[Interview by Ivette Romero.] Michael Connors has more than thirty years of experience in writing, consultation, appraisals and teaching in fine and decorative arts fields. He holds an MFA from the Universidad de las Américas and a Ph.D. in Decorative Arts from New York University, where he taught for fifteen years. One of the world’s leading scholars in Colonial-era furnishings of the Caribbean, he has worked tirelessly throughout his distinguished career to promote the wider understanding of these materials and to ensure their preservation.
Dr. Connors’ CV is extensive, and it would take a much longer document to list his many achievements (including seven books) and professional experience (a quick search through Repeating Islands will yield at least seven posts on his work). For now, we will limit ourselves to a short interview in which Dr. Connors, recently back from the 14th International Ernest Hemingway Colloquium, has graciously agreed to answer five questions about his field.
Repeating Islands/Ivette Romero [RI/IR]: You have been described as a West Indian decorative arts scholar; your biography states that you live in New York City, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Havana, Cuba; and you have published several books on Caribbean architecture: Caribbean Houses: History, Style, and Architecture; Caribbean Elegance; French Island Elegance; Cuban Elegance; British West Indies Style: Antigua, Jamaica, Barbados, and Beyond; and The Splendor of Cuba: 450 Years of Architecture and Interiors. What would you say was the catalyst that led you to turn your attention to Caribbean architecture and decorative arts?
MC: The direct catalyst that turned my attention to Caribbean architecture and decorative arts was physically arriving in the Caribbean. It was the in the late 1960s and I had just graduated from college and was pursuing an MA at the University of Miami. I signed on as crew to an 86-foot Baltic Trader sailing schooner named the Vestland that was headed for the Caribbean islands. One of the stops was Christiansted Harbor, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, where I fell in love with a woman who was managing a hotel on Protestant Cay (a small island in the middle of Christiansted Harbor); I jumped ship and the boat sailed down-island without me. I began teaching art to grade school children and studying and researching the 18th century Danish colonial architecture that is so prevalent throughout St. Croix. I eventually ended up completing my MFA and began teaching at the University of the Virgin Islands. I also started writing both my Ph.D. dissertation and my first book (Caribbean Elegance) on West Indian colonial architecture and antique island-made mahogany furniture. I subsequently became interested in all the Caribbean islands and their Spanish, English, Dutch or French colonial influences. For the past forty years it has been a passion and a goal to examine, identify, describe and preserve what is left of this Caribbean architectural and decorative arts heritage, a truly historically significant patrimony.
RI/IR: What are the major differences in architecture and urban planning that you have observed on different islands of the Caribbean in terms of the influences incorporated through their specific colonial history.
MC: Limited studies of the architecture and decorative arts on the French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish and English islands have been published over the years, but their brevity and lack of focus on documented history make them of little value to comprehensive investigations. I have, through years of research and writing, attempted to point out not just the differences but also the similarities and dual/plural influences (for example, St. Lucia changed hands 14 times between conquering nations) on the islands throughout the Caribbean. I identified and explained the major differences in architecture and urban planning on the different Caribbean islands in my 5th book—Caribbean Houses: History, Style and Architecture.
RI/IR: You have presented at the 14th International Ernest Hemingway Colloquium and it is said that you are one of the few scholars who have been allowed to step into the Hemingway house at Finca Vigía to photograph. To what do you owe this honor? When did you develop an interest in Cuba and Finca Vigía?
MC: Let me just say that the 14th International Ernest Hemingway Colloquium in Havana this month was truly brilliant and there were far too many anecdotes (both documented and undocumented) related to Hemingway, his love for his house in Cuba—Finca Vigía (Lookout House)—and how, where, and why they influenced his writing. For the sake of this question, suffice it to say that Finca Vigía is the only living museum in the world to honor this great American writer and that with its 22,000 items; 2,000 letters; more than 9,000 books; and 3,000 photographs; it represents more than anything else, who and what Ernest Hemingway was.
Two years ago while I was researching for, writing, and directing the photography for my last book The Splendor of Cuba: 450 Years of Architecture and Interiors, I requested to enter Finca Vigía and photograph. Because of the US embargo, there is not a whole lot of warmth felt by Cuban officials towards Americans, and yet over the 14 years I have been traveling to Cuba I have been invariably accorded a high level of respect, admiration, and welcome by the bulk of the architectural community in Cuba. My ability to establish relations of mutual respect with my Cuban interlocutors has been unique in that I manage to identify, describe and photograph the beauty of Cuba. My books are testimony to the level I insist on in my work, as well as in my work methods. I can testify that the reception at Finca Vigía is identical to the reception I consistently received from virtually every Cuban I’ve encountered.
RI/IR: On my last research trip to Cuba, I was impressed by the conservation work being undertaken in Havana Vieja. Have you been involved in architectural preservation efforts in Cuba or other areas of the Caribbean? Are there any organizations carrying out this important task that you would like to mention?
MC: Over the years I have become friends with Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, who is the official historian of the city of Havana, and many of his team. What Dr. Leal has accomplished by his splendid restoration and conservation projects is truly a miracle. Because of his efforts, the preservation of Cuba’s architecture, fine and decorative arts, customs, and traditions enable both citizens and visitors to experience a country uncluttered by random destruction of its historically significant patrimony. This made my job of studying and recording Cuba’s colonial centuries of architecture and interiors an exciting process of discovery for my research and photography team and most important, my readers.
I am a board member of Fundación Amistad, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to foster mutual understanding and respect between the peoples of the US and Cuba. To advance this mission, Fundación Amistad sponsors educational exchanges and programs, research projects, and community outreach initiatives, which deepen the American and Cuban peoples’ knowledge and appreciation of each other’s culture, history and society. Of the more than 100 projects in which FA has been over the past 15 years, some of the more recent ones that stand out are restoration and conservation of rare examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Havana; the donation of hundreds of fine and decorative art books to the University of San Gerónimo, whose curriculum is based on restoration, conservation and preservation; the support of experts to travel to Cuba to help restore the Louisiana purchase document, and teach paper conservation and restoration in Cuba. FA has been the initiator and main source for nomination for the town of Remedios to the World Monument Fund Watch and has initiated and supervised workshops in Remedios with members of World Monument Fund and FA members.
RI/IR: What is the focus of your forthcoming project(s)?
MC: I have many “forthcoming projects” and the two that I can share are two of my forthcoming books. One is Cuba Modern: 20th Century Architecture and Interiors, which will be published by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. next year. I am also writing and photographing a book with the working title St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John: Our Virgin Islands’ European and African Heritage. The publication and release date is 2016, to coordinate with the 100th anniversary celebrations that are planned both in the Virgin Islands and in Denmark to commemorate Transfer Day (when Denmark transferred the islands to US ownership) and the 100-year-affiliation with the United States and Denmark.
Photo of Michael Connors (top) from http://www.miamiandmiamibeach.com/2011/michael-connors-11-08-11/