Interview with Otto Trott
Otto Trott’s vibrant depictions of life in Bermuda capture both the beauty of the local landscape and our island’s unique cultural traditions.
The artist can often be found painting en plein air or walking with a camera in hand, ready to photograph activities and events that he feels play an integral role in the patchwork of Bermuda’s cultural heritage – from the ritualistic dance of the Gombeys to the fishermen on the local dock – which he later works from in his studio.
Taking a meticulous approach, Otto paints in both watercolour and oils, returning to outdoor locations for up to a month to work on a single landscape. He credits his experience of painting en plein air with imbuing his paintings with a sense of colour and light, regardless of whether they were painted on location on in his studio.
The three-time Bermuda Biennial artist, who is currently working on a series depicting dilapidated historic homes facing demolition, will be hosting a behind the scenes tour of his studio exclusively for BNG Contributing Members on Saturday, September 18.
We caught up with Otto to discuss why there is always a story behind his pictures, how he documents his process and why he tries not to overthink, but to simply react when something catches his eye.
BNG: As a boy, you were taught art by Charles Lloyd Tucker at the Berkley Institute. In what ways did Lloyd Tucker’s teaching influence your trajectory as an artist?
OT: Charles Lloyd Tucker was an artist and teacher. He always had an easel with an oil painting in progress in the art room. We went to BSOA art exhibitions in City Hall. I learned the basics about drawing and painting from him. I did well enough and saw enough to want to be an artist, and the only job that I knew that involved art was being an art teacher.
I got my art O level GCE in the summer of 1970. Mr. Tucker died early in 1971 so he never saw me develop as an artist. I went to teachers’ college in England and then I taught for eight years at the Berkeley Institute, but I still wanted to develop as an artist. Desmond Fountain, the well-known Bermudian sculptor who was also once an art teacher, saw me developing. He suggested going to art school because I would learn a lot more quickly than trying to do it on my own. I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art and got a BFA in painting.
BNG: As an artist, you paint both in the studio and outside ‘en plein air.’ How do these two approaches differ?
OT: There really is not much difference in the approach. If I could paint on location or from a model I would but it is not always practical. Art is primarily a solitary act, so it is fun to paint with other people in the Bermuda Plein Air Group sometimes. There are critiques at the end, so you give and get feedback.
BNG: Does one side of your practice influence the other in anyway?
OT: I did not have a studio and worked en plein air until 1991. I think my experience working en plein air gave me a sense of the colour and light that I should have in paintings. My idea of plein air is working outside until the painting is finished. I have spent a month going back to the same location doing detailed work.
For almost 30 years I had a gallery, so I started working in the studio because I was basically minding the shop. I did a contemporary realism class in art school, so I had lessons on using photographs and doing photo realism. I also had done some photography classes in art school. I learned to develop, so I knew the limitation of photography and knew how to compensate. Nowadays with digital photography, software like Lightroom and Photoshop, and computer screens it is possible to get detail in highlights and shadows that could not be seen in photo prints years ago.
BNG: You have exhibited in several Bermuda Biennials. These works – African Bermudian Dancers (2000 Bermuda Biennial), Here Come the Gombeys (2002 Bermuda Biennial) and Young Fishermen (2006 Bermuda Biennial) – capture uniquely Bermudian pursuits through portraiture. Bermuda culture is woven through many of your works in this way.
OT: I live in Bermuda, so this is where I paint. Andrew Wyeth painted in two locations over a long career, and I also like to capture things that are familiar. I started out thinking that I was painting everyday Bermudian life but although things may be happening somewhere everyday you don’t always see them. I photograph activities and events that I think are important parts of Bermuda culture. If I see that a building is to be demolished or a landscape changed, I will photograph it. I often go to the Opening of Parliament or the Peppercorn Ceremony to capture the pomp and colour.
BNG: Untitled (2005), currently on display in Illusion & Abstraction: Capturing the Landscape, is a detailed study in oil of the Bermuda flora. What is it about the local landscape that captivates you as an artist?
OT: I ride about or walk around and when something catches my attention, I photograph it or paint it. I try not to over think but just react. I do compose but often cannot figure why something caught my attention. I see artists who do big shapes, a centre of interest and small compositional sketches and simple finished pieces. I rarely do sketches and often do complicated paintings with patterns and textures. Recently I have been doing derelict buildings in watercolour and many of them have a story as well as being visually interesting.
BNG: Could you please tell us about your studio?
OT: I had a different studio for just under 30 years but moved into the present one about 3 years ago. It is a lot smaller than my last one. It is under my home in Hamilton Parish and it is set up as a working studio. I can set up an easel for oil painting or a watercolour. I often will also have a tripod set up to do a time lapse video of my painting.
BNG: What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?
OT: Ideally, I would spend the day painting. On cool sunny days, I would probably be painting on location. Cold, windy, rainy winter days or hot, still, summer days will be in the studio. I will be out with my camera during spring and fall bird migration periods. I also will be out if there is a special event to photograph.
I used to listen to music, then audio books and even the bible. Now I watch and listen to a lot of art history on YouTube. Waldemar Januszczak, an English art critic and television documentary producer and presenter, and Erica Hirshler of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston are two of my favourites.
BNG: What do you hope to be able to share with BNG members when we do the private tour on Saturday, September 18?
OT: I have a mixture of about 30 old and new paintings hung in my studio. Members will be able to see some of my work that has featured in videos. I have watercolours that have not been exhibited. I occasionally do pen and ink drawings, so I may have some out on display. I even have trolleys of canvases that I may be able to roll out to my porch if the weather allows.
BNG: What are you currently working on?
OT: I recently have done watercolours of Wantley House and Watlington House, the old Ocean View Golf Club building, which has a Mary Prince connection. Both are derelict historic homes currently facing the prospect of demolition.
Click here to watch Wantley in Colour, a video by Otto Trott about his work capturing Wantley House, a historic building in North Hamilton which was once home to Samuel David Robinson, a prominent Black Bermudian businessman. In 1879 the property was the site of the first meeting of the founders of the Berkeley Institute, Bermuda’s first integrated secondary school.
Click here to watch Mary Prince Site: Watlington House Ocean View Golf Club, a video by Otto Trott exploring his work capturing the historic house where Mary Prince, an enslaved Bermudian woman who played a key role in the abolition of slavery across the British colonies, was prepared to be sold as a slave. The building was later used as the clubhouse for Ocean View Golf Club.
Otto Trott will be hosting a private tour of his studio exclusively for BNG Contributing Members on Saturday, September 18. Click here to register.