia and go back home, but it was actually quite a grand occasion; an orchestra played and it was very formal. I come from a very modest, humble family from a little village in Saint Lucia, so to be at the Buckingham Palace was an amazing day, and it happened on my birthday, as well! It was wonderful meeting the Queen and talking to her about the Caribbean, my work and so on. However, I don’t think it had an impact in my career. Obviously during that time I experienced a lot of excitement but I don’t think it changed my career at all. I think it’s unfair to use OBE after my name, I’m gradually dropping it. Not because of anything, but because of modesty and simply using just my name.”
There were times when it was difficult. When I didn’t have time I thought maybe I’d do something else, get a job on anything else, with the exception of when I went to a monastery and decided that I wanted to become a monk. I tried. I visited several places. I went to Israel, to Massachusetts, to Canada… I ended up in a monastery in Montreal, but I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I went to England, got married, came back to the Caribbean. and we’ve been living here ever since.
“Mercifully, I have never ever had a negative review, except for once, when I worked in Barbados, and someone who was herself an artist said she didn’t think that the idea was that original.”
I have really never thought of myself as an abstract painter, because, particularly the work that I’m doing now, even though it’s filled with color in various shades, there is always, without exception, imagery in the work. I like to think of it as the paradox of form. In fact, one of the paintings is called “Paradox of form”; it’s also the tittle of the next exhibition I’m doing in New York. I believe that despite of how abstract the work is, there is always imagery in it, the content is either emotional or philosophical or it triggers some other reaction.
“I believe there is imagery in what I’m doing. I remember a recent grad once saw a very large painting that I did, and the thought “Oh, I see an angel”, and I couldn’t see it; if someone else saw the same work, they would see different imagery in it. I’m not doing this conciously. I’m very concerned about the environment, and that conciousness is always in my work. I’m doing something that speaks to my concern about the environment. I don’t make political statements, my art isn’t propaganda. However, I’m concious about what is going on around me. You can’t help but being concious: you’ve got TV, Internet… So my work has more to do with that.”
Do you think the art scene in Saint Lucia has been influenced by your work and popularity?
I’d like to think so! (laughs) But I don’t want to take credit for a movement. What I find is that in Saint Lucia there is a considerable pool of talents. There is absolutely no question about it. There are very talented artists here but the problem is the lack of innovation. The creativity is there, of course, but they tend to paint a scenary. When I started I also painted what I saw around me, but for some reason most artists here don’t seem to venture out of their comfort zone.
I don’t rely on a Saint-Lucian clientele to sell my work, but my concern isn’t whether the art is sold or not. My concern is to create art. My function is to be as creative as I possibly can, and now that I’m getting older and since I won’t be around forever, my work is getting freer. There are no constraints, I paint what inspires me, that’s how I paint.
“If you look at the big movements in art, the French impressionists really distorted things somewhat, and then you have the American abstract expressionists which was a really big movement in art, which was deliberate doing art that suited that culture, the vastness of the landscapes and the cities, and their own dynamism. Art was done as a rivalry to the Russian expressionism. This is what is diverging at the moment. The work of artists now is, I believe, set by particularly the Auction House Philipps as “new now”. It is an inmediate art. It’s art that is unrestrained. It’s an art that is spontaneous, free of negative critics.”
People associate my work with Pollock’s but I truly don’t see any ressemblance whatsoever.
KEEP UP WITH LLEWELLYN XAVIER:
As well as in his permanent exhibitions, you can currently find Llewellyn’s work in:
The Christian Green Gallery at Warfield Center Galleries – January 17th – May 27th 2017.