Ngovou Gyang interviews Virgin Islands painter Lutia ‘Tai’ Durante, who has been featured in several art exhibitions in the Virgin Islands. Born in St. Thomas (USVI), he now lives in the British Virgin Islands. I was especially struck by Durante’s answer about art as cultural preservation, “Art is history. Art builds us as people.” See excerpts here:
How did art all begin for you?
Art for me started when I was just a kid enjoying life. I grew up in St. Thomas, but I started art here before we moved. I and my brother Henry Durante started when we just young. We used to draw in the dirt with sticks. Mom took us to St. Thomas when I was about 8 and he was 14. When I went to high school, I had a teacher named Ms. Sheila Rose. She said, “You have a talent.” She gave me a scholarship to college in 1977. I even have the envelope with the letter at home. She drew a conch shell on the envelope. But I refused the scholarship and I just went to New York and worked at One Battery Park Plaza. She saw the art in me and I didn’t even bother with it.
[. . .] How did your service as a military officer and then a police officer help your art?
Once you love something, you always go back to it. Art is relaxing for me. I could take up a pen and just sketch and that was what I did. During those times, I didn’t have much time to do artwork, but it was still in me. When I came back, after all that running around, I came back to this laidback place and wondered what I was going to do. My wife gave me 40 canvases and said, “Here: Paint yourself to death.” That was when I got back to my painting.
So are you a full-time artist now?
I don’t consider myself, because whatever I need to do or whatever happens I just stop and go attend to that. You need help? I just stop whatever I am doing to give you some help. My daughter Alex has [Pearls VI], so I’ve stopped everything now I’m helping her out. I’m not into art full-time now, I am into pearls — cleaning up the floors and making her business look good. My son just got some boats out there for rent, and I am helping out there. Once all that clears up, I go out back to my paintings. I like to call myself a full-time artist, but I also like to help people. Right now, my studio is a mess.
What inspires your art?
Look out there [Main Street]. Do you see that building there? I could see it in 1924, with a lady, a basket on her head coming down with some herbs and spices, cows passing. That inspires me. Culture and history inspire me. Even words inspire me. I like bringing the past into the future so at least the kids won’t think we didn’t use telephones. We had to use cans and ropes to play as telephones. If you paint something like that, it sparks the interest of the kids and they would want to know what that is. Painting sometimes starts a story.
How important is art in cultural preservation?
Art is history. Art builds us as people.