The Daily Herald writes that French St. Martin artist Roland Richardson identified as a leading figure in the West Indian impressionist art school painted and personally delivered a portrait of Saba’s historian and former commissioner and Member of Parliament of the Netherlands Antilles Will Johnson. The artist brought the finished oil-on-canvas painting while visiting his old friend on Friday, August 9. At Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport the two had a “shocking experience.”
The Customs officers, posted in Saba on six-month stints, had no idea who Johnson and Richardson were. The two were questioning the artist “as if he was trying to smuggle in something,” said Johnson. The Customs officials looked at Johnson and at the painting asking about the value. Johnson explained the fame of the artist and agreed on an import tax for the painting of some US $1,500. Richardson took the incident lightly, but noted that art taxation is “a sad challenge throughout the region inhibiting cultural exchange.”
The two have been friends for over 30 years influencing each other’s work. Born in St. Martin, the artist studied fine arts in the United States, returning to his native island where he spent the last 45 years. Richardson was editor-in-chief of Discover magazine at its onset and Johnson was a very insightful resource suggesting stories and sending documents to support the rediscovery of the region’s rich cultural history. Their friendship helped the artist reconnect and rediscover the history of islands. This knowledge anchored his work, allowing him to “legitimately represent the Caribbean,” he said. This is an important aspect for an art scene in which many artists come from other regions of the world, attempting to interpret the islands’ culture though the lens of their particular cultural backgrounds. His friendship with Johnson and their common interest in the history of the islands “completed my own sense of being here,” said Richardson.
Johnson recalled about how he met Richardson while searching for Amerindian artefacts and how their encounter resulted in an article in the first edition of Discover magazine. Richardson painted Johnson in May, while he was visiting his studio and having a friendly conversation. Asked if he used the background composition to create an illusion of tri-dimensional space, the artist noted that “nothing was fabricated; portraiture is about discovering the subject as it presents itself and the light reflecting Johnson’s face on the glass table was incidental, only an eye observation establishing space.” While he is familiar with established Saban artists and is aware of their work the art scenes of Saba and St. Martin only meet occasionally at regional events. He welcomed young Saban talents to join him at one of his weekly working sessions either at La Samanna Hotel on Wednesdays or at the artist’ gallery in Marigot on Thursdays at 10:30am. Richardson holds these sessions for those interested in his philosophy of light and colour. He spoke passionately about colour revealing the inner essence of the material subject rather than form.
Asked what defines his work, Richardson said he only works with live subjects. “Spontaneity is the most essential characteristic of my paintings. It has to do with the response that you have to something as opposed to something premeditative. Secondly, my focus is not on the object subject but on the colour.” Johnson’s portrait even surprised the artist, with the subject’s goatee, hat and posture reminding of “some of the old Dutch masters’ portraits of guild members.” Johnson becomes one of the few local patrons of the artist, whose patrons include public figures such as the late Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, Harry Belafonte and the Getty family among others.