BAJAN TO DE BONE: Coral’s art exposes 50-year love affair
CORAL BERNADINE’S MEMORIES of the Barbados of her childhood are as vivid as the pictures she paints.
Throughout her life, the 76-year-old artist has taken inspiration for her work from events and people around her. When she puts it all on canvas, each picture represents or portrays some aspect of Barbados’ historical development.
Last week she was busy in her St James studio preparing for an exhibition she is mounting next month to mark her 50 years as a professional artist and to honour Barbados’ 50th anniversary of Independence.
Art and music are Coral’s life, an inheritance, she suggests, of creative genes from a mother who was a music teacher and professional milliner.
She was eight years old and preparing to enter Christ Church Girls’ Foundation School when her mother took her into a Bridgetown bookstore to buy her school books and she saw her first painting set.
“I wasn’t anything to do with the books. When I saw this Windsor and Newton paint box, I fell in love with it and from there I started painting.”
At Foundation she was fortunate to have had art teacher Evelyn Heath, who spotted the young student’s artistic talent early and nurtured it.
Coral went through school excelling in art, prompting Heath to send a letter home to her father suggesting that Coral be sent to art school.
A trained entomologist, Coral’s dad was making his own contribution to his father’s business and he dismissed the idea outright. Instead, he brought in a tutor and his daughter was forced to learn subjects he felt would secure her a job in commerce.
At 17, she was taken to Mount Gay Distilleries where she spent 11 years, eventually opting to leave the senior position she held to finally pursue her dream of studying art.
She was married by 19 and went on to have three daughters, whom she left behind with her husband when she went off to the art department of Traphagen School of Design in Manhattan, to later qualify as a fashion illustrator.
From Coral Roberts, the eldest of seven children, she became Coral Pollard, wife of Cornelius Pollard. Following a divorce, she settled down to being a single mother, raising her daughters to adulthood before they set off to join their father overseas. Throughout all these stages, Coral continued to do the thing her father once described as “nonsense” – paint. At 26 she turned professional.
The signature “Coral Bernadine” on her every painting represents the two Christian names she uses to identify her distinctive work.
She has been a graphic artist with advertising agencies, a paste-up artist with a newspaper, and painted all kinds of murals, including one in the West Wing of Parliament. Inmates of HM Prisons at Dodds have also benefited from her tutelage.
The Award for Humanitarian Contribution For Outstanding Volunteer Service To Inmates And Staff Of HM Prisons Dodds on display in her studio is evidence of their appreciation.
Though she has retired after ten years at the prisons, the mother of three daughters, grandmother of six and great grandmother of three still takes up her paint brush occasionally and the subject every time is something Barbadian.
“I love Barbados. I don’t intend to live anywhere but Barbados,” Coral said. Her paintings bear this out.
In the 1940s, as a little girl standing with her mother waiting for the bus passing around the Fountain Gardens in Bridgetown, she would often be in time to hear city character “Tah La La La” deliver his “World News” bulletin whenever the clock in the Parliament Buildings tower struck the hour. She absorbed this and so much more about the Barbados in which she was growing up and retained the sketches in her mind.
“I was fascinated and years after I could paint Tah La La La in the bus stand.”
She was born in Kings Street in The City but her parents moved to Government Hill when she was one year old.
As a child looking out from the verandah of her home, she would observe the passing traffic – white children being taken in horse-drawn buggies to school at St Winifred’s, boys in uniform riding bicycles down to school at Harrison College, barefoot children making their way to St Giles Boys’ School.
Coral was fascinated by these images.
“I study people. I am fascinated with people and history. Sometimes I say if I could have done anything else, I would have studied anthropology.”
Her paintings capture all.
Barbados’ seven Dames appear in one large piece; characters and influences from her childhood are the subject of another. Everywhere in her small studio are pictures that capture 50 years of the Barbados that has shaped the artist.
“Everything came to the house. Somebody would come selling fish, the bread cart came to the house, milk was delivered to the house. The pigs daddy kept would be squealing when the butcher came down to slaughter them.”
Coral speaks fondly of her parents and grandparents – of her “very creative” mother designing hats professionally for the Grannum and Baird stores on a Swan Street largely occupied by Jewish businesses at the time and of her entrepreneur grandfather who started a soap factory.
“Things were rationed during the war (Second World War) and there was a problem with soap and he started making soap. He set up Roberts Manufacturing in his own backyard in Government Hill and he took daddy into the business.”
Coral has played the organ in every one of the local Roman Catholic churches, a talent she believes she inherited from her mother and grandmother, who were both gifted musicians.
This show of 50 paintings could be her last exhibition and she is reluctant to part with a single piece of the collection.
But she intends to share the paintings with a generation of Barbadian youth whose computer age experiences are foreign to what she has recorded in her art.