Categories
Bermuda Artists

A Portrait of Life in Bermuda

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.  

Above: 2002 Bermuda Biennial artwork Here Come the Gombeys by Otto Trott. Oil on canvas. 16 x 30 inches. Top: Untitled by Otto Trott, c.2005. Collection of the Bermuda National Gallery. Gift of Hal Forkush and Louise Lamphier. Currently on display in Illusion & Abstraction: Capturing the Landscape.

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? 

OTCharles 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? 

OTI 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.  

Otto Trott with his 2000 Bermuda Biennial artwork African Bermudian Dancers. Photograph by Lisa Simpson for the Royal Gazette.

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.  

2006 Bermuda Biennial artwork Young Fishermen by Otto Trott. Oil on canvas. 30 x 24 inches.

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.  

I try to document my work, so I will photograph it and post it on Facebook and Instagram. I sometimes make videos using time lapse or telling a story about the art. 

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. 

Wantley Steps by Otto Trott, 2021. Watercolour on paper.

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.

Watlington House Ocean View Golf Club by Otto Trott, 2021. Watercolour on paper.

Otto Trott will be hosting a private tour of his studio exclusively for BNG Contributing Members on Saturday, September 18. Click here to register 

Categories
Bermuda Artists

Redefining Success

Gherdai Hassell

Mid-way through 2021, it is clear that Bermudian artist Gherdai Hassell is having an extraordinary year. In March, her first solo exhibition, I Am Because You Are, opened at the Bermuda National Gallery. The exhibition, which has been greeted with a rapturous response, led to her being named Visual Artist of the Year in the 2021 Best of Bermuda Awards

This was swiftly followed by the purchase of two of her artworks for BNG’s permanent collection and a commission for an installation at the National Museum of Bermuda. All whilst completing her MFA at the China Academy of Fine Art remotely from Manchester, England, where she has been sheltering from the pandemic, having fled China several weeks after the initial outbreak in Wuhan.

We caught up with Gherdai as she prepares to join her first artist residency at the Chatauqua School in Upstate New York, to discuss how redefining success on her own terms led her to where she is today, the role that mentorship has played in helping her to find her own voice and the importance of “finding your why.” 

I Am Because You Are by Gherdai Hassell is on display at the Bermuda National Gallery through to the end of September.

BNG: In your artist talk at BNG you spoke about how art is something that you have enjoyed since you were a little girl, yet you originally took a more academic route before returning to art. Why do you think this is and how has your path changed since you made the decision to pursue art full time?

GH: I took a more academic route because I didn’t believe that a career in art was viable. Young people have a blueprint of what they’ve seen as possible based on what others have done. I didn’t know any artists, so I didn’t know that this was an actual career path. Further Bermuda’s economic environment favors careers that are finance, medicine and business. You can see that this is true just by looking at how many scholarships are available in these industries as opposed to the funding offered to young people for the arts. Once I did away with society’s idea of success, and redefined it for myself, my path drastically changed. 

BNG: You were self-taught until starting your MFA at the China Academy of Art a couple of years ago. In what ways has the programme helped you to develop your practice?

GH: The programme has helped me to get more experience contextualizing and talking about my work. Masters programs in art are more geared toward this, as opposed to learning techniques which is how bachelor level programs are. So, to a degree I would still consider myself to be self-taught, because technique wise, I haven’t learned much more. But my program has helped me to discover and develop the why behind my work, which in my opinion, is far more vital than technique. 

BNG: You are currently working as an artist full-time which requires a lot of self-motivation and self-discipline. How do you structure your time in the studio?

GH: I show up every day. Some days I go to the studio and don’t make anything. But I am tinkering. And thinking, even if I’m not making. I don’t have much of a structure, but my daily collage practice that I have implemented has propelled my practice in ways I didn’t realize was possible. It has increased my productivity, connecting of ideas, and pushes me through creative block. 

The exhibition is sponsored by the Department of Culture. Dr The Hon. Ernest Peets JP, the Minister of Youth, Culture and Sport was visibly moved at the opening.

BNG: Working with you on I Am Because You Are was a fascinating insight into your process. How do you develop your ideas and how do you know when a piece is complete?

GH: Pieces are complete by a feeling I receive. The work speaks to you, as you’re making it. If you listen, it tells you where to go, what it needs, and once it’s reached completion. 

BNG: You held an Artist Talk at BNG earlier this year in which you mentioned that Instagram has been invaluable platform in terms of promoting your work. Indeed, it was thanks to Instagram that your work was included in the Wearable Art Gala which was a turning point in your career. What advice do you have for emerging artists in terms of how they can use the platform?

GH: I would encourage artists to take advantage of the visibility that Instagram provides. Before galleries were gate keepers, to select who and how artists could have a career. IG has leveled the playing field. I have received many of my opportunities through the connections I’ve made with people through Instagram. 

BNG: You were awarded a grant from the Bermuda Arts Council towards the framing of your work for I Am Because You Are. There are many outlays, such as framing and materials, when it comes to producing artwork, not to mention all the hours that go into it. Grants such as this are key to making it happen. Do you have any advice for emerging artists as to how they can find and secure funding?

GH: I would say that artists should focus time on activities such as networking, applying for funding and searching for opportunities to get their work out there. Being an artist is about 60 percent making work and 40 percent the admin and business side of being an artist. Spend time getting the work out in to the world. There’s no point in spending all of this time making work that no one will see. Update your CV, prepare an artist statement and have a solid body of work that can be used in applications.

From left: Jennifer Phillips, Chair of the Bermuda Arts Council, Gherdai Hassell and Dr Kim Dismont Robinson, Director of the Bermuda Department of Culture.

BNG: Artist in residence programmes, such as the Chatauqua Visual Arts Residency, which you will be attending later this year are also important as they provide both time and studio space to dedicate to your practice, as well as invaluable networking opportunities. How did you find out about the residency programme and what are you hoping to gain from it?

GH: I am always searching for opportunities. Some speak to me more than others, so I don’t apply for everything. I’m selective, but I apply for opportunities that resonate with me and I spend time preparing a good application. I am very excited to be a participant in the 2021 Chautauqua School residency program. The cohort is a talented and very diverse group. And I’m looking forward to being a part of the program. 

BNG: Artists, especially today, are entrepreneurs. You already have several strands to your work – exhibiting in museum spaces such as BNG and selling original artworks via by a commercial gallery. You also have your own online store which sells limited edition prints alongside a range of merchandise – from colouring books to sweatshirts – inspired by your Alibi series. This allows someone to own a piece of your work from as little as $35 for a tee up to the purchase of an original artwork for three figures at the opposite end of the scale. Why is it important to you to have such a broad offering?

GH: I think that art should be accessible. Art is all around us, it’s culture, it’s music, it’s visual, it’s visceral. I think that everyone should have access to experiencing parts of my practice. It’s cool to have works that sell for thousands of dollars, but the work that people can readily experience resonates with me too. Because when I first started out, the barrier I faced was lack of access. Leveling the playing field is an important thing to consider for any business who wants to reach more diverse audiences. I’m considering many with my offerings. 

BNG: You have several mentors who have helped you to develop your practice in different ways, including local artist Sharon Muhammad. Could you please tell us about how the mentor/mentee relationship works and why mentors are so important?

GH: Mentorship is one of the most important relationships to have, no matter the career path. The relationship allows you to talk though ideas and to develop your practice. The advice given aids you on you journey. It saves you time, provides your focus and foundation accountability. I find that mentorship relationships are always a two-way street. Your mentor can learn from you, just as much as you can learn from them. Consider what you also bring to the table, and what you can offer the relationship. 

Veteran artist Sharon Muhamad (formerly Wilson), shown here the exhibition opening, is a mentor for Gherdai and she credits the relationship as helping her develop her own voice.

BNG: You opened your first solo show earlier this year and have just completed your MFA. What’s next?

GH: I am working on my second solo exhibition of the year, an installation that will be installed at the National Museum of Bermuda in Commissioner’s House in Dockyard next month. I am very excited to install the work.

BNG: Do you have any other advice for emerging artists hoping to follow in your footsteps?

GH: A career in art is possible. But it does require swift action, the making of good work, perseverance and vision. Find your why: why you’re making the work you’re making, get a mentor, keep making the work, apply for opportunities and get enough sleep. It’s good for your mental health, work-flow and skin! 

Photographs by Brandon Morrison for Burnt House Productions. I Am Because You Are by Gherdai Hassell is on the Bermuda National Gallery through to the end of September. 

Categories
Bermuda Artists

Studio Tour

Exclusively for BNG Members

Together with guest curator Mitchell KlinkAbi Box will be hosting a private tour of her studio exclusively for BNG Contributing Members on Saturday, July 10th at 2pm

This is an exciting opportunity to meet the artist and gain a unique insight into her process. The free event is open to BNG Contributing Members only (at the Friend level and above). 

If you would like to join the studio tour but are not currently a BNG member, or if you would like to increase your level of membership in order to attend, please email Jennifer Phillips at membership@bng.bm

Click here to register for the tour

Please note that places are strictly limited (10) and must be booked in advance. 

Categories
Bermuda Artists

A Contemporary Conversation

Christina Hutchings and Nancy Valentine

In Illusion and Abstraction: Capturing the Landscape, two artworks – Quarry in Warwick and Modern House on North Shore sit side by side, united in their distillation of the Bermuda landscape into a study of shape, colour and form.

Despite being created over 60 years apart and in very different mediums – the first in oils in 1950 and the latter in 2014 in mixed media collage – the synergy between the two is evident; connected by a shared focus on the sharp lines of our local vernacular architecture and the brilliant white of the Bermuda roofline, each punctuated with a distinct sliver of the aqua that laps our shores.

Look closer, however, and you will see that the connection runs deeper. They are painted by a mother, Nancy Valentine, and daughter, Christina Hutchings; both former Bermuda Biennial artists and each a pioneering creative in her own right.

As we approach Mother’s Day, we sat down with Christina to discuss her artwork and her late mother’s, the synergies between the two that have only revealed themselves in retrospect and the ties that bond them – both artistic and familial.

Christina Hutchings Nancy Valentine
Top: Modern House on North Shore by Christina Hutchings, 2015. Collage.
Bottom: Quarry in Warwick by Nancy Valentine, c.1950. Oil on canvas.

BNG: This is the second time that you and Nancy have been exhibited together at the Bermuda National Gallery. The first was in The Power of Art held in 2017 to celebrate 25 years of BNG. However, this is the first time that your artworks have been displayed side by side. Were you aware of the synergies between Quarry in Warwick and Modern House on North Shore before they were selected for the exhibition? 

CH: I had not  thought about a synergy between my mother’s work and my work. Sometimes, quite the opposite because of her general preference for representation, and mine for abstraction. I delivered Quarry in Warwick and Modern House on North Shore to the gallery on different days and I had never seen them adjacent to each other.

I always loved the painting Quarry in Warwick because of its rectilinear geometry and spareness, which is something that I have an affinity towards in my own work. When Mitchell was selecting work for Illusion & Abstraction: Capturing the Landscape I suggested Quarry in Warwick because I thought that the painting would work well with his ideas for a show about illusion and abstraction. Quarry in Warwick  it is a composition of shapes and forms. 

In formal terms, Quarry in Warwick moves back and forth between abstraction and illusion. I also thought the subject matter, a Bermuda stone quarry, was an unusual subject for a Bermuda landscape painting.

BNG: Did you know that the two artworks would be displayed together? 

CH: I wasn’t aware that the two works would be displayed  together. When I saw the two pieces in tandem at the exhibition opening, I was startled to see their similarities; particularly the central geometric shapes in both compositions that happen to be complementary colors, one orange and one turquoise.

I felt happily surprised by the similarities of our aesthetics. I had not realized this synergy existed and it is re-assuring to feel that it does. 

BNG: Quarry in Warwick is an early example of Nancy’s workIt was painted in the 1950s, shortly after she travelled from Bermuda to New York to study at the Arts Student’s League, alma mater of many of the Abstract Expressionists as well as pioneering artists such as Eva Hesse. Could you please tell us a bit about it?

CH: Quarry in Warwick is one of my favorite paintings by my mother. It was painted in the 1950s. I am sure that she would have been aware of the Abstract Expressionists’s experimentation and the innovations in art that were being championed by art critics and the popular press in the late 1940s and 1950s – Jackson Pollock was profiled in Life Magazine in August 1949.  Many of these artists had studied at and later taught at The Art Students League.

The League offered individual studios taught by artists who had  complete autonomy in their studio classes. I am certain my mother would have sensed and absorbed a variety of ideas being taught the studios when she was there. I imagine that my mother saw Bermuda through a different lens.

In the 1950s the Bermuda landscape was rural. I recall a quarry in Warwick. The hill was high and a large portion of the side of the hill had been sheared into high, glaring white angular blocks and precipitous cliffs. This was the dramatic landscape subject matter that my mother noticed.

Nancy Valentine Hutchings
Nancy Valentine (1925-2019) at work in her studio in Bermuda in the 1950s.

BNG: Nancy was a very innovative artist. Not only did she continue to paint after her marriage, which was unusual at the time, but she experimented with oil paint and collage and a number of different materials such as polyester resin and fiberglass. What are your memories of your mother working on her art when you were little?   

CH: As a child, I wasn’t aware it was unusual to have a mother who was an innovative artist, who during the day, would go to her studio and make things. It was simply what she did. My childhood memories are the centered around her art studio in the house. In the years of her work with fiberglass and resin, there was always a prevalent scent of the resin in the house. 

More significant is the memory of visiting my mother in her studio, her invitation to join in the activity and her love and enjoyment of working on her art. She encouraged my creativity from a very young age and always welcomed me into her studio while she was working. She would share her materials and teach me how to work with resin, fiberglass, plaster and all sorts of painting materials. Being in the studio with her was my favorite thing to do. 

BNG: Your own artistic practice focuses on mixed-media work. Do you think that Nancy influenced you in this way?  

CH: Yes, I am sure my mother has influenced me in many ways. We share the desire to develop an idea. My mother’s openness to working in a variety of media and her flexibility to switch between them was underpinned by her drive to develop an idea by using the medium that best allowed this expression. 

I think my work across a variety of media stems more from study and my work in architecture coupled with my interest in the development of abstraction. I have spent a lot of time in the galleries at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, particularly the galleries with the collections of Cezanne’s paintings and moving forward to the contemporary galleries, which has influenced my practice. 

Christina Hutchings
Christina Hutchings photographed in her studio at the Macdowell Artist Colony in 1991.

BNG: In what ways did your mother encourage you to pursue your own path as an artist and architect?  

CH: My mother encouraged me by sharing her studio and allowing me to work in there with her when I was a child. Making things was something that I always loved to do. She supported my decisions to study both art and architecture.  

She also had the belief that in life and in art, the element of commerce was essential. For my first solo show she asked if I had invited anyone. I had not thought of this and she rallied, by creating a mailing list of people to invite. Because of her promotion, the opening was a success. 

In the 1960s she designed fiberglass screens and furniture. The Bermuda Government commissioned her to create a screen as wedding gift for HRH Princess Margaret in 1960. I was quite young, but I do remember feeling proud of my mother that she had made a beautiful and original gift that expressed Bermuda’s natural beauty.

BNG: Nancy was a big supporter of female artists and makers and owned several important collections, including works by English and Irish Women Silversmiths of the 17th through 19th centuries and Women Botanical Illustrators of the 18th and 19th centuries, both of which have been exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. She was very involved with the museum, first as a founding member and later both sitting on and chairing the advisory board. Could you please tell us about this? 

CH: Nancy’s involvement with the National Museum of Women in the Arts is parallel with her collecting and her Collection of English and Irish Women Silversmiths. I will quote here from the essay that she wrote for Women Silversmiths 1685-1845, a symposium presented by Christie’s in association with NWMA in 1990: 

“My story is similar in some ways to that of Wilhelmina Holladay, who established the museum itself. Independently and in our different fields we found beautiful objects by women artists and artisans. We became curious, looked for more information, and started to collect.”  

As the collection developed over five years, my mother wanted to share it. She wrote: “I viewed the collection not as a lavish display of individual objects but as an expression of how women lived and worked in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries.” 

Nancy loaned parts of the Collection to the Bayly Art Museum at the University of Virginia, The President’s House at Mt. Holyoke College. She also wrote a two-part article for Silver Magazine detailing Women Silversmiths of the 18thand 19th Centuries (1985).

As the profile of the collection developed, Wilhelmina Holladay and my mother met and began to discuss the possibility of the collection being housed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The new museum was just about to be inaugurated. This was the beginning of Nancy’s dedicated and rewarding involvement with the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which went on to span over 30 years.

Categories
Bermuda Artists

Gherdai Hassell

In Her Own Words

Driven by an exploration of her own heritage, in I Am Because You Are, Gherdai Hassell examines the lasting impacts of slavery: re-imagining the identities of enslaved Bermudians in a series of striking portraits, poetry and installation inspired by the Bermuda Slave Registers and historic photographs in the Bermuda Archives. 

To accompany the exhibition we have produced a film in partnership with the Department of Culture in which the collage based artist discusses the approach to her first solo exhibition, how she hopes to create a safe space and why all Bermudians should come in to experience it. 

Gherdai Hassell photographed by Akil Simmons for Royal Gazette.