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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Lisa O’Connor: the Ecstatic Eye

The brilliant colours and energetic impasto of Lisa O’Connor’s paintings are utterly distinctive, and her work is eagerly sought after by Caribbean collectors. Mariel Brown gets to know the upbeat Trinidadian artist, and wonders about the forces that drive her impassioned brush

  • Indra's Shark and Bake, Maracas (2003). Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Does talent run in the family? Photograph by Mariel Brown
  • Simmons College and Gardener Museum, Boston, Sunlit (1987). Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • House in Langenburg, Germany (1992). Photograph by Mark Lynderday
  • Entrance to Stollmeyer's Castle (1993). Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Painting an interior scene at Mark Pereira's 101 Tragrete Road gallery. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Putting in the finishing touches. Photograph by Mariel Brown
  • Pouis on Queen's Park West (2000). Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Flowers in the President's Gardens. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Lisa O'Connor in her natural habitat- outdoors, behind an easel. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • O' Connors husband Gregory and son Luc often accompany her on painting expeditions. Photograph by Mariel Brown

Due to my lack of organisation, and my general belief that “any time is Trinidad time” (to steal a few words from Lord Kitchener), I’m late for my first meeting with Lisa O’Connor.

I say “meeting”, but who really has meetings sitting in a swimming costume on a glorious dry-season day at Maracas Bay? I’ve come to watch Lisa at work. She’s told me she’ll be painting one of the shark-and- bake huts on the beach. Indra’s — the bright yellow hut at the eastern end of the beach.

“I love the colours of the hut,” she says. “The contrast between the yellows in the front and the blues of the sea in the back is quite dramatic. I’ve already painted it about six times!”

As luck would have it, the heavens open while I’m en route, so when I arrive at the beach, Lisa greets me happily, and I realise she has hardly noticed how late I am — now that the sun has come out she’s more interested in setting up, and getting on with her painting. Somewhere on the beach, her husband Gregory is taking their young son, Luc, for a walk. Her family, including her mother and father, often accompanies her on painting days.

Sitting in a collapsible chair, Lisa gathers around her all the things she will need for the afternoon’s work — a collection of large brushes; tins of varying sizes containing linseed oil and paint thinner; a palette that she’s made with a plastic shopping bag; a variety of canvasses; and, of course, her huge collection of oil paints.

This is a sight that has become quite familiar to anyone who drives around Port of Spain’s Savannah during the dry season: a solitary figure, wearing a hat, sitting low behind a canvas and easel, eyes and face darting slightly between canvas and subject, canvas and subject, right arm and brush outstretched and moving sometimes slowly and gently, sometimes quickly and aggressively, over the canvas, and dipping every now and then into the palette below.

Lisa O’Connor is a consummate painter. More than many, she treats her art like work, and, weather permitting, she goes to work daily, carrying her tools to her favourite locations around the country.

“The more I paint and work,” she says, “is the more I feel like working. I like to joke that if I didn’t do art, I don’t know what I’d end up doing.” Lisa will sit for hours painting a pink poui tree in full bloom; or she might painstakingly recreate the curlicues of the wrought-iron fence in front of Stollmeyer’s Castle. The subject of her paintings is almost always the landscape.

When Lisa starts sketching the shop in thinned red paint, I wonder how far she’ll get today. She says that as long as the subject isn’t too intricate, she can normally finish a small painting in one sitting. But it’s nearly two o’clock. I sit behind her watching, and am startled to realise that, within an hour, the bright yellow walls and coconut-thatched roof of Indra’s Shark and Bake are already clearly defined. In a 1996 review of Lisa’s work, Trinidadian artist Willi Chen observed, “The bands of colour, the shapes, the jumbled mass and loose passages assume their rightful balance and position in the painting. And the work is ready to be framed. There is no time to ruminate on the intellectual discourse, and she is ready to begin the next. Such is her fervour.

”On the beach Lisa works quickly and decisively, stopping only once to undo a line she’s painted. I’m also surprised to see how she applies the paint — squeezing it from the tube directly onto the brush, and painting with large stiff brushes and a palette knife.

She is utterly confident in her application of paint. I wonder to myself if this isn’t what makes the work so captivating. The spontaneity and boldness of the process of painting encourages the viewer of the work to feel as though a moment in time as quick as the snap of your fingers has been captured. It is here that the fervour of which Willi Chen speaks becomes most obvious. Any shyness Lisa might feel in life vanishes in her work. In her paintings, she is able to express a breathtaking religious ecstasy. A devout Catholic and a member of Opus Dei (a Catholic organisation founded by the Spanish priest José Maria Escriva), in conversation Lisa refers frequently to God, saying, “I’m happy for whatever God sends.” She once described her relationship with God as one in which she falls in love with Him a little more every day.

While the sky is clear, I sit quietly and look on. Periodically, the sun dips behind the clouds, and Lisa pauses, awaiting the return of the light. In these moments, I turn on my tape recorder and we talk about her and her work. Then when the sun re-emerges and the light is just right we fall silent again so she can concentrate on her painting.

Don’t you ever get bored of painting the same building over and over again, I ask. She answers with an emphatic No. “No matter how often you go back to the same spot, the place will always look a little different — the light is always changing, and, too, my mood and response to the location might change over time,” she says.

Luc has fallen over, and his face quickly becomes the face of a little boy who is about to cry.  Lisa looks at him, slightly concerned. Once he sees that she has noticed, he decides that maybe he won’t bother to cry after all. She returns immediately to the painting. I ask her if having a baby has changed the way she works. She says it has. Now she tries to take full advantage of whatever time she has. “I paint quicker,” she says, “because I know I have less time.” I think this is perhaps not only a comment about the time that is necessarily consumed in looking after Luc, but also a recognition of the precariousness of her own mortality.

Just over two years ago, Lisa was forced to spend months in hospital in Miami. An ultrasound during her second pregnancy (the first resulted in a miscarriage) revealed a cyst on her liver, which grew, she was told, to the size of a football. When her baby, Luc, was six months old, Lisa was operated on, and 70 per cent of her liver was removed. She jokes with me about her sisters Bridget and Deborah vying to be potential donors, should there be problems with the surgery. She speaks quietly of her family and how they rallied around her and supported her, as they always have done.

One of four children (three girls and one boy), Lisa was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in the mid 60s to a Trinidadian mother and a Jamaican father (a doctor). Lisa’s family, along with many other middle-class Jamaicans, fled the country in the late 70s during Michael Manley’s radical socialist phase. Once in Trinidad, 11-year-old Lisa moved house with her family several times, before finally settling in Andalusia, in the Maraval valley north of Port of Spain, where she still lives today. Having lived in Trinidad for over 25 years, Lisa regards herself as a Trini. But her accent is certainly indicative of her mixed heritage: an unexpected hybrid of Jamaican and Trinidadian.

It’s clear that Lisa adores her family, particularly her parents, who, she says, have always been willing to make sacrifices on her behalf. Despite her father’s reservations about the wisdom of his daughter pursuing a career in art, when Lisa chose to attend art school in Boston, he supported her decision.

While Lisa was studying (she earned first a diploma and then an undergraduate degree in fine arts), her parents would submit her paintings to any competitions they felt might be worthwhile. Early on, she received prestigious awards from the Trinidad Art Society, and she sold her first paintings before even leaving for art school. Upon her return to Trinidad in 1990, Lisa mounted her first solo exhibition. Since then, she has been a prolific exhibitor in the Caribbean — Trinidad and Jamaica in particular. She has also participated in group exhibitions in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan. She is one of the most successful artists of her generation living and working in the West Indies. She is neither diffident nor boastful about this fact. She earns her living solely from painting, and her work hangs in important private and corporate collections in Trinidad and Jamaica.

But there is something that nags me about Lisa and her work. It’s a dilemma that I can’t seem to get my head around. Given that, over the years, her subject matter — beautiful landscapes — has remained essentially the same, and given what many believe to be the deteriorating state of the social fabric of the Caribbean, I feel compelled to ask: is it enough for any artist of the region only to paint idyllic pictures? Doesn’t the artist have some responsibility to reflect the truth of the society in which she lives?

Lisa’s dealer Mark Pereira, owner of the 101 Tragarete Road gallery, agrees that this is a dilemma, but he says there’s nothing wrong with people wanting to hold on to a bit of fantasy — something that Lisa’s work provides them with.

“Maybe these beautiful paintings assist us in living day to day, in this time, in this minute. Perhaps they make our lives a little easier,” says Pereira. For her own part, Lisa says she’s not a rebellious person, and although she recognises the need for some artists to fill the role of social commentators, she says, “I don’t see my art as having to express my approval or disapproval of certain things. I enjoy the beauty of the environment even though there are negatives. I don’t like to focus on those negatives, because they might get to you after a while.”

She continues: “One person told me that when she got up in the morning and looked at my painting, it put a smile on her face — it made her feel happy. In that way, I think that I’m making a contribution.” The other worrying point to note in Lisa’s paintings is that there are almost no figures in any of her landscapes. She creates gorgeous, unpeopled worlds. Pereira says that when Lisa got pregnant with Luc, he wondered whether this might bring a shift in focus, perhaps more in the direction of painting figures. This hasn’t materialised.

Lisa explains it simply: she doesn’t enjoy painting people as much as she enjoys painting landscapes. But I feel unsatisfied by this answer, as I must admit to feeling about my conversations with her. I wonder if she’s holding something back, so inscrutable does she seem at times. Her responses to my sometimes difficult questions are often reductionist, and it’s hard for me to believe that a painter of her calibre could remove herself so completely from political and intellectual discourses surrounding art and society.

In a recent feature in the Trinidad Express, writer Raymond Ramcharitar noted that Lisa “makes no political statement — in fact, makes very few statements of any kind, and neither has nor seems to care about public visibility at all.” Trinidadian artist Eddie Bowen says that rather than making an intellectual statement, Lisa is trying to make her own statement about beauty and the importance of that perspective in her life. “There’s something inherently honest about that,” he says.

“She has chewed on tradition very well and very heartily,” Bowen continues, “and she has made decisions about where her boundaries begin and end.”

What is clear is the regard Lisa has for her family and her art, and the central role of God in her life. Two years on from a moment in which the prospect of death must have been shockingly real, she is feeling positive about things. “I’m really looking forward to the future,” she says. “My work is just a reflection of what is within me, and I’m wanting to contribute something beautiful and uplifting.”

It’s the end of the day, and the light has turned that golden bronze that makes everything beautiful. Most people have left Maracas, and a cool breeze stirs the palm fronds and the thatch of Indra’s Shark and Bake. A gentle sleepiness has Luc smiling and quiet. Lisa is putting lids back on tubes of paint and packing away her brushes.

The painting — not quite complete — sits in the easel. It is brave and bold and unabashedly joyous. I know that whenever I see the painting — regardless of whatever doubts I may have — I will remember this perfect dry season afternoon by the beach, and it will make me smile.

Lisa’s characteristic painting style is called impasto. The effect is created by applying paint in large, heavy quantities, usually with either a brush or a palette knife. Because most oil and acrylic colours have a buttery consistency, impasto can be achieved by working directly from the tube. The paint, like whipped egg-whites, can hold peaks, and dry in the same shape in which it is applied. Given three-dimensional attributes, the paint can allow artists to communicate something not possible with a flat surface. Lisa says she paints in the impasto style because it is more direct and immediate, and she enjoys the textures it creates.