Steve Bonner Exhibition: Gallery of Caribbean Art – Speightstown, Continues until Friday 30/4/2010
In 1995 artist Steve Bonner discovered Barbados almost by accident. He had no particular intention of visiting the West Indies, but an opportunity to support some friends on a cricket tour and wrap that into a holiday with wife Ruth, began their long love affair with one of the most intriguing and enigmatic islands in the Caribbean.
“We actually went to Trinidad and Tobago for that tour but as is so often the case the plane landed briefly in Barbados on it’s way back to the UK. I remember looking out of the window as we took off again and thinking that I’d just touched down somewhere very special and that it was terribly important for me to come back!”. Come back he did, and he describes that first proper visit as almost being sensory overload, the heat, the light, the colour of the sea, but most of all the extraordinary energy which is Barbados.
A decade and a half later, Steve will be celebrating the launch of his second exhibition at the Gallery of Caribbean Art in Speightstown, which debuted March 28th and running until the end of April.
The launch of Steve’s first exhibition at the Gallery in 2001 was just one month after 9/11 and was a far from blinding success. “The island was virtually empty, I remember! The US air embargo had only just been lifted and, although it seems unbelievable looking back on it now, many people were just too scared to fly. But as the show finished things started to get back to normal and one by one, all the paintings were bought – and Caribbean Art has been representing me and selling my art ever since.”
Previous exhibitions have concentrated on the spectacular and contrasting land and seascapes of Barbados, but the 2010 exhibition will also include pieces that combine Steve’s talents as both a landscape artist with the clean, bright energy of his figurative work.
“I’ve no idea why it took so long for me to drag my eyes away from the landscape: it’s most unlike me! But back-home I’ve always been a figure painter first and foremost and here I’m starting to combine both my love of the island’s landscape and the beauty of the female form, which is a different kind of energy that I can tap into. It’s got a long way to go but I’m very pleased with these first pieces. I’m also showing for the first time some totally new figure work. I’m often told my work is verging on the surreal and these paintings aren’t going to disprove that! They’re a little weird I have to admit but they’re bright, they’re colourful, and best of all they’re huge fun, so do, please, come along and see them.”
Steve has certainly captured the beauty of the island and the beauty of the Barbadian models he works with. As a highly skilled colourist Steve’s keen eye has accurately captured the true colour of the sea around the island. “It’s an astonishing cobalt turquoise, but if I painted it cobalt I believe it would look too dull, so I use other colours in combinations, often in glazes, to try to get that wow factor into the painting.”
This keen attention to colour can also be seen in Steve’s approach to working with local models. “The first time I worked with a Bajan friend who modelled for me, I felt like a man who had just discovered gold. As she was standing in full sunlight I suddenly realised the highlights of her skin were lilac, pure lilac, and the shadows maroon and indigo. Black is often dismissed as absence of colour – but it isn’t. Just as white reflects the whole spectrum, so black absorbs it – the surface seems to move as if there is a molecule of every colour there is sparkling in the darkness. Indrani, one of the gallery owners and an artist herself once said ‘Just wait until you’ve painted black skin’, was she ever right!”
Steve’s first painting of his friend Joanne, holding her young son as she walked through the surf, sold quickly. The second painting in the series sees the mother and child pointing to the horizon and is entitled ‘Africa’. “Over the years I’ve become aware of this strange sort of ‘Africa longing’, that so many of my local friends seem to have. It’s deep, deep down, but it’s always there, so I thought I should try to portray it in paint. I worried for some time that as I’m white, I might be criticised for my presumption, but a good friend, black himself, said that in his view my being white and yet being aware of this and realising how important it is, would actually be appreciated – I hope so.”
Steve’s wife Ruth recalls that over the years of visiting Barbados, they have unearthed some wonderfully remote places. “The subject of Steve’s painting of Joanna and her son, was set in a beautiful little cove that we wouldn’t mind at all being kept secret. After quite a hike across a field or two, and then a descent down some precarious rocky pathways, we emerged onto an idyllic little beach. It is good to know that places like that can still be found if you know where to look.”
“It is fascinating to revisit some of the places that Steve has painted,” continued Ruth, “To see how they have changed since they were captured in paint. The weather might be different, the tropical foliage might have increased in size, and in some cases sadly the scene might have disappeared completely. Steve has captured many Chattel Houses that no longer exist. His paintings are becoming a historic record.”
Visiting Barbados has become an annual pilgrimage for the couple from Hampshire, England, where they leave behind a remote country retreat and swap it for the sun and warmth of the other island they love. “We never stop being grateful for the chance to fly out to the delights of the Caribbean and how lucky we are that Steve has a talent that allows us to make these trips and fulfil our dreams. Every visit brings us into contact with new people and over the years we have established some amazing friendships. It really does feel like coming home when we arrive.”
As a footnote Steve would like to point out that although his figure work is clean, and bright, and decent, it is after all figure painting – so please bear this in mind before turning up with the family.