THERE is a Trini folk saying that if you eat the cascadura fish you will return to Trinidad to end your days here. For award winning British-born artist and poet Sarah Beckett someone may have slipped her the fish at some point, because she always finds herself drawn back to this island and she does not know why.
This month Beckett was awarded the prestigious International Prize Leonardo Da Vinci – The Universal Artist and the Venice International Prize of Nations – Tribute to Tiziano, and will be going to Venice in March to receive the award. The award is conferred on a renowned artist, sculptor, writer, poet, cinematographer, photographer, architect, musician or other performing artist whose work constitutes a significant contribution to the artistic legacy of the world. Beckett’s work will be on display at the International Biennale of the Nations exhibition in Venice.
In celebration of this Beckett held her latest exhibition two weeks ago, Atlantic Love-Song, at the Horizons Art Gallery in St James and Sunday Newsday met up with her on opening night. The accomplished artist looked a picture of royalty in a royal blue dress, white patterned half gloves and a variety of necklaces.
Atlantic Love-Song is based on her unreleased poem Cloud Country Cantos and the 22 pieces are meant to express in paint what she wrote about in the poem. The collection is divided into three themes: poetry of water, rainy day adagio (in slow time) and cloud country. For the second and third themes Beckett is developing a more dreamy, muted palette.
“My work instinctively is very saturated, very intense colour. These ones are moving in a new direction.”
She recalled her last trip to Blanchisseuse and seeing how very soft it gets when the white rain comes down the valley.
“This intense tropical thing disappears in this veil of softness. I wanted to express it as another element of Trinidad.”
She gave Sunday Newsday a brief tour of the collection: the human figures included the dreamy Cloud Country paintings to demonstrate the sense of scale; the explosion of red in the White Egret paints; and the deep blue of Down the Islands. The pieces are in pastels, oils and gouache, a type of watercolour.
Atlantic Love-Song is Beckett’s 35th solo exhibition since she started in 1970 and she has exhibited almost every year since 2000. Asked about her output Beckett responded: “I live for my work.” She added that she did not have any other source of income. Later in the interview she remarked that with the recession corporate support for art had reduced a lot but stressed that as a small country we need corporate support in art.
Returning to her many exhibitions Beckett recalled that when she was running the Trinidad Quartet Productions, a non-profit organisation dedicated to creative outreach programs for Trinidad NGOs and also promotion of TT arts, she worked with jazz musicians, classical musicians and film-makers and this helped stimulate her work.
Beckett, however, does not consider her output to be prolific as she believes she could be doing more. She explained that once she gets a handle on a body of work and a theme she can produce work though getting there is sometimes difficult and recalled from Christmas last year to early January she had a difficult period.
“I really felt I don’t what I’m doing and where I’m going. It is always like that. Inspiration does not come and tap you on the shoulder. Inspiration happens when you least expect it.”
She explained that you may start a painting with a general idea but it is in the act of painting you would discover what the painting is about.
“It is like going on a quest in an unknown territory. Each painting has its own kernel of treasure inside of it. Your job as an artist is to find it.”
And even after painting for more than five decades Beckett said she still finds a big, empty canvass pretty scary. Like many artists she isolates herself when she paints and can spend days painting.
“A really concentrated focus. It is common to any serious painter – we don’t do anything well unless we pay attention.”
In the 2000s Beckett collaborated on two films, Like an Angels Wing and Alabaster Moon, though she does not consider herself a film-maker. She is a published poet and, like her exhibition last week, she believes that poetry and art interlink with one another.
“In the painting you have a lot of what is not in the poetry. Like a suggestion leading you into a world you already know but had not really thought about.”
She described Cloud Country Cantos, the unpublished poem on which Atlantic Love-Song is based, as a love song for Trinidad with each canto/section based on a different part of the country. She planned to have a future exhibition on the poem based not on the general theme but pairing paintings to specific poems.
Beckett first came to Trinidad in the 1960s after marrying a Trinidadian. The marriage did not last but the country sparked a lifelong art career. At that time she was influenced by local artists Sonnilal Rambissoon, Isaiah Boodhoo, Pat Chu Foon and Boscoe Holder.
“They were all that much older (than me) and were very strong influences. They helped me, guided and supported me.”
And looking forward she is excited by great new movements in the creative world and which are coming from this side of the globe.
“I like being in the New World. In Trinidad you can try anything. There is a sense you can explore. It’s being able to breathe and not be weighted down with the expectations of European history.”
Beckett has a contemplative look as she remarked that for creative people sometimes they need to live in a place that is not too familiar.
“Perhaps I never felt like I really belonged in England. Though I have family there and there are lovely things about it, it did not give enough of an edge of something.
“I really spent my life searching to reveal Trinidad in a way that is not obvious. The dream quality of Trinidad intrigues me. The hidden stories.”
She recalled that even when she lived in England her point of reference has been Trinidad.
“I don’t understand why.”
She said the size of the artistic community in this country is pretty impressive and so many Trinis were around the world doing innovative things.
“There is an extraordinary element to (this country) that makes it as creative as it is. Personally I feel one of the things that pleases me most about the award to my work is that it was cradled, nurtured and created here. This small island receiving recognition as Trinidadian paintings in the great art centres of the world (is something) I am really chuffed about.”
Beckett said she was happier about the recognition of this country than for herself, adding that the artist is second to the work.
“Trinidad (will be) hanging on a posh wall in a palace in Venice.”