Lutia “Tai” Durante
Lutia “Tai” Durante. An opening reception will be held at the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum on Thursday, March 2nd from 5:30 to 7:30 pm and is open to the public.

Memory on Canvas

An exhibition at the Sugar Works Museum will feature the works of artist Lutia Durante

Whether they’re soothing seascapes or vibrant abstracts, oil paintings or sculptures bent from copper, Lutia “Tai” Durante’s pieces are nearly always about one thing: reminiscence.

“It’s documenting my memory,” he said recently.

Lutia (pronounced Lou-tay) often paints scenes from his youth, when the Virgin Islands were still an agrarian society.

The day we talked, two such canvases were on their way to the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College for an art show to raise funds for the school. One was a vibrant depiction of market day, with shoppers and sellers in straw hats and flowing skirts chatting over their wares against the backdrop of the brightly painted buildings of old Main Street.

“In those days, it wasn’t just business, it was also the newspaper,” he said of market days in Road Town back when Main Street was also the waterfront and it was difficult to travel between villages even within the same island. “You’d find out what was happening in the next village because this was the time that everyone gathered.”

The other piece shows a lively carnivalesque parade. It’s more abstract at first glance, but once Lutia describes it, it’s impossible not to see the figures dressed mostly in white, dancing and playing music on homemade instruments.

“They used to come down the street playing music for Christmas, pounding the drums and playing guitar and pipes made out of exhaust systems,” he said.

Lutia says it was years into his career as an artist before he realized he was painting his own past. His three (now grown) children first pointed it out.

“I had a painting of a woman in a straw hat; she was leaning back on her hands… and one by one the kids looked at it and said ‘that’s my grandmother,’” Lutia recalled. It made sense – the pose was one his mother would often take to stretch out her back after spending time doubled over to scale fish caught by her husband.

“I had painted my own mother without knowing it,” he said with a laugh.

Cultural, sometimes historic, images of his native BVI have been a running theme in Lutia’s work, which has been collected by art fans around the world, including Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Lutia’s paintings of traditional shipwrights and cattle transported by sailboat illustrated maritime historian Geoffrey Brooks’ children’s book, Building a Virgin Islands Sloop, a chronicle of building a Tortola sloop, the territory’s distinctive historic sailboat.

“I love my Tortola and I got to pass it forward,” he said of the islands’ colorful past.

Paying it forward is also Lutia’s philosophy when it comes to sharing his work with worthy causes. Besides the recent college showcase, he contributes work every year to be auctioned off at the Cedar International School’s fundraising auction.

“Education is so important,” he said. He credits a high school teacher with encouraging him to pursue art. Although he chose not to take a scholarship right after graduating high school, her faith in his talent made it easy to remember that “Art was always something I could come back to.”

Like any good entrepreneur, Lutia knows what his clients want.

“Buyers are looking for things that look like peace, and calm, and relaxation,” he said. “In your life you might be dealing with stress, traffic, all that kind of stuff, but when you see the ocean you start to feel calm.”

Artist Lutia Durante’s pieces are nearly always about one thing: reminiscence

That suits him fine, because at the moment, he’s “fascinated” with the ocean. Seascapes figure heavily not just on his canvases, but also on a recent series painted on slate tiles. The not-quite-symmetrical shape and uneven surface texture of the tiles, salvaged from old roofs, gives these works a depth not possible on flat canvas.

“You have to work with the shape of the tile – it’s a challenge,” Lutia said. He said people seem to love the one-of-a-kind pieces in part for their odd shapes, but also for their history.

“They don’t make them anymore. They’re real slates… I have about 100 left and after that it’s done,” he said. “But I just love it, I love them as medium.”

When we spoke in the fall, Lutia was gearing up for a different challenge: to churn out at least 10 new pieces to be displayed at the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum.

Hosted by Lisa Gray of Images Custom Framing and Gallery, the one-man show will be on exhibition during the month of March. An opening reception will be held at the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum on Thursday, March 2nd from 5:30 to 7:30 pm and is open to the public.

“We hope this show will promote his work to a wider audience,” Lisa says of the show.

“It’s keeping me busy. I think I felt another gray hair pop up,” he joked.

Lutia’s been working as an artist more-or-less full time after moving back to Tortola after a decade on the St. Thomas Police force. Since his return, he has taken breaks for summer training at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or to help his kids with their businesses.

At Lutia’s Sugar Works show (his first solo show in the BVI), the artist plans to exhibit more than just oils-on-canvas. A slate piece or two will likely make an appearance, as might the smaller items he sometimes sends to regional or international cultural events: the wooden wine bottle holders and mini-canvases on small easels are popular because they’re more portable, and more affordable, than a full-sized work.

“I sent Luce (Hodge-Smith, head of government’s culture department) to the Bahamas with a wine holder. She said ‘Lutia they almost killed me for it,’” he says.

He may also exhibit a copper sculpture. Although he’d observed pottery-making and has an affinity for working with his hands in general, the copper work didn’t appeal to him until after he received a load of spare copper from a construction site.

“At first I just looked at it for a while, but then when I had a little bit of arthritis in my hands and needed a break from painting I picked it up and I really liked working with it,” he said. He’s particularly proud of a six-foot copper fish, which has since been purchased by a BVI collector.

The jump into 3-dimensional artwork has been an energizing change for Lutia.

“Working with the copper brings me another way of thinking,” he said, “It’s a new inspiration.”

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