“Painting’s not about what you see,” suggests my tutor, Naja Misaki Simeon. “It’s about what’s there.” An affable 37-year-old with the art name of Sakey, the St Lucian has a day job teaching secondary school students in Choiseul but is also a prolific muralist with more than 50 vibrant works around the island, including beside the cruise ship terminal in the capital, Castries, and on Hotel Chocolat’s Rabot Estate.
Sakey’s latest project is a 60ft wall bordering a tennis court at Anse Chastanet, a well-established beach resort in Soufrière that sits beside some of the best snorkelling and diving spots on the island. Here he is transforming a nondescript run of breeze-blocks into a vivid panorama that celebrates St Lucia’s natural bounty, from brightly-hued heliconias to dazzling hummingbirds and the island’s twin volcanic peaks known as the Pitons, which can be viewed from some bedrooms.
Just a coconut’s throw from this mural-in-progress, three fellow guests and I are attending a plein air class in which Sakey has invited us to create a painting of these iconic landmarks using imagination and memory. “Start with two triangles,” he advises as we learn about the importance of back, middle and foregrounds and how to mix acrylic paints in 30C heat.
Perhaps because we are all middle-aged achievers who don’t want to look stupid, we steam into this task with an alacrity that astonishes our teacher. None of us are experienced painters but that is no hindrance. It is a joy simply to be sitting on a sunny beach concentrating hard on a new and demanding challenge. It is also rewarding to chat with Sakey about life on this green and mountainous island. Coming from the inland village of Saltibus he is “of the forest”, he explains – innately wary of the ocean but quite happy to jump 40ft into a waterfall. Do his murals get covered in graffiti? “No,” he answers with a chuckle. “St Lucians aren’t that bold.”
In a two-hour beginners’ class I am never going to produce a masterpiece to hang above the fireplace, but at the end when Sakey critiques our work he is kind enough to describe my effort as “childlike with a touch of Cy Twombly”.
Learning to paint well is a long journey, something made clear when we admire the many fine works around Anse Chastanet, which has a dedicated art gallery plus some 200 pieces in its rooms and public spaces. Collected by owners Nick and Karolin Troubetzkoy over the past 35 years, these include Caribbean artists such as Arnold Toulon, Matthew Paul and wood-carver Lawrence Deligny, while European painters are represented in works by Stefan Szczesny, Claude Sandoz and Elvira Bach. I am told that her spirited paintings of women in the Royal Palm suite are worth $150,000 (£110,000), but they are also enormous so there is no chance of slipping one into your suitcase.
For our follow-up class, Sakey relocates us to Anse Mamin, an intensely forested section of this 600-acre estate. Most guests come here to enjoy its tranquil beach and 12 miles of biking trails but there are also evocative ruins from an 18th-century French-owned sugar plantation. These include a roofless stone building littered with abandoned boiling cauldrons where we find our next subject, an arched window set in a stone wall that frames a profusion of breadfruit, mango and flamboyant trees.
After coating ourselves with insect spray, and occasionally having to dip under a tent to avoid passing rain showers, we discover how very different it is to paint from life. Sakey advises us to use vertical brush strokes and start with a blue background, even though our goal is green foliage.
“This is stressful!” admits Mia, a diver from Switzerland, and I realise how much painting is about working out your own methods, from creating precise colours to taking control of shapes and shadows – even when it is just a big chunk of jungle in front of you.
The next day I head to the north of the island to seek inspiration at the dazzling white hillside studio of Llewellyn Xavier, one of St Lucia’s pre-eminent artists. Born in 1945, his powerful work is displayed in many British collections including the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. His life story has much in common with many of the 48 artists featured in Life Between Islands, an exhibition devoted to Caribbean-British Art from the 1950s onwards that will open on Wednesday at Tate Britain in London.
“I first went to London in the 1970s,” Xavier explains, “and just painted what I saw: buses and smog”. His work has addressed racism and threats to the environment, but he also rejoices in the colour and light of his homeland. Xavier shows me some radiant watercolours he is working on that include ethereal images of the Pitons in gold, red and green, and we discuss their enduring and talismanic appeal to artists over a flute of chilled coconut water topped up with champagne. Thanks to Sakey, I have now joined the ranks of the many who have tried to paint these strange, volcanic fins, and while I am not expecting a call from the Tate, I do have the shorts suitably splattered with primary magenta and phthalocyanine blue to prove it.
How to do it: British Airways flies from London Gatwick and Heathrow to St Lucia from £430 return (ba.com). Double rooms at Anse Chastanet cost from £566 half-board (ansechastanet.com). For more information, visit stlucia.org
Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now is at Tate Britain from Dec 1 to April 3 2022 (tate.org.uk).
Refresh your palette: seven of the best art holidays in the Caribbean
1. St Lucia
Art classes with Sakey run twice a week and are free to guests staying at Anse Chastenet and its sister property Jade Mountain. See @sakeyproductions on Instagram for information on his murals around the island. Llewellyn Xavier’s studio in Cap Estate is open by appointment (llewellynxavier.com).
Several artists with Guyanese roots feature in Life Between Islands, including Frank Bowling whose colour-charged painting Kaieteurtoo was inspired by one of its top attractions, Kaieteur Falls. Wilderness Explorers can arrange trips to see this natural wonder, visit the rich collection of Guyanese art at the National Art Gallery in Georgetown, and fly inland to Rewa Eco-Lodge in the Rupununi where indigenous painter Victor Captain offers art workshops (wilderness-explorers.com).
3. The Bahamas
The gateway island of New Providence has a thriving art scene spearheaded by the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau. Its former chief curator, John Cox, now oversees the Current Gallery, a collection of 700 works by Bahamian artists on display at the Baha Mar resort complex. Here guests and visitors can do two-hour art classes such as acrylic pouring, landscape painting and making botanical prints (nagb.org.bs, thecurrent.bahamar.com).
4. St Martin/Anguilla
Dubbed the “Father of Caribbean Impressionism”, Sir Roland Richardson’s plein air paintings relish the bright light and vivid colours of the French-Dutch island of St Martin where he was born in 1944. Over 50 of his vibrant works are displayed in a dedicated gallery at Belmond La Samanna hotel in Long Bay and when in residence the genial artist offers free talks and demonstrations. Combine your visit with a stay at Belmond Cap Juluca on Anguilla, a 30-minute ferry ride north, where curator Frank Costin exhibits work by talented islands-based artists such as Antoine Capon and Carmel Gumbs in its Maundays Gallery (rolandrichardson.com; belmond.com).
5. British Virgin Islands
Pottery has been made in the Caribbean for over 2,500 years and is still crafted on many islands using local clay. Born in Tortola, Karl Burnett offers visitors the chance to make a hands-on connection with this tradition at The Pottery Garden, his workshop studio in Josiah’s Bay. Classes include hand building and wheel throwing, and children from six years can take part. Works can then be glazed, fired and shipped home (thepotterygardenvi.com).
Willemstad, the World Heritage-listed capital of this Dutch island 40 miles north of Venezuela, is well known for its much-photographed gabled townhouses painted in ice-cream colours. The port also has a more edgy street art scene that is as much about social commentary as brightening up redundant buildings and boring car parks. Art Now Tours offers artist-led guided tours by foot or bike to see the vibrant murals in the neighbourhoods of Punda and Otrobanda (facebook.com/arttourscuracao).
7. West Indies Cruise
Art experiences are a key feature on the nine-island, 11-day West Indies Explorer itinerary offered by Viking Cruises. Sailing on a round trip from San Juan, highlights include a trip to the city’s Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, a scenic tour of Barbados with photographer Ronnie Carrington and a visit to the studio of Dominica’s best-known artist Earl Darius Etienne. From £2,990pp including flights, nine guided excursions and gratuities (vikingcruises.co.uk).
For more recommendations on places to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in St Lucia.