Portrait of a nation

Photo courtesy Pixabay
Photo courtesy Pixabay

THERE are artists whose work you know instantly. You might never encounter them personally but you recognise them immediately – their style, palette, textures, brushstrokes. You can even predict the things they are likely to paint.

Lisa O’Connor, who has died at 55, was one of these artists. Even if you did not know her by name, you knew her work. “Lisa’s paintings are easily recognisable,” said Peter Sheppard, president of the Art Society. “They are inspired by and capture the natural beauty of the outdoors and elements of our historic architecture.”

Ms O’Connor is worth mentioning in the same breath as painters such as Jackie Hinkson and the late Pat Bishop. Though born in Jamaica, Ms O’Connor came to Trinidad as a child and went to school in Port of Spain before studying art overseas. Her work reveals her bond with this country.

Her career was international: exhibiting in TT, Jamaica, the UK and the US, she was able to earn a living from her work.

Just as Mr Hinkson has been deeply concerned with landscape, O’Connor was obsessed with the environment around her. So much so, she became a part that landscape, at one stage a fixture in the Savannah, where she would sit with paints, brushes, canvas and easel, studiously tracing the outline of a tree, a familiar building, a fence.

If there was breeziness in the scene, there was nonetheless heaviness in her thick layers of pigment. Like Ms Bishop, she deferred to the sculptural qualities of paint. An impasto technique gave Ms O’Connor’s work a weightiness that helped define it amid a sea of languid washes and hazy abstractions.

The confidence of these strokes matched the painter’s fervour. She could paint the same subject many times, each examination bringing renewed delight but perhaps inviting fresh questions. In some way, this process of private questioning may have related to a deep experience of faith.

Say what you will about whether her paintings are political, they make their own statement. Ugliness and violence could be closing in around us, but pieces like 2000’s Pouis on Queen’s Park West luxuriate in and venerate beauty.

The fact that human figures are absent from Ms O’Connor’s work also gives it a haunting quality. It is as though each painting is saying something about the transience of life, as though we are all merely passing though.

Alongside the relishing of beauty, then, is the idea of our shared mortality. It is all an intoxicating mix that reveals a deep love of country in the artist that found an answer in those who gazed at her portraits of it. Such art is needed now more than ever as a global pandemic hems us in, forcing us to confront our frailty.

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