Photos by David Knight Jr.
In 2011, Gerville Larsen, an artist, architect and preservationist from St. Croix, was kind enough to answer some of my questions for the website of ARC magazine, a fine arts quarterly based in St. Vincent & the Grenadines. This January, I visited Mr. Larsen’s office in Christiansted and took a closer look at some of his work.
The following article appeared in the web updates of ARC magazine on November 3rd, 2011. It also appeared in E-network (Empowering the Caribbean).
Gerville Rene Larsen is a 6th generation “Crucian” born and raised on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He obtained a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Cornell University in 1989. Gerville started drawing at age 6 and prior to college, he studied at the St. Croix School of the Arts. While at Cornell, he studied under Eleanore Mikus. He has participated in Biennials in Cuenca, Ecuador and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. His work has been in solo and groups shows in the U.S. and Caribbean. He curated a show at the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts in Frederiksted, St. Croix. He owns TALLER LARJAS, LLC founded in 1999 which houses a fine art gallery, his art studio and his architectural firm on St. Croix. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects and the National Organization of Minority Architects.
Gerville believes in giving back to his community and has several pursuits including his strong desire to preserve the unique built and natural environments of the U.S. Virgin Islands. He is presently the Virgin Islands Advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is the former Chair of its Southern Region. He is a Member of the St. Croix Historic Preservation Committee. He is also the former Chair of the St. Croix Landmarks Society.
David Knight Jr.: The US Virgin Islands occupies a unique and sometimes ambiguous position within the Caribbean. How do you view yourself and your work within the broader context of regional art? Do you create art with a Caribbean audience in mind? A specific Virgin Islands audience? Is there a good deal of contact and dialogue between the USVI arts community and artists in other Caribbean nations?
Gerville Larsen: I base my work on thematic pursuits. Some are personal and universal and, occasionally, some are intrinsic to the place, town, island and region where I live. I produce work that has meaning to me and that hopefully will elicit a strong response from the viewer. I don’t believe there is sufficient dialogue between artists here and in other Caribbean nations. The rare opportunities artists have to interact and see each other’s work typically occur at Biennials or collaborative exhibitions in the region. Although I do speak to other local artists on occasion, I don’t think the dialogue happens with enough frequency. In the long term, this diminishes the caliber of work we collectively produce here in the U.S. Virgin Islands
DK: How about within the USVI – can you speak on the local arts scene a little bit? Is there a good deal of support for artistic projects, both from the government and private buyers? Is there a healthy dialogue about arts and culture on St. Croix?
GL: The commissioning or purchasing of fine art by corporations, government agencies or museums is a rare occurrence here in the Territory. The notion of art being valued as more than just decorative adornment in a home or office is not fully appreciated in our community. At present, the strongest interaction artists have with potential consumers occurs during our numerous charitable events. As important as a charitable cause may be, it should never be the only reason why artists are producing work. More importantly, the art work produced should not be tailored only to subjects that will “sell” in certain venues. As artists, we have a voice that can help to interpret, qualify, capture and direct discussions on some of the critical issues we face on a daily basis in both poetic and impactful ways. We should not be afraid to express this voice to whichever audience that is willing or even unwilling to experience it.
DK: Artists in our region are known for exploring the mixed character of Caribbean societies. St. Croix’s history involves centuries of cross-cultural contact and conflict. I notice that the titles of your work are bilingual. Likewise your collection entitled “Fervid and Forthright” heavily references presence Africaine, which has survived in Crucian culture despite the plantation system and the subsequent influence of the United States. In what ways do you experience the disparate cultural influences in your heritage and your work? Are they harmonious? Do they conflict with each other? In what ways do they surprise you or make you question U.S. Virgin Islands society?
GL: In both my artistic and architectural pursuits, I have always presented the notion that the built environment we experience today is a direct manifestation of our diverse ancestral heritage and of the unique fusion that resulted. To promote only one part of our story and therefore give value to just one component of our societal evolution is misleading and can breed resentment amongst segments of our population. Where we live in this built environment and what we experience is based on a confluence of varying cultures and values fused together to become something very particular to this place in the world. Cultural diversity has made our islands what they are today, however we must remember to commemorate and revere all who contributed and made it so distinctive. I focus my art and my efforts on preserving our complete heritage by capturing this under-told “other side” of the story. I choose the voice with which I desire to express myself based on being of mixed ancestry, which is why some titles of my work incorporate various languages. It is who I am and I aim to produce work that reflects this unique personal essence. I believe this is a similar reality for many Caribbean artists.
As to your question about my collection “fervid & forthright”, I would like to share an interesting interaction that occurred at the show’s opening night. The show’s theme paralleled “Crucian” entitlement with African rites of passage into adulthood. It captured spiritual and subliminal links between the Caribbean and Africa, depicting large works meant to inspire introspection and meditation. Being a 6th generation Crucian myself, I felt I could uniquely capture my sense of place and pride in my heritage while aligning it with African rituals that are more encoded in my being instead of directly experiencing them. The images were truly strong and evocative and, for the most part, the feedback was very engaging and positive. However, one striking occurrence took place between me and a visibly perplexed Caucasian who expressed serious concern about my use of the term “Crucian” entitlement. I explained to this individual that, having attended an Ivy League school, I quickly learned that persons who possessed long lineages here in the United States reveled in their ancestral links such as being able to date their family’s arrival back to the Mayflower and they loved to make this known. They wore their lineage boldly, almost like a gilded suit. To this day, I am unsure whether their disturbance was due to my reference of being entitled even though I am a person of color, or if they thought I somehow perceived myself as being better than others. Neither was true. In a strange way, I realized that I too possessed a similar experience being from the Virgin Islands. I fully understand the contributions my ancestors had made to this place which enabled me to call this “home”. I hope this awareness will help others here also understand the valuable role they play in their community. I am always surprised how similar the human experience is and how some individuals readily want to emphasize the differences rather than the likenesses we all share. I honestly feel that my long cultural history and lineage here in the U.S. Virgin Islands does in fact entitle me to protect, promote and even pontificate about this valuable commodity that exists here. I try my best to capture this belief through my art and through my efforts to save my ancestral sense of place.
GL: I’ve always been a great fan of Francis Bacon’s work, especially the emotive quality of his figurative pieces. The first time I experienced his work “in the flesh” was during a trip I made to the MOMA in New York City. I witnessed his painting “Man with Dog” and was profoundly moved. I almost felt the aggression of the dog perched on a sidewalk, snapping at the viewer, poised to pounce. How this fixed piece of art on a wall could emote all this energy to its viewer was fascinating to me. Here was an artist whose personal experiences and perspectives shaped his artistic pursuits and created truly eloquent works of art that continue to speak volumes today. Jean-Michel Basquiat is also a personal favorite of mine, most notably his “predatory” assault on the New York art scene during the 1980′s that invariably made his work so valuable today. A mixed media potent, Jean-Michel created timeless and relevant works by capturing his reality through iconic and wittingly composed 2D canvases.
DK: If you had to describe your body of work to someone in one sentence, what would you say?
GL: I would define my work as thematic, introspective, experiential, abstract and figurative.
GL: I gravitate towards oils primarily due to their rich luster, sheen and smell. Though I do believe that, due to the abstract and figurative quality of my pieces, experimentation with varied media is crucial in order to fully express my artistic thoughts. I choose to work in mixed media because it prevents me from getting in a rut when I produce new work. Mixed media helps my work to continually evolve.
DK: The fine art world is sometimes an exclusionary one. Do have any concerns about this? How do you make your work accessible and relevant to a broad audience on St. Croix?
GL: It can be political at times. By political I mean that, if someone is the gatekeeper to a collective show or biennial, this individual can influence whether you are selected based on your relationship with them rather than the quality of your work. This creates missed opportunities for an artist’s voice to be heard. I believe staying focused on your voice should always prevail and, if you are on the right track, eventually people will value your efforts. For many years I only did singular original pieces and never considered doing prints or digital reproductions. However, this past May, at a trade fair I attended in Aarhus, Denmark, I did several digital reproductions of older pieces and felt quite satisfied with the final product. The audience feedback was also positive. I do believe there is a place for both the creation of unique, one-of-a-kind pieces, as well as the possibility of doing limited editions at a different price point. This allows the art to reach varied audiences and ensures that the message will be consumed and experienced by a larger group. As I begin to produce a brand new collection in the upcoming months, I look forward to creating unique works that may have some components for future reproduction in limited editions. As always, the theme of this new work is evolving
DK: Aside from being a painter, you are also an architect. I am interested in the ways that your work in these two disciplines might inform one another. Do you have the impression that your architectural designs influence your painting in any way, and vice versa?
GL: My art work is, at times, a distinct release from the structured confines of my profession. I do believe my art is an expression of who I am and what I have experienced. The difficulty of preserving historical structures and places, as I do daily in my architectural practice, also informs my artistic voice. I don’t believe they can be separated and my artistic style has roots in my architectural training. My approach to structured space is based on my knowledge of light, color, texture and other facets employed in the execution of my art. Simply put, I truly need both to exist completely.
DK: I understand that you are also passionate about historic preservation projects on St. Croix. Why is this an important issue to you? Do you see progress towards greater community interest in cultural/historic preservation?
GL: Well, to answer this question, I have to go back to a wonderful tag I first heard at the National Trust for Historic Preservation where I serve as the Virgin Islands Advisor to the Board. The tag simply begs the question “Who Built America”. This one simple line captured the complexity of the preservation and conservation issues that we also face here in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is a problem seen throughout the Caribbean as many island nations do not fully recognize the one-sided nature of their accepted history. The true story of “who built this place” memorializes not only a difficult part of our history – slavery – but also endears the positive triumph over adversity during these most inhumane times. What we as African descendants accomplished in this region is nothing short of miraculous and deserving of “telling the full story”.
The National Trust’s mandate to save historical places is exemplified in the “This Place Matters” campaign that aims to document and quantify why certain places matter within individual communities. By expounding the story of how our valued places came into being, we begin to see more buy-in and understanding from local community members as to why we should conserve and preserve these locations. I thoroughly enjoy my preservation work and championing the cause, particularly since our historic places here in the U.S.V.I. are so well-designed and possess such unique architectural characteristics. Through my efforts, I try to promote the countless stories of so many unknown and unheralded expert craftsmen and women who helped shape our amazing landscapes. We all have a responsibility to preserve these stories and, through various speaking engagements and articles, I do believe I am helping to get the word out about the need for all of us do the right thing in preserving our culture and history. Historic preservation and conservation also speak to the sustainability of our natural resources through the recycled use of these valuable places. These efforts help reduce our carbon footprint, give continuity to future generations, save our collective stories and preserve rich historic spaces in lieu of more “cookie-cutter” and mediocre new construction.
DK: Can you give young artists in the region any tips about navigating the pressures that are still inherent in being a Caribbean artist? How should individuals make space for their own narratives in a world where international perceptions of their homes are often formed by tourism? What about the pressures to emigrate? How can young Caribbean people make sense of the foreign ideologies still embedded in many of their educations?
GL: Having been an artist for many years, I would caution the next generation not to get locked into doing just one style of visual arts. Explore different media, themes and approaches to prevent you from getting stuck. Don’t believe that the only recourse for you as a “local” or “native” artist is to strictly paint the palm trees and beach landscapes that seemingly proliferate in Caribbean decorative art. I’m not negating decorative art as a valid artistic pursuit, but I think it is so easy to create benign images that sell and which lull artists into repetition and complacency. This can only lead to work that is no longer thought-provoking or emotionally charged, neither lyrical nor witty. We as a Caribbean people have such a rich and complex history and live in such unique places that we should strive to capture these experiences in the work we produce. I believe there are several Caribbean countries rising to a more sophisticated call in the art they produce: Jamaica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico to name a few. I also think experiencing other cultures that are able to express and promote their heritage well should be studied by Caribbean people. Our histories are indeed long and merit our validation for the people that sculpted and helped create these distinct cultures. We should always revel in the reality that we do have valuable places that matter to us on a local and global level.
GL: I believe artists such as La Vaughn Belle are rigorous and gifted in the production of art that challenges the viewer and I remain excited by the evolution of her work. Efforts to get exposure for Virgin Islands artists in off-island venues should be given to Janet Cook-Rutnik. Many wonderful and talented artists live in the Virgin Islands and many more live outside the territory, such as Kendal Henry whose international artistic endeavors touch many diverse communities. I do believe the Virgin Islands Arts Council should assist local artists to participate in more regional group shows and Biennials and foster more artistic conversations amongst ourselves. I also think we should have more established art critics, whether local or visiting, to review and comment on work produced in our islands to elevate the caliber of our artistic production.
DK: I’ll end with a political question – What is one change you would like to see in Virgin Islands society?
GL: I would like to see more open acceptance and support for our “indigenous, native and local” talent here in our islands. As a people, I would like to see a willingness amongst ourselves to be truly comfortable in our own skins. If we maintain a true desire to learn from others while teaching ourselves and visitors alike who we are and what we stand for, we will be better at preserving our stories and our own history. This would help us create an internalized and externalized pride that would benefit Virgin Islanders in many of our daily pursuits. I know this can be achieved – we need to remember our past, which will consequently, ensure our future.