Painted Memories:  Kristen Maize Captures St. John’s Past

By William Stelzer

"As Kristen calls up digital images of her latest works for me at her Friends of Virgin Islands National Park office, I can already tell that her upcoming show at Banzhaf Gallery is going to be something really special.  There is something incredibly heartfelt about each of her paintings as they glow on her computer monitor.  In one, West Indian schoolgirls gesture and smile with expressions that seem to say a thousand things all at once.  In another, the old Moravian Church stands sentinel over a much quieter, much more nostalgic Coral Bay.  In yet another, a trio of goats nibble away at the grass, never realizing that they are serving as grounds keepers at the final resting place of two turn-of-the-century St. Johnians.

What makes Kristen’s latest paintings even more fascinating, and what infuses them with an even deeper layer of immediacy and intimacy, is that she has based each of them on historic photographs of the island.  Snapshots in time stretching from the early in the last century, right up to today.

As Kristen shares with me her thoughts behind her paintings, she tells me that she has always loved old photographs, from the way they look and feel, to the emotions they evoke.  With photos of St. John this is especially true.  Not only because the scarcity of cameras has made pictures of the island’s early years precious and rare, but also because all at once, our past here seems both so close and yet so far away.  Head out to the East End, or to the South Shore, (dodging the herds of goats) and you can almost feel like you stepped back in time a century ago.  And yet at the same time the not so distant sounds of grinding of rock and hammering concrete are a constant reminder of our island’s headlong race into the future. 

The genesis for her latest show came to Kristen while she was working on the 50th Anniversary Gala for the National Park.  Part of her job as Projects Coordinator for the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park entailed searching through hundreds of historic photographs, documenting both early St. John as well as the Park’s creation.  For someone who was born in the islands, it was an incredible experience, connecting in such a powerfully visual way to the history that surrounded her growing up.  She felt a need to get closer to these touchstones of the past, and it came to her that perhaps the best way to do that would be to create a series of painting based upon them, paintings that would give to others the same feelings she felt.

When I ask Kristen what secrets she discovered for capturing on canvas the spirit of a photographs taken long ago, my first thought would be that her answers would be something technical, perhaps matching the colors of sepia tones, or recreating the various scratches and splotches.

Instead she tells me something I wasn’t expecting.  That it was through the people in her paintings that she most expressed the image’s sense of history.  Because St. John is unique in that so much effort has been put into preserving so much of the island’s natural landscape, it’s really with us, our constantly changing fashions, technology, even the way we act and move, that we mark the changes in time on the island.

Capturing and documenting these changes before they completely fade away is especially personal for Kristen.  Working for the Friends, it falls to her to find the island’s culture bearers for the myriad of events the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park puts on each year.  And each year, as the older generation of St. John grows smaller, and the younger generation gets pulled away by the lure of modern consumerism, she finds her job growing more and more difficult. 

When she was growing up, she tells me, she would see lots of people weaving baskets on the beach.  Now there are only one or two St. Johnians left still keeping this disappearing art alive.  In fact so many of the traditions that made St. John unique, boat building, palm frond fish traps, charcoal and bay rum production, are slowly slipping away into the past, crowded out by their more “efficient” replacements of today.  

Interestingly, while six of her works for the show are painted in the warm hues of sepia tones, she has in counterpoint painted four more modern glimpses of the island in full color.  One of them is of the same Moravian Church - where she scrambled up the hill with her camera to match the camera angle of the earlier photo taken so long ago.  As I gaze at the painting, still in progress, that Kristen has created from her photograph, I can’t help but be struck how we too are living in history, and that it’s only a matter of time that our lives become the treasured “sepia toned” memories of people still yet to be born. 

Working on the project, Kristen said that as she told people what she was doing, they would always say, “Oh then you definitely need to see this picture, it would make a great a painting!”  And when they showed her, she would think wow, it really would.  That turned out to be one of the hardest parts of the project.  Keeping it limited to just ten paintings.  But somehow, I think that after seeing this show, people will be clamoring for Kristen to paint as many of these St. John moments in time as she possibly can.

Don’t miss a chance to see Kristen Maize’s latest paintings during the artists’ reception for her and Patty Tacquard at the Michael Banzhaf Gallery on Friday, May 4th at 6pm! The show runs from May 4th to May 31st.  Also you can see more of Kirsten’s work upstairs above the Fabric Mill in Mongoose Junction."


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