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Finding a voice through art

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Richard Sutton with La Pieta in the Charman Prize exhibition at Masterworks (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Teaching in New York, Richard Sutton often encountered violence.

Sometimes there were fights outside his school; once he had to save a student from gang members.

“The student was surrounded on the subway,” said Mr Sutton. “I went right into the circle and stood in front of him. I don’t know what made me do it but I looked them straight in the eye and said, ‘We’re leaving’.”

When he moved to Bermuda in 2013 to teach art at Bermuda Institute, he thought he’d left that all behind.

He quickly found he hadn’t.

“One day I was having lunch with a former student and her family,” he said. “She said to me, ‘Guess what? My boyfriend was shot. He’s okay now, but he has to leave the island for his safety.’

“I felt like I couldn’t get away from the violence. I had to get my feelings out.”

He sat down and painted. The piece, La Pietà, shows a black woman holding the body of her dead son while surrounded by her grieving family.

Mr Sutton entered it in this year’s Charman Prize at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art.

“I wanted to share a person of African descent’s narrative,” said the artist, who was inspired by Enguerrand Quarton’s Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, which shows the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ after he was crucified and removed from the cross. “I think it is as equally important as the mourning of Jesus. Usually when the media depicts a grieving mother they show her crying and everyone holding her up.

“You don’t really get an intimate look at the family grieving. The mother in my piece is angry.”

He often thinks about how his mother would feel if something happened to him.

“I know she would be devastated,” he said.

It took Mr Sutton eight months to paint La Pietà.

“I usually work on several pieces at once,” the 45-year-old said. “I did that in this case. This piece was bigger than my others, and I had to paint the background three times to get it right.”

The Charman Prize awards $10,000 to the winning artist.

“My initial reaction was disappointment when I found out I didn’t win,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘I guess hard work doesn’t pay off sometimes’.

“I had to get the negative self-talk under control. Now I understand that this is just the beginning of this piece’s journey.”

La Pietà will form part of an exhibit of Mr Sutton’s work at Gallery One Seventeen in February, his first solo show.

“I took part in the Nyack Art Walk in New York in 2011,” he said. “In that event, I had some of my own space.

“The Charman Prize exhibition is a kind of coming out for me as an artist. A lot of people don’t know I paint.”

He was born on St Lucia and grew up island hopping in the Caribbean with his parents.

His father, Edson Sutton, was a Seventh-day Adventist minister from Nevis. His mother, Beverley, was from Barbados.

“I started drawing when I was 4,” he said. “I always loved it. While my father preached I’d sit there in church and draw. My parents always encouraged me.

“I remember one day running out of paper so I drew on the white cardboard of a pantyhose package.”

When he was 12, the family moved to the United States, eventually ending up on the East Coast.

He started teaching high school art in New York in 2000.

In 2013, he met Bermuda Institute principal Lois Tucker, who was part of a team evaluating his school.

“She handled the art department part of the evaluation,” he said. “I jokingly told her to take me with her back to Bermuda. She said she couldn’t do that, but I sent her my résumé.”

See La Pietà at Masterworks until February 15.

For more information: www.bermudamasterworks.org; www.gallery117bda.com/bermuda

Richard Sutton's modern version of La Pieta (Photograph supplied)
Breaktime by Richard Sutton (Photograph supplied)
Richard Sutton with his piece La Pieta in the Charman Prize exhibition at Masterworks (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)