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Mural painter’s art history

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Shack’s life: Graham Foster at the British Virgin Island’s famed Bomba Shack (Photograph supplied)

Anyone who assumed artists lead stress-free lives should talk to Graham Foster.

His most recent challenge was getting two murals to Tortola in the middle of Hurricane Nicole. Adding to his pressures was the strict deadline set by the private estate that hired him to do the job.

He almost didn’t make it.

“I allowed three weeks for the paintings to be airfreighted but Hurricane Nicole hit, causing a week’s delay,” Mr Foster said.

“By now, the unveiling had been planned with guests invited, so we had a looming deadline. Luckily the paintings arrived the day before, but the transport turned into a saga with the crate being sent to Ohio twice, lost for a while, arriving half-broken open, paintings soaking wet, covered in mould and stuck together face to face, so paint from one surface tore off and stuck to the other.

“My stress levels went off the charts. Luckily, I’d brought my paints so after an all-nighter managed to repair the damage.”

Mr Foster has been churning out murals for years. Public works can be seen at the Bermuda National Museum and the Bermuda College.

He was finishing a massive mural detailing the history of Elbow Beach Hotel in March of 2015, when he was approached about doing a similar piece about the British Virgin Islands.

“I was pretty muralled out but when he suggested flying me out there to do the research that August, returning to Bermuda to paint the mural, then travelling back to install and unveil it, I was on board,” the artist said.

“Before I went to Tortola, I assumed it would be similar to Bermuda, but it was very different: the topography, architecture, stilt dancers, pre-Columbian history, flora, fauna and plantation slavery to name a few things. I stayed there for a week, and the estate managers took me round all the local sights plus some famous local hangouts such as the Bomba Shack and Soggy Dollar bar where the ‘pain killer’ cocktails derailed my research temporarily! Originally, the mural was to be one 100-square-foot painting, but we decided to separate it into two paintings, one highlighting BVI culture and the other BVI history.”

He started sketching ideas the more he learnt about the community. However, with history books on BVI “pretty thin on the ground”, he used the internet for most of his research. Painting started in earnest in February.

“The historical painting depicts pre-Columbian Arawak and Carib culture, the arrival of Columbus, the Dutch and English,” Mr Foster said.

“Pirates, plantation sugar cane processing with windmills, fishing, boatbuilding, minstrel bands, significant architecture and 19th-century life, are among other depictions. The cultural painting shows the modern BVI including aviation, bars, tourists, distilleries, flora, fauna and significant architecture.

“After seven months the paintings were finished, and framed. The only issue now was how to get them to the BVI, as the crate made to transport them was over 11ft long, 6ft high, and weighed 400 pounds.”

He returned to Tortola for the grand unveiling two weeks ago.

“[It] was a success, and we will hopefully be working with the BVI government to produce a booklet on their history to distribute throughout the schools, similar to the one produced here based on the Hall of History mural,” Mr Foster said.

“More murals on the history of the Caribbean may follow, with the possibility of one depicting the history of the Bahamas.”

Picture perfect: one of the finished British Virgin Islands murals (Photograph supplied)
Capturing culture: one of the finished British Virgin Islands murals (Photograph supplied)