Turning Green: St. Lucia’s Llewellyn Xavier

St Lucian artist Llewellyn Xavier is using his painting to dramatise environmental problems, and has found an ingenious way of doing it

A painting in Xavier’s collectionFrom Environmental SeriesFrom Environmental SeriesIslands in the Sun, by Llewellyn XavierLlewellyn XavierLlewellyn Xavier’s studioSt. Lucian painter Llewellyn XavierXavier’s studio. Photograph by Chris Huxley

Llewellyn Xavier is slicing an avocado. It is not just a chore. “Look,” he says, “if you cut it across and not lengthways, you get a beautiful speckled effect. And just watch how paper-thin the skin is.” The attention to texture, the delight in the form of the fruit, reflects Xavier’s passion for the natural world. This concern has turned him into a defender of the environment, wielding his brush on behalf of Planet Earth. The project he is working on now, Environmental Series, looks set to become a major artistic contribution to the international “green” movement. With characteristic panache, Xavier has gained the co- operation and participation of international organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and leading figures in ecology. But the work is being created on Xavier’s home ground. After years of living and travelling abroad, establishing himself as an artist of international stature with one-man shows in London, Toronto and New York, he returned to St Lucia four years ago.

At 46, Llewellyn Xavier is a warm and chatty man with the grace of a dancer. At home he wears clothes of kaleidoscopic hues that only an artist would dare to put together. His home, shared with his wife Christina, is a dazzling white mansion which doubles as a studio and as a beautifully designed gallery specialising in Caribbean art. Perched on a hill in Cap Estate in northern St Lucia, the house overlooks the blue-green peaks of the island’s mountainous backbone, with the Caribbean on one side and the dark Atlantic on the other.

“When I came back to St Lucia I kept marvelling at its beauty,” he says. But he also began to discover the problems of an island environment: deforestation, diminished rainfall, industrial chemicals, tourism development. It began to preoccupy him. “Other than the souls of men, I think the environment is unquestionably the most important problem facing mankind today.” He has already marched into battle over a controversial tourism project at the Pitons, the magical twin peaks in the south of the island, not far from his home village of Choiseul. The Pitons are close to Xavier’s heart. “I don’t know why I allow those two silly mountains to have such an influence on me, but I do,” he says.

The two triangles are a recurring image in Environmental Series.

To date this consists of 50 works, each one a synthesis of recycled materials and images (Xavier hates the word collage): lithographs, photographs, sketches, drawings, postage stamps. “I’ve not bought a scrap of paper: I had this mountain of material.” But the final touch is Xavier’s own mark: each work carries the stamp Environment Fragile. The theme of this first group is birds: next, fish and the rainforest.

But the work isn’t finished when it leaves his studio. It needs a final flourish: the contribution of others as well as the artist. Xavier’s original concept (which others have called “mailart”) is to send international environmental organisations and figures a work through the post and ask them to stamp it with their official seal, sign it, comment on it and send it back. Among those who have already agreed to endorse Xavier’s work in this novel way are the World Wide Fund for Nature, the International Committee for the Preservation of Birds, the environmentalist David Bellamy and the St Lucian writer Derek Walcott. Xavier rang the White House to chivvy President Bush into supporting the series. Prince Charles and the Duke of Edinburgh turned him down, but he hasn’t stopped lobbying.

Xavier believes this series will be his best work to date. “My primary concern is with my art, but because the environment is at such risk I am using my art as a vehicle to create documents on the environment. And because they are original works of art, I hope they may fetch a fair bit on the market.” He has already arranged to donate some of the proceeds; but first the series will be exhibited; Xavier and Christina are looking to London for a major opening.

The teenager who left St Lucia — boys from fishing villages weren’t supposed to be artistic — went first to Barbados “because it was the most foreign place I could imagine”. There he discovered that he could paint. His watercolours sold. From Barbados he moved to England, where he explored the London art world and established himself as a painter. There in 1971 he exhibited his best-known work, the Gordon Jackson Series.
Jackson was a black American who through his prison writings became a controversial political figure in the early seventies. Xavier’s “mail art” was born by sending pen and ink drawings through the post — on the outside of a tube — to people like John Lennon, James Baldwin and George Jackson. In transit, the drawings collected the paraphernalia of the mail system. Then, like his Environmental Series, they were signed by the recipient and returned. It was a dialogue, Xavier says, a way of giving Jackson a link with the outside world.

By then an established painter, Xavier nevertheless took himself off to art school in North America. This was a new departure; but later came an even more radical move. He decided to enter a monastery, on “a spiritual search.” He destroyed almost all his work, his clothes, his materials, leaving only a few things in a hut in Choiseul to gather mildew. His pilgrimage — he was thinking of becoming a monk — took him to monasteries in the United States and Israel, and finally to a Benedictine monastery in Montreal where the emphasis was on meditation. (“Can you imagine me being silent?” he asks in mock amazement.) He did no painting, though he helped the monks with their small publishing business.

The quest was finally completed, not in the monastic life but in the secular world. He married Christina, returned to St Lucia and picked up his paintbrush again. One of his works (James Baldwin’s contribution to the Gordon Jackson Series) was rescued from the hut in Choiseul, and now hangs in his own gallery alongside his large, sparkling, abstract impressionist canvases.

But the first exhibition at the gallery, last year, was a wide- ranging celebration of Caribbean art. The white light rooms of the gallery sizzled with important Haitian paintings, watercolours by Derek Walcott, work by Roy Lawertz from St Croix and the “primitivist” Calliste of Grenada. It was an impressive display: Xavier believes that Caribbean art has a great future. “The international market is beginning to accept Caribbean artists, and the people of the Caribbean are starting to put things on their walls other than calendars.”

Xavier’s own work uses that glowing light that sweeps through the Caribbean and is a major influence on Caribbean artists. “Some describe it as harsher,” says Xavier. “I describe it as clearer. Horizons are sharp lines, colours tend to be more vivid.” And he believes that the Impressionists used that Caribbean light in their work: Pisarro, the father of the Impressionists, was born in the Virgin Islands, and Xavier thinks he must have absorbed that light and some- how transposed it into a European context.

Alongside that special light are other singular ingredients of Caribbean art: the African influences, the legacy of the pre-Columbian culture of the first people of the islands.

Xavier says he is using some pre-Columbian images in Environmental Series. “I somehow associate the pre-Columbians with a good environment — they were so careful of it. They were never polluters.”