Quintessential Caribbean: A Conversation with Jonathan Guy-Gladding

By Dr. Leanne Haynes Monday, June 15th, 2015 Categories: Artistic Horizons, Features, Interview, Updates

Dr. Lea Haynes speaks with Jonathan Guy-Gladding, a Massachusetts-born artist, who has spent several years visiting the island of St. Lucia. Originally journeying to the region on a Peace Corps mission, Guy-Gladding formed an attachment to St. Lucia and it became his muse, reinvigorating his desire to paint. His book, Caribbean on Canvas, is a collection of the artist’s works, the focus of which is explored in this interview. Read the conversation here, exclusively for ARC.

Jonathan Guy-Gladding was born in Massachusetts in 1969 and grew up on the peninsula of Cape Cod. As a child, Guy-Gladding drew all of the time, focusing mostly on airplanes, spacecraft and WWII battle scenes. For him, drawing provided the level of entertainment children today get from computer games. Guy-Gladding studied Fine Art at University of Massachusetts. In 1994, he moved to New York where he worked as a computer artist for Sesame Street. In 1999, Guy-Gladding went to St. Lucia as part of the Peace Corps effort and it is here where he developed his own artistic style, the outcome of which is a collection called Caribbean on Canvas. Guy-Gladding has exhibited his works in parts of the Caribbean and US.

Leanne Haynes: Jonathan, please can you tell the readers what prompted you to apply to work in the Peace Corps, which led you to move to St. Lucia in July 1999?

Jonathan Guy-Gladding: I wanted to broaden my horizons a little and make a contribution that would be challenging and require a little sacrifice. Growing up, I admired the people who served in WWII and other wars and wanted some type of character-building experience in my life. I remembered the Peace Corps commercials from when I was a kid – “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” The two-year commitment sounded a little daunting, but eventually I went through with my application because I didn’t want to think about it years later, wishing I had done it.

National Anthem, 2012, Oil. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

National Anthem, Oil, 2012. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

LH: What work were you doing for the Peace Corps?

JGG: My assignment was to teach woodworking at a couple primary schools – Laborie Boys and Banse La Grace Combined. At that time there was no universal secondary education, so a lot of boys especially were leaving school at 14 or 15 without much to show for it. The idea was to teach them something practical before they left. Woodworking was and is a hobby of mine.

LH: It must have been quite a change to New York!  What were your first impressions of the island?

JGG: I liked it, but I wouldn’t say I fell in love with it right away. It was hot and humid with a lot of mosquitos and the groceries I was accustomed to buying were much more expensive.  What I liked most were the people. Very warm, sincerely friendly and generous. The children especially made me feel right at home. They made me feel like a minor celebrity, even though I was only one of many Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Laborie over the years. I wasn’t used to being greeted so enthusiastically every day but I loved that feeling, and it was that warmth and ebullience that I would try to convey when I began panting the people of Saint Lucia. The openness and generosity I was shown from my first days meant so much to me, and it still affects me as a person and as an artist. 

Conversation, 2009, Oil. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Conversation, Oil, 2009. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

LH: How long did you live in SLU? And how often do you return, if at all?

JGG: My Peace Corps stint was two years, so I was there straight through from ’99-’01.  Since then I have been traveling back and forth usually for a month at a time, in total about five or six months a year in Saint Lucia.

LH: Is this to work in the school?

JGG: No, not to work in the school. I’m not a teacher, but I’m happy to come in and give art classes when they ask me to from time to time. I continue going there because it’s where a good part of my life is, and it is also home now. I’m never gone for very long so my returns are fairly ordinary events.

LH: In the introduction to your book, Caribbean on Canvas, you state that whilst in St. Lucia you changed from a cubist style of painting to realism. I can understand this transition entirely since you focus predominantly on the peoples of St. Lucia, going about their lives, set against the backdrop of the island. Can you tell ARC readers more about this stylistic transition?

JGG: I majored in art at university, and as a fine arts student so much is about theory and style. Too much, I think. So when I got to St. Lucia and started painting again I thought, okay, what style do I paint in?  I decided to forget about style and just focus on the subject. I believed there was nothing I could do to improve upon what I was seeing there, so the best thing I could do was to paint things as lifelike and realistically as I could.

When I lived in New York City for the five years before coming to St. Lucia, I gave up painting because I just wasn’t inspired much by what I saw around me. But when I came to St. Lucia, every time I stepped outside I saw something I wanted to paint. And sixteen years later I’m still inspired. It’s funny, there I was in one of the world capitals of culture without much inspiration, yet it was when I went to a small island in the Caribbean where people grew up with a much more limited exposure to fine art that I found my source of inspiration and encouragement.

Jonathan at work. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Jonathan at work. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

LH: What local artists / cultural icons did you meet and how did they influence you? 

JGG: I tended to stay in Laborie most of the time, and it was ladies in a local craft group – Lawrencia Charlemagne and Avice James of the Anse Kawet Crafters – who impressed me most during my first two years. They were always working, always interested in trying and learning new things and figuring out how to get things done despite resources often being limited.

LH: In Caribbean on Canvas, you incorporate text, which gives the reader a glimpse into your methods. What routine methods do you employ?

JGG: One of the interesting things about painting is that there are many ways to do the same painting. One day I’ll approach the canvas one way and another day I’ll take a different approach. More and more I find myself painting in a ‘direct’ style, without a preliminary drawing but instead laying on masses of colour and then gradually refining, moving from large brushes to smaller ones.

LH: How do you make the decision between oil and acrylic?

JGG: I started with acrylic because it is very convenient. You need only water to mix and clean your brushes and it dries quickly. In 2005, I switched to oils because it is the traditional medium of the masters and most valued among buyers as well. With oils you can also create paintings with softer edges, and more gradual transitions. It’s really the area where one colour meets another that is the key thing with oils.

LH: You state in your book that you were nervous about taking your easel outside and painting in front of people. What do you recall of that first experience and how did those apprehensions change over time?

JGG: In the past, I took more time to complete a painting and most of the time a painting wouldn’t look very good after a single session. So at first I was very worried that people wouldn’t be too impressed by what they saw while I was working, but I remember being a excited and happy that I was out there and giving it a try and hopefully getting better from the challenge. Painting outside forces you to work faster. So now I’m a little more confident and able to work faster and more quickly focus in on the key aspects of the painting.

Assembly, 2006, Oil. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Assembly, Oil, 2006. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

LH: How do the locals respond when you say you want to paint them, in particular, the schoolchildren that frequent your work?

JGG: They loved it.  I remember when I first brought a couple of my larger paintings with many children in it to school at Banse La Grace. They were jumping up and down and pointing to the people in the painting, calling out who was who. It was great. What an enthusiastic response! I usually don’t tell someone I want to paint them because I don’t want them to be self-conscious. I want to catch them as they are naturally in an every day moment. So I try to imbue the images with the dignity and respect they deserve, and hopefully the subjects don’t mind too much. When I’m finished I try to give each of the subjects a print of the painting.

LH: What’s the most challenging aspect of painting in the Caribbean?

JGG: I think exhibiting is the most challenging aspect. Traveling from island to island can be costly and you often have to bring your own stretchers, etc. because they won’t be available where you’re going. And different islands have different policies on art being brought in and it’s often unclear what these are and if they want you to pay duties on art that you’re bringing in, which you may or may not sell. It can be cost prohibitive.

Standpipe, 2007, Oil. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Standpipe, Oil, 2007. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

LH: In Caribbean on Canvas, you show the stages of development for some of your paintings, almost like a guidebook, giving an insight into technique and palette. Have you taught/ do you teach the craft in SLU?

JGG: I’ve taught classes and done demonstrations from time to time. When one of the schools in Laborie is working art into the curriculum they’ll ask if I’ll come in and give a couple classes, which I’m happy to do.

LH: Do you have a particular piece of your own work that you like the most? You mention getting very attached to the artwork – it must be hard to part with it.

JGG: When you’re just starting out or not painting much it can be difficult to part with a painting. But when you’re painting every day and trying to make a living at it you realize that every painting you sell let’s you keep on painting full-time and it’s much better for your paintings to be with people who loved them enough to part with their own money to buy them than to be taking up space and gathering dust in your on home where anything could happen to them. If I had to pick one piece it might be my standpipe painting. Visually it has dramatic light and shadow and the subject is one of those quintessential Caribbean experiences that many relate to.

Dr. Leanne Haynes
Dr. Leanne Haynes

Leanne Haynes has recently finished a PhD at the University of Essex, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her thesis focused on St. Lucian literature and mapped out the island’s rich literary landscape. She also completed her MA (Postcolonial Studies) and BA (Literature) at the University of Essex. Haynes has presented material at conferences in the UK and Europe. She is a keen creative writer and amateur photographer, with publications in the UK and US.