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‘Anywhere you turn on this Island is a painting’

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Painter Joe Sweeney took this picture of a friend in the City of Hamilton while they were here on a destroyer in the United States Navy in 1970.

The Masterworks Museum of Art’s latest artist-in-residence Joseph Sweeney first saw Bermuda from the deck of a destroyer during the days of the Vietnam War.He served as a navigator in the United States while in his early 20s.The ships he served on were on the lookout for enemy Russian submarines and often carried nuclear warheads to protect the United States in the event it was attacked.His ship visited Bermuda in 1970.He recalled that they could not find a berth, so they anchored and took whaleboats to the Island.“Two weeks before that we had been in the North Atlantic caught up in big storms,” he said. “It was cold, wet and we needed fuel. When we arrived in Bermuda we thought we were in paradise.“As soon as you crossed into the Gulf Stream everything turned blue instead of that dead slate grey in the rest of the ocean.“Then we got to the Island. It was green and the water was outrageous, and everything was blooming. It was just beautiful.”It was a holiday period for Mr Sweeney and his shipmates.“It was the best time,” he said. “We were so happy to be here, and we wanted to stay.”He served in the Navy for about a year, but quickly grew disenchanted with military life.“When I was in the North Atlantic I slept next to nuclear warheads,” he said. “They were in the next compartment. It made me think ‘all right, these people can destroy the planet, if everything goes off at once. You would have nuclear winter and everyone is gone’. It was madness.”It also made him think hard about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.“I knew it wasn’t that,” he said. “Everything we were taught was about death. I wanted to go to a direction that was about life.”He was in Providence, Rhode Island that same year, when the first Earth Day was celebrated in the United States. The world had only just seen the first images of the Earth from space.“People got to view the Earth in a new way,” he said. “They realised this is Spaceship Earth; if we screw this up we are goners. I went to Earth Day festivities and thought, ‘I’d rather be with these guys’.”Mr Sweeney chose to become a painter, because it was all about light and colour and drinking in life’s experiences.He left the Navy and took the educational money granted him under the GI Bill and studied art and architecture, eventually teaching the subject.He considers himself a landscape painter, and has won numerous awards for his work including the 2002 Fellowship of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Catherine Gibbons Granger Award for Landscape and the 2002 Best in Show by The Philadelphia Sketch Club Works on Paper.In 2006 he took part in the ART in Embassies Program organised by the US State in Port-of Spain, Trinidad and Kigali, Rwanda.Mr Sweeney’s friend James Toogood was Masterworks’ artist-in-residence last year. He urged Mr Sweeney to apply for the programme.“I arrived on April 1, and have been adjusting,” said Mr Sweeney. “When you are used to painting in a certain area, the colours become second nature to you.“Here, all the colours are giving me a nudge and making me work more to get the proper colour. That is good and gets you out of your normal routine.“The water we are used to is a greenish grey where I am. [What’s here] is spectacular. My aim is just to drink in the experience; that is what life is about.”His friends are jealous to see his Facebook postings and photos of the Island.“I have painted Montana, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware,” he said. “Those are my tribal hunting grounds. I have also done a little in New York and painted once in Ireland.“Now I am here, and it is one of the best places. Anywhere you turn on this Island is a painting. It has been amazing, especially when the light got good this week.”Mr Sweeney will be hold a slide show and lecture Masterworks on May 16 at 12.30pm.He will offer outdoor painting class on June 17 and June 22 from 10.30am to 4pm. An exhibition of his work will open on June 15 at 5.30pm at Masterworks.Useful websites: www.joesweeneyart.com; www.bermudamasterworks.com

A painting by Joe Sweeney that depicts him painting in Pennsylvania.
Joe Sweeney, 20, serving in the United States Navy.