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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, May 29, 2024


Nov. 29, 2001 – If the Caribbean art dear to your heart tends toward paintings of market women, fishermen, hibiscus blooms and sailboats on the horizon, The Art Gallery at the Grand Hotel is probably not the place you will want to be on Friday between 6 and 10 p.m.
But if you appreciate the confluence of creativity and sensitivity that draws on deep cultural roots to find modern-day meaning — and does so with a subtle sense of humor — then be there, or be square.
And with St. Croix artist Roy Lawaetz, whose installation piece titled "After the Conquest" will be the focal point of Friday's meet-the-artist reception, nothing is farther from his personal vision of truth than square.
Roy Lawaetz is the inventor/theorist of "The Modular Triangular System" — which he describes as "an aesthetic proposal for art that is deeply rooted in the Caribbean's triangular heritage: pre-Columbian, European and African." He says his work "explores multiple ways to combine this rich legacy on canvas." Last year, his book of the same title, delineating his concept, was published.
Lawaetz will have 17 works on exhibit at The Art Gallery at the Grand Hotel, Michael Paiewonsky's relatively new art emporium in Grand Galleria, the downtown Charlotte Amalie shopping complex that once was the Grand Hotel. There are several two-dimensional pieces, but most are three dimensional wall installations; all represent his "modular triangular" concept. The showpiece is his interactive work "After the Conquest," which won hard-to-come-by praise five years ago at one of the world's most highly regarded contemporary art expositions, Brazil's Sao Paulo Bienal.
He describes "After the Conquest," pictured here, as "a visual outrageous pun, as well as commentary on today's V.I. vacation scene. A bathing beauty holding a Zemi stone that she has probably never heard of, the water cascading through a coconut held by an ecological Rasta-type figure (fueled by a hidden submersible pump) blending modern-day technology with the ancient mythical belief of the Tainos that certain fertility Zemi stones would provide adequate water in their lives. Here it actually happens, embodying the thought process that the Tainos had — in a piece of Third Millennium interactive art. Not your typical sidewalk rectangle, to be sure."
The man behind the art
Roy Lawaetz was born on St. Croix in 1942 into a Danish-American family that was and still is synonymous with cattle raising and politics. He didn't aspire to be an artist until relatively late in life. He served aboard the USS Enterprise as a military journalist during the Viet Nam conflict, after having graduated from the Defense Information School. Returning to civilian life in 1970 at the age of 28, he says, "I expected to pursue a writing career, as that had always been my ambition. However, I ended up on my family's plantation in St. Lucia."
There, he started sketching. While visiting Sint Maarten, he ran into an old school friend who connected him with "one of the best art teachers in the United States, the Hungarian American Victor Candell." He went to Massachusetts to study with Candell at his Provincetown workshop. At their first meeting, Lawaetz recalls, Candell told him, after glancing at some of his sample sketches, "What matters for an artist is to bring what he knows about the world to the canvas in his own unique way. Not to learn to draw pimples on noses. We are not interested in being illustrators."
As that meeting ended, Candell told Lawaetz, "I think you will be very, very good someday." Two months later, he offered the Virgin Islands neophyte artist a position as his assistant at New York University and at his workshop.
Reflecting on those days, Lawaetz says, "I was amazed at myself, and this kept me going. I was also able to take advantage of my G.I. benefits so that I could also study at the Art Students League and, eventually, the Danish Royal Academy for the Arts in Copenhagen — like my fellow Crucian artist and friend Elroy Simmonds."
His family on St. Croix "was amazed" at this turn in his career path as well, as "no one had ever seen me interested in art before." But the genetic footprints were there. Riis-Carstensen, one of the best-known Danish artists of his day, and one who traveled to and painted the Danish West Indies, was Roy's paternal grandmother's cousin. His paternal grandmother, Marie Lawaetz, "loved to paint, although she was occupied with raising a clan of kids where the Lawaetz Family Museum stands today."
Today, he is one of several living Lawaetz artists recognized in Denmark. "One of them is one of the most active younger Danish artists, Vibeke Lawaetz," he says. Another is Otto Lawaetz, "who has won many awards and lives in France most of the time."
His artistic attraction to the Taino culture was a natural outgrowth of growing up on St. Croix, he says. "My father, Erik Lawaetz, and my Uncle Kai Lawaetz were always avid Indian artifact collectors," he recalls. "Then there were great personalities like [naturalist and author] George Seaman who frequented the home, and the atmosphere for this reality of our island was always vividly present as a child." His sense of connectivity with the Taino "ties me in with the ancestral past that I find to be more profound and meaningful than continuing to replicate other imagery," he says.
He was an avant garde artist from the get-go — an abstract expressionist to start, he says. It was "an easy transformation for me, once I made up my mind," to throw off the European trappings of art "and go for something that was really bedrock Caribbean." In finding a way to include the Pre-Columbian legacy in his work, "I see a way to develop my own personal vocabulary," he says. "Candell, my mentor, always told me someday it would happen — and then he told me I would have to stay in the same mental location and drill, like drilling for oil. I understand now what he meant."
An art about ideas
While many Virgin Islands artists see market ladies and fishing boats as their bread and butter, Lawaetz says he has "never addressed the market as such, as to what people will buy. In this sense I am not a commercial artist. I paint the way I have to — and the response has been varied on my home island, from total indifference to raves." Indeed, he adds, "The local relatives here on St. Croix gravitate to rectangular art, and my works are not hanging in their homes."
Most art collectors "still expect to see a rectangle," he acknowledges. "On the other hand, every time I have an exhibit, people see something that they have never been confronted with before, and some are willing to make a commitment. But, basically, the infrastructure for innovative art is not in place, due to the type of market venues we depend on. I have always had to reach out to larger audiences to get more of my message across."
Asked to define what kind of art represents the Virgin Islands, he answers: "Let's be frank. Most artists painting here are non-natives. They therefore project an image of what they consider the islands to be for them, and this is considered Virgin Islands art, and that can be very misleading at times, because it is more often than not focused in stereotypical genres. Example: White artists only doing portraits of black people. Where are the black artists doing portraits of white people?"
His says his art in the broad sense is "an art about ideas. Marianne de Tolentino, the French-born Dominican art critic, summed it up for me when she told an audience that I was an artist que piensa mucho — who thinks a lot. Yes, I do. I give a lot of thought as to how I can combine the past and present of the Caribbean in innovative ways."
e has shown his work in about a hundred solo and group exhibitions, many of the latter invitationals or biennials where he was selected for the quality of his theme presentations. At the 1996 Bienal in Sao Paulo, where he was in the company of such artists as Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, his triangulation premise was hailed as "new and innovative."
Lawaetz says the integration of running water into his interactive works is a further elaboration of his triangulation concept: "Water was the platform upon which the early settlers to the Caribbean could be transported. Then came Columbus with his ships for the Conquest, later follower by the events of the Middle Passage. All of these three profound legacies have had much to do with water."
Globally accepted 'art of the Caribbean'
In 1997, Lawaetz was recognized by the V.I. government for his art achievement locally and internationally. That same year, he was invited as guest master artist from the Virgin Islands to France's Grimaldi Museum for an exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of emancipation in the Danish West Indies; he took part in the "First TransAfrican Art Invitational" at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida; and he was represented at an exhibition in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen.
Among his other major exhibition credits: 1994 — Cuenca, Equador; the Dominican Republic; Grimaldi, France; and Kassel, Germany. 1996 — the 23rd Sao Paulo Bienal; 1999 — the Grand Palais in France and another show in Grimaldi, France; 2000 — a traveling exhibition on "Urban Life in the Caribbean Region"; and, this month, the 4th Biennial Exhibition of the Caribbean and Central America in the Dominican Republic.
"A certain kind of art is expected to come out of the Caribbean, so cutting-edge art will always have a difficult time," Lawaetz says."The irony is that when I exhibit abroad, people in museums see my kind of work as something original coming out of the Caribbean."
For more information about the artist, his art and "The Modular Triangular System," visit the Roy Lawaetz web site.
Friday's reception at The Art Gallery at the Grand Hotel is from 6 to 10 p.m. Lawaetz's works join those of more than a dozen other exhibitors in an evolving show collectively titled "The Richness of Virgin Islands Artists." Lawaetz will be present to discuss his work, and there will be complimentary wine on the second-floor terrace overlooking Emancipation Garden and the St. Thomas waterfront.
To make it easy for folks staying on St. John to take in the Friday art events, MAPes MONDe galleries, which Paiewonsky owns, and Beni Iguana's sushi bar in the Grand Galleria courtyard are co-sponsoring a free ferry that departs the Creek waterfront in Cruz Bay at 7 p.m. for downtown Charlotte Amalie and leaves the St. Thomas waterfront for the return trip at 10 p.m. Beni Iguana's also stays open until 10 p.m. on Fridays. Those already on St. Thomas but heading to St. John for the night can just board the boat at 10 for the one-way trip.
The gallery opens daily at 9 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday (except for Friday), and until 2 p.m. on Sunday.

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