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On Island Profile: Caroll Sirhakis

Feb. 12, 2007 — Caroll Sirhakis, a resident of St. Thomas for more than 30 years, has changed direction in her art. She is working with found natural materials and has discovered a new and exciting form of personal expression.
Her balcony is filled with pieces of coral, driftwood, fungi, seeds and pods, drying and bleaching in the sun. All will be turned into scenes that grab the eye and stimulate the imagination. They are turned into people, landscapes and vistas. Sirhakis works every day with a renewed energy and passion toward her goal, a large exhibition in November.
"After 50 years in the art world," Sirhakis says. "This is like second nature to me. I see the pieces in my head before I start. What do you expect? I'm a designer."
Educated in classical Fine Arts at Philadelphia's Moore Institute of Art and Parson's School of Design in New York, Sirhakis established a design studio in New York.
"I designed fabrics, dishes, draperies, packaging, wallpaper," she says. "It was a great business, and I thought I could do it here."
Sirhakis had two brothers living in St. Thomas and she joined them. Then her plans changed, and she co-founded Down Island Traders with Cassie Mallory.
"There were no stores that sold things made in the islands, so we started with food products — spices and jellies," Sirhakis says. "We brought in seasonings from Grenada and Dominica: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cocoa and bay leaves. We made everything from our own recipes."
While building the retail business, she discovered the handicrafts and art of Haiti and opened an art gallery called The Gallery. The two business ventures would last 27 years.
For many of those years, Sirhakis spent six months here and six months in Haiti. She continued that pattern for more than 30 years, collaborating with Haitian artisans in producing a variety of decorative products. Sirhakis has collected and commissioned a lot of works over the years, many of which have been sold or lost to hurricanes.
"I would bring in large containers of merchandise, lots of it," she says. "I did it for 15 years." After the embargo of 1991, it became too difficult to continue: "I couldn't get in there any more. But the art there is still amazing. I love the primitive and religious art, not the pretty things."
Now 70 years old, Sirhakis' new direction offers more freedom and fun. After her extensive career of tightly structured commercial work, she now combs the island for unique organic materials.
"Each piece was once a living thing," she says. "Each speaks with its own color and texture, and each piece is still determined to show the value of its life."
The shift in her focus has netted Sirhakis unexpected dividends.
"I never wanted to be a serious artist," she says. "I always enjoyed the business side of things, but the response to this latest stuff has just been remarkable. It has made me see things so much differently. I travel around looking for things. People can find me in front of Kmart picking dried pieces off the palms, or at the beach."
Not only is Sirhakis doing this, but so are many of her friends. They are looking at things differently, too, and they bring her their finds on a regular basis. "I love it," she says. "I have so many people involved in this. It's fun for all of us. They want to see what I will do with their stuff."
These natural pieces include coral, disfigured shells, bones, weathered tropical woods, seeds, nuts, pods and rocks. All were carefully chosen to feature unique textures and tones nearly devoid of color.
"Aged, even after its death, by sun, sea, time and travel, each piece is a perfect example of earthy beauty left to tell its own story," Sirhakis says.
In working with the coral, some of which is a million years old, Sirhakis has become an advocate for the environment, expressing great concern about global warming. She has researched the subject on the Internet, and says that now more than 60 percent of the reefs are damaged or dying.
"We never used to find such large pieces, and now they are everywhere," Sirhakis says. "It's frightening. We have to wake up."
As a commercial artist, she had to hide her own artistic sense in order to produce a product that would sell, but these latest pieces are very personal. She finds both serenity and energy in producing them.
"These are the very things that each of us has seen on the beaches, the very items that we know are both beautiful and unusual," she says. "And now look at them. They have a whole new life."
Just like Sirhakis.
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