St. Thomas, Hurricane Marilyn (1995)
“[The Virgin Islands], in brief, has not been an isolated and inward-turned community slowly and imperceptibly building up a powerful sense of meaningful communality on the twin pillars of stability and continuity, but rather an outward-confronting, tropical state of nature successively shaken by the rude, elemental force of invading immigrant peoples bound together, at best, by fragile and tenuous relationships.”
– Gordon K. Lewis, The Virgin Islands: A Caribbean Lilliput, (1972).
The problem of colonial education is a well-worn issue in Caribbean social criticism. Every major Caribbean thinker has had something to say about pedagogy. Frantz Fanon’s exasperation is memorable when he noted that school children in his native Martinique were learning their history from books that began with the words, “Our ancestors the Gauls…”, the problem being that the majority of “ancestors” to Martinican people were not Gauls at all.
And it is not just education in the Caribbean that may have damaging effects on local students. It is also the education that Caribbean people receive abroad. One of my favorite passages from George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile argues that British Caribbeans should not attend University in England:
“…Not because England is a bad place for studying, but because the students whole development as a person is thwarted by the memory, the accumulated stuff of childhood and adolescence which has been maintained and fertilized by England’s historic ties with the West Indies. It would have been better, perhaps, if he had gone to study in France or Germany, to mention countries with a different language; any place where his adjustments would have to take the form of understanding the inhabitants from scratch.”
I can’t help but think of this when I see school children walking around my home island of St. John carrying worn and outdated copies of textbooks entitled These United States. I couldn’t help but be reminded of it last year when I substituted for an elementary school class and was left a lesson plan to teach the students that autumn arrives with the changing of the leaves. This is I think what Édouard Glissant means when he refers to societies that “little by little get lost in the unreal, and so irresponsible, use of language.”
Addressing these issues requires consensus, and that is something that Caribbean societies — including my own — are not known for. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, where immigration has been emphatic and forceful, the present can seem under-determined. In America’s Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs, historian William Boyer writes:
“No other locale in the Caribbean […] or elsewhere in the world for that matter – had undergone such radical and rapid ethnic and economic change in the 1960′s than that experienced by America’s Virgin Islands.”‘
If our present isn’t neat, pure, or singular, the urge is to go looking for those qualities in the past. But since the past is often just a projection of our current anxieties and desires, our dilemma is never resolved. Yes, the pluralism that is often said to be an admirable quality of Caribbean islands is a gift; but it can also be experienced as a lack when we are feeling frustrated and cynical.
During the “development decade”, the era beginning in the early 1960s, the modern USVI economy was born, and along with it the demand for labor that would be met primarily by men and women from other Caribbean Islands. Thanks to the booming economy, more people from the mainland United States also chose to make the Virgin Islands their home during this period. Suddenly three major contradictory narratives existed side by side each other in the territory. Some Virgin Islanders had become Americans by the purchase of their home. Some had become Americans by choice, seeking economic opportunity in the USVI. And for some, habitation in the Virgin Islands was a half-hearted escape from America without the disruptions of a forfeited citizenship. These narratives — each saying something about our relationship to the United States — do not seem to be reconcilable
Those of us who grew up in the Virgin Islands from the 1960s onward are the heirs to the aspirations and degradations of the development decade, its successes and its failures. So why is this recent past so often invisible to us? The fluctuating world in which we were born has the illusion of permanence. But the development decade was nothing if not an abrupt rift in the past separating forever two eras, the time before and the time after.
Within the shifting realities of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the youth are the wildcard. Their memories are still fresh and untainted by nostalgia. They have no world but the one that is in the process of being born. How can educators in the Virgin Islands, responsible for helping the young develop, understand the nuances of the new world that their students belong to?
In 1983, Commissioner of Education and future Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands Dr. Charles W. Turnbull contributed an article to Volume I, No. 8 of VI Education Review, entitled “Migration and Educational Disequilibrium.” In it he charts the challenges faced by the Virgin Islands education system in the wake of the development decade. He puts some things in clear perspective. Here are the astonishing numbers:
“In the period 1960 – 1975 the population of the U.S. Virgin Islands almost tripled, increasing by 188 percent [!!!]. The fastest growing state in the United States in the same period was Nevada whose population increased by 103 percent. It should be noted that the change in population per square mile on St. Thomas increased from 506 in 1960 to 1,372 in 1975. This placed St. Thomas second only to Barbados in the Caribbean and higher by far than any state in the Union.”
The children of non-citizen residents were at first excluded from the USVI public school system on the basis that the schools were already overburdened, but when the courts ruled that all children be given access to public education, the Virgin Islands public school district became one of the largest under the U.S. flag (188th out of 11,000 districts by the late 1970s). Dr. Turnbull notes that public school enrollment in the USVI in 1968 was 11,497 students. By 1981 it was 25,585 students.
And the educators? Many teachers, too, during this period were recent arrivals to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Turnbull writes:
“Particularly challenging and critical was the dilemma of the many non-Virgin Islands and non-West Indian teachers, most from the continental United States…who faced the awesome task of assimilating the immigrant child into a new and different school system. Very little in their background and training had prepared them for this. Not to be forgotten was the fact that the continental teachers faced assimilation problems themselves in some ways, not unlike the very immigrant children they were recruited to serve.”
I think this is Turnbull’s very polite way of saying that many well-intentioned people may have in fact only added to the confusion of young Virgin Islanders of the late-20th century.
Such an enormous increase in enrollment would naturally put strains on any school system, but this was an influx of students into schools which already, according to Dr. Turnbull’s article, “routinely held thirty, forty, and even fifty children per class.” Virgin Islanders made great sacrifices in this era, but sometimes the challenges were daunting enough to create strains within the community, or as Turnbull writes of the conflict over limited public education resources:
“Manifestations of this conflict were vividly evident at P.T.A meetings, school registrations and on radio talk shows. This had the effect of straining the chords of unity and tolerance in the multiracial, multicultural Virgin Islands.”
This sort of conflict, born of mass-immigration, is not at all unique to the USVI. The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes wrote of the hypocrisies of our age that, “We celebrate the so-called globalization process because it facilitates the movement of goods, services, and securities around the world in a truly extraordinary manner. Things are free to circulate. But workers, human beings, are not.”
The equation, everywhere in the world, even in very generous communities (which I believe the U.S. Virgin Islands to be), is that an overcrowding of the commons creates conflict. This is only interesting insofar as these conflicts shape societies, and that they also can produce the conditions for healing.
More than these conflicts, I am interested in the idea of education itself, and what it means to a culturally-diverse community. Do educators have some obligation to put us all on the same page? What about the erasure of difference that this entails? I think this is where the idiosyncratic USVI dynamic I have just described may resonate beyond our shores. What path should schools take when faced with an influx of students (and teachers!) labeled by society as “alien” or foreign? Isn’t the language surrounding assimilation a bit frightening? But at the same time, raising a generation of outsiders also seems problematic. Today all teachers in the USVI are required to take a course in local history, but is that enough? Dr. Turnbull makes his opinion on the role of education clear at the end of the article when he writes:
“..as a result of institutional stress, the role of the school as transmitter of traditional social values became blurred and defused.”
I did not attend public school in the USVI. Others must speak to that experience. I was a student at private schools on both St. John and St. Thomas, and as a result of this, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of teachers I had who even identified as Virgin Islanders. Many would say this shouldn’t matter. In part, I agree. All human hearts have the same capacity for understanding others. Falling into a myopic nationalism is useless, even when we are faced with confusing times.
But there is another side to this story as well. What do private school students in the U.S. Virgin Islands lose by being educated in what are essentially mainland-oriented institutions? Does it matter that many of these students come from families who have arrived in the Virgin Islands relatively recently? If they choose to integrate into the mosaic that is the Caribbean – their home – they will not learn how to do so at school.
Following this line of thought can lead to distressing comparisons to an era in the Caribbean that we like to believe is over. There is a long tradition in the region of education serving the sinister – at least, to local people – purpose of creating good British, French, Spanish, Danish and Dutch citizens.
Shouldn’t local knowledge be given precedence in our schools over classes in U.S. Civics and U.S. History? Shouldn’t all children raised in the USVI be given the knowledge to place themselves in the context of their society, and indeed, the broader world? A very wise man once said that “national consciousness, which is not the same as nationalism, is the only thing that can give us an international dimension.”
One of the legacies of the USVI’s development decade is an education system that has frequently given young Virgin Islanders a conflicted sense of national consciousness. As for those educators who do their best to instill in their students the sort of generous global sensibility that can only come from a strong pride in place, I can only hope they know what a difference they make.
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.