Sarah Beckett: mixed media

Sarah Beckett has been a painter since coming to Trinidad in the 1960s, but her work also incorporates music, poetry and film

Beckett painting for the film Alabaster Moon. Photograph by Michele Jorsling

There are two reasons you end up in another country: work or love. So it was love – I married a Trinidadian. I came here in the late 60s with him and the three children. We divorced fairly quickly, but I stayed on, and this where I really began my painting life. I was lucky enough to know [the artists] [Sonnilal] Rambissoon, Isaiah Boodhoo, and Pat Chu Foon. In those days there were no art galleries. We had a show called The Six at Bishop Anstey [School]: Jackie Hinkson, who had just come back from France, myself, Rambissoon, Boodhoo, Pat Chu Foon, and Jeannette Farrell; that was the six of us.

In the mid-90s all my children were married or settled and I thought, “I’m going back to Trinidad.” Once your children grow up, that, for a woman, has an extraordinary effect. It was a great struggle for our generation to try and marry the demands and the delights of having a family and small children and trying to do things outside of that particular envelope. I’ve painted all my life, but the production level that I have maintained since I have been back in this country is because I have been entirely focused on the work.

My experience over the last ten years has been an inward life, very much engaged with either painting or writing or making films or whatever. But there have been times of great loneliness when I have missed my family so terribly. I think that – it’s an odd dichotomy – it’s probably not good for artists to be too comfortable. I do not mean living in abject poverty, because that destroys the creative drive, but the whole idea of exile is crucial. I think as a creative person you walk around with a suitcase of your imagination wherever you live.

Overall I am known as a colourist; my work is lyrical and romantic. Each artist has their own particular strength or direction that you are not even conscious of when you start. It’s other people who begin to tell you this is where you are obviously going, once you find your language. I didn’t really begin to know what I was actually doing until I was in my forties; everything before that was all homework.

I did a year in France at the Beaux Art, Fontainebleau, where I was only allowed to draw. If they didn’t like your work they’d just tear it up and you’d have to start again. And in London I trained at Byam Shaw School of Art, St Martin’s College of Art and did my degree in mural design at Chelsea College of Art.

I don’t believe that art school makes you an artist, but it does give you the technical knowhow and knowledge of your materials. I didn’t have the courage to say I was an artist until I was about 40.

I’ve painted to music all my life, and some music, like poetry, becomes your friend. For me, Rolando Villazon singing from L’Elisir d’Amour is the absolute best, but there’s Mozart, flamenco, Benedictine chant, Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise; it goes on and on. This sort of connection took a quantum leap when I met a classical pianist, John Vanneste, in 2001. We formed Polyphony, a creative collaboration which explored the relationship between art and music. He would put together a body of music and then I would try to gear the painting towards the mood that was evoked in the music. Over the years it grew until I founded Trinidad Quartet Productions in 2005, which is a larger version of Polyphony. We launched TQP in 2005 with an exhibition of my work and Pamberi Steel Orchestra playing, and then we ran a workshop at Pamberi panyard. We also initiated a creative outreach workshop with the Cotton Tree Foundation (funded by BPTT).

In 2007 we produced several multi-arts productions. Round About Midnight was showcased here and in Guyana. What was so marvellous about it was that people who were predominantly interested in the music were coming up after, saying, “Ah, now I understand what you are painting about,” and the people who are more visual were illuminated by the music.

Even though I am not a landscape painter, living in Trinidad, you are living in landscape. You can’t help it. Everything grows so quickly. I love that fecundity, that wonderful sense of exuberance. In my last exhibition [at the In2 Art Gallery in Port of Spain, in October 2008], even though the large ones were dealing with landscape, I’m painting very much from an imaginative point of view; but the work all comes out of proper drawings, I mean working studies of place. I think that is where Trinidad has influenced me, because when I first started, my work was much more interior, both in content and composition.

What I found very interesting in working here in Trinidad is that it’s a small country bursting at the seams with creativity, so there is a wealth of people to work with and talk to and so on. Trinidad is very young, but I feel quite strongly – which is one of the reasons that I wanted to make the film – that there is a lot of silent creativity going on that people do not necessarily know about. It’s easy to see Trinidad as simply Carnival and calypso, but there are things going on apart from all of that. It is exciting, the art world. It’s really impressive for a country this size.

I’m going on sabbatical for about eight months. I want to spend some time with my grandchildren, of whom I have seven, and I need to recharge my creative batteries. I’ll be based in Mallorca [Spain] because I like the Mediterranean way of life and both my daughters and their families live there. And it is so easy to whiz over to London, where I can visit my son and his family.

I am using the time to write a book. I would like it to be a collaborative book with Trinidad Quartet Productions and the people that I worked with on Alabaster Moon.

For some reason it’s as if my destiny has had me entwined in this country. Each artist has their own window and this is the window that has been given to me.