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Thoughtful contrast of past and present

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Island refelections: Flatts Village by Chris Grimes (Photograph supplied)

Bermuda Now And Then by Christopher Grimes and Heidi Cowen Gallery 117, Front Street, Hamilton.

Gallery 117 is hosting a joint exhibition by two well-known Bermudian artists, Christopher Grimes and Heidi Cowen.

The twist in this show is that it is based on the theme of Bermuda “now” and “then” (the title is perhaps a bit of a giveaway), focusing on the topographical and environmental changes that the island has undergone in recent history.

Christopher Grimes is known for his depictions of old Bermuda, and handles the “then” half of the show, while Heidi Cowen paints the “now”. All the paintings are in oil, modest in both size and price, and — conveniently for the viewer — juxtaposed in 30 contrasting pairs.

It seems there is considerable interest in what Bermuda looked like a lifetime or so ago, before that watershed moment in history, the Second World War (1939-1945).

There are still some of us around who can remember how Bermuda was — both to look at and to live in — in the prewar period of the 1920s and 1930s. This exhibition goes some way to illustrate how much our environment has changed since then.

How different a world was it? Well, as an example, although there was a train network running across the island back in the day, there were no cars or trucks to speak of. If one needed to travel, the only viable transport options were a combustion engine-free horse-and-carriage or a sailboat.

As a result, roads back “then” were made of white limestone rather than today’s dull, dark grey tarmac. Modern-day concerns such as air pollution and light pollution, did not exist — because there wasn’t any. (There was no need for today’s fluorescent street lamps in the prewar years.) To look at, Bermuda was unrecognisable to the place it has become. It was indeed another world.

At the mention of white roads, I read recently that the city of Los Angeles is developing a new, white road surface which will reduce temperatures in the metropolis by up to 15 degrees. What would such an innovation in road surfacing do to our own roads?

The thrust of this show is that it illustrates how much our environment has changed so dramatically in less than 100 years.

For example, Grimes’s depictions of Bermuda’s prewar architecture show buildings painted in white or muted colours with traditional green trim. Other houses were painted with cement wash, giving a subtle shade to graceful forms. In many instances the buildings stand secluded, surrounded only by green, open spaces, adding to the feeling of coolness, calm and peace. His work sums up an old slogan proclaiming Bermuda as “the isle of rest”.

Conversely, Cowen’s up-to-date canvases are busier in composition and more colourful in palette, reflecting the fact that our island home has undoubtedly become busier, more vibrant, more dynamic, and certainly more cluttered over the past century.

The contrast is perhaps made more stark by the pair’s differing artistic styles. Grimes can be somewhat restrained, more muted. Cowen lets loose with both barrels. One feels her colours are squeezed straight from the tube directly on to her canvas.

Striking though these “compare and contrast” exercises in architecture and environment are, there is another point that this exhibition highlights — how, in fact, some pockets of this fragile island have, in the main, resisted change. Scenes of our old capital, St George, are a prime example, as are depictions of Devonshire Dock and Somerset Bridge.

While the paintings cover a range of sites from west to east, there is one location that the pair fail to address — the south side of St David’s and Castle Harbour. The building of the airport in the early 1940s caused this area to be changed beyond recognition, but for those who remember it, it was a very scenic part of Bermuda. Why not show in the show?

Perhaps the most significant question this exhibition raises is, how can we handle changes more sympathetically in the future? Of course, we cannot change the past, but what should we learn from the past to steer a steady road ahead? Putting this question to Bermuda’s creative minds will no doubt produce innovative and effective solutions and a show of this nature may open the eyes of the public and make us all think before we rush to bring about change simply for the sake of change.

Yes, we continually seek out modernity and all the benefits that it can bring. But there are some aspects of our past that, if not actually revived, should never be forgotten. Earlier in this article I referred to LA’s development of a new, high-tech, environmentally friendly white road surface. Wouldn’t it be “cool” to have the same white roads here in Bermuda again — a forward-thinking move that also reunites us with our past.

This is an informative, thoughtful and well-curated show that brings the past and the present together. It was a pleasure to visit.

Island refelections: Daniels Head by Heidi Cowen (Photograph supplied)
Island refelections: Harrington Sound Road by Chris Grimes (Photograph supplied)
Island refelections: Flatts Headed West by Heidi Cowen