The National Gallery, in partnership with Caledonian, is currently featuring a retrospective of work by renowned local artist Janet Walker. Comprising a collection 35 watercolours, the exhibition spans several decades and explores the many changes that have occurred within our environment over the years.
From traditional architecture, to the spectacular seascapes, to the varied landscapes of all three islands, the exhibition pays homage to our cultural heritage and our unique surroundings. Exhibition curator Natalie Urquhart, Director of the National Gallery, caught up with the artist to discuss her work, her passion for the local environment and the early days of painting in Cayman.
Has art always been a central part of your life?
I’ve always loved art and studied at the Ontario College of Art in the early Sixties. It was a time when there wasn’t a lot of structure in the teaching of art and we were pretty much left to our own devices. I concentrated on drawing, painting, etching and sculpture.
I met my husband Bill in my third year and moved to the Cayman Islands shortly afterwards.
Cayman’s environment was very different to the one you left behind. What were your first impressions?
I first saw the Cayman Islands in November 1963 and I fell in love with the island at first sight. I knew I would love living here. I was inspired by the landscape and seascapes, the unique light and colour, and the old Caymanian architecture with its pleasing proportions. To wake up every morning with the sun rising over the sea was amazing and the quality of the light as the day progresses was always fascinating – so different from what I was used to. I am still amazed every day at the beauty all around us.
Did you begin painting immediately?
I did a few sketches at that stage but really didn’t start painting in earnest until after my children get off to school.
That was at a time when the visual arts community was in its infancy?
Yes. I had some very good friends who were artists, Ruth Harvey and Betty Wise, who took me under their wing and got me started. A group of artists formed the Visual Arts Society around that time and we would meet at English Point to paint together. I remember selling my very first piece at a Visual Arts Society exhibition.
Then I became friendly with Joanne and Jeremy Sibley and we’d meet regularly to paint together, sometimes as much as five times a week – it was a prolific period. The discipline was important.
We’d paint outside sometimes on the road or the beach and even in people’s yards. I remember people would stop and see what we were doing. It was a great way of meeting people because often if we were painting a cottage the owners would invite us in for a cold drink and a chat.
What are some of the challenges of this kind of approach?
The challenge of painting outside is that you are totally ruled by the elements – the wind blowing, the paint splashing, and sometimes the easel and painting flying away. It creates lots of “accidents” and occasionally they work.
You have to paint quickly because you only have a short time to capture whatever it is you are painting, before the light changes or the sun gets too hot and the paper dries in the middle of a wash. Then you start thinking about a nice cool swim.
Have you always worked predominantly in watercolour?
This was the first time I really concentrated on watercolour. The light and the colours were so different from Canada where I had predominately worked in oil. Watercolour is very unforgiving because you can’t remove a colour after it has been applied, but it is perfect for capturing the environment and light.
I feel that I am only just beginning with watercolour and that I have so much more to learn.
What attracts you to certain subjects?
I was intrigued by the Caymanian architecture which I have always felt had very pleasing proportions. People were very proud of their homes and knew, and shared, everything about the structure and proportions etc. Many of the cottages and landscapes in this series are no longer there – lost through development or completely altered after Hurricane Ivan.
This is the first time your body of work has been brought together in a single exhibition. Looking back over the decades of your work what do you feel that you have achieved?
I’ve always painted for the sheer enjoyment of the process and I hope the play of light and shade, the way a shadow falls, or the choice of colours, captures some of what inspired me.
I think you have to feel passionate about what you are painting, and though I have not usually started out to make any kind of statement many of my works have become a record of places and landscapes that no longer exist. I hope they serve as a reminder of how fragile our surroundings are.