When you walk in the door of the second-floor gallery at the Connecticut Historical Society, Stanwyck Cromwell puts his arm around your shoulder and guides you forward. Not literally, of course — though the genial Guyanese-American artist would be inclined to do so if he were on the premises. Still, his is the kind of free-flowing, eye-friendly and color-filled work that instantly establishes a rapport.
This bond continues throughout From the Caribbean to Connecticut: Works by Stanwyck Cromwell, on view until Oct. 15 in gallery space newly opened by the move of the Amistad exhibit to New London’s Custom House. As you are lured into the room by the colors — an inextricable part of Caribbean art — you can’t help but notice the emotions bubbling beneath the luscious veneer. Here is an artist who has felt the full range, from righteous anger to unbridled joy, and they all seem to show up in every piece he creates.
Take “Transfiguration of Cultures,” a giant oil painting that greets visitors to the exhibit from across the room, toward which you are slowly drawn, as if it possesses a gravitational pull. The vibrant colors (bright oranges, sea blues, jungle greens, sunny yellows) and organic flow of the paint call like a Siren. The colors say yes, yes, yes, but the title says, think, think, think — as do the titles of many other works here: “Diaspora Market Place,” “Heritage Quilt,” “Two Citizens: Geronimo and Me,” “Boat People,” and “Distant Memory of a Colonial Past.”
Cromwell was born in Georgetown, Guyana. His creative gifts were nurtured by his artist parents and a cousin, the noted Guyanese artist Maurice C. Jacobs. He moved to Brooklyn as a teenager, he says, “with one hair on my chin.” Prior to making this move, he was well aware of American culture from the radio and the movies — in fact, his name “Stanwyck” comes from his father’s fondness for American actress Barbara Stanwyck. The struggles for civil rights in the U.S. paralleled events in Guyana. After Guyana gained independence from Great Britain (May 26, 1966), race tensions exploded in the nation, located on the northeastern coast of South America.
On a visit to a friend in Connecticut, Cromwell found the New England lifestyle more conducive to his artistic temperament.
“New York enlightened my mind but I was not serious about my art until I got up here,” explains Cromwell, who has lived in Bloomfield for 37 years. “As a young man in New York, I was caught up in the excitement and the enticements of the big city, from the Apollo Theater to Yankee Stadium, the cultures, the foods, all of it. In Connecticut, I realized that you could move more slowly, you could take your time. In New York, I was rushing all the time, running to catch a subway, to get somewhere. I wanted to be an artist. It was what I did best. I just couldn’t deny this part of myself.”
The move to Connecticut did, however, require a “major adjustment in color.”
“In the Caribbean, color is almost like a language,” he says. “You identify people by the shade of color in their skin, by the color of their houses, even birds are identified by colors. You go from that vivid landscape of color to New England where the colors are more subtle, where there is snow and grayness. After awhile I combined the two elements to find my true nature.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in art from New Britain’s Charter Oak State College (where he now teaches) and a master’s from the University of Hartford. In the ensuing decades, Cromwell’s wellspring of creativity could not be contained by one genre. There are, in fact, few genres he has not tried, and most are represented in From the Caribbean to Connecticut: oil on canvas, oil with palette knife on canvas, oil on linen, pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, assemblage, collage and even some sculptural works. He works with equal dexterity in large and small scale, as well as in landscapes, portraits and genres that suggest abstract expressionism, even surrealism.
“Anyone in the arts in the Caribbean has to be versatile, whereas in the U.S. you can do specific things, like portrait painting,” he explains. “In the Caribbean you have to be able to do everything, including mixing your own paints and teaching yourself.”
As a young man, Cromwell learned by emulating great masters like Rembrandt.
“But then, I thought that if it looks so much like the real thing, why paint it?” he says. “At that point I had a basic foundation in all facets of art, even how to mix my paints. I didn’t just leap into abstraction, because abstract art for some artists is a way to escape reality.”
On the contrary, Cromwell’s art is grounded solidly in reality, and his vision was shaped more by people like Dali, Picasso and Van Gogh. “You could almost taste the paint Van Gogh put on his canvas,” he says. “The orange, the vanilla, it looks like icing. Painting should be intimate like this. The finished product is like a romance between the brush and the paint in which the canvas yields itself willingly. You don’t want to force a relationship. I’ve spoiled so many clothes because when the impulse hits me I don’t have time to change. It’s a craving that can’t be denied.”
He cites his painting in the show, “Follow the Road,” as a metaphor for his own life.
“Wherever the road leads, you follow it,” he says. “You can’t get lost. I try to create art that draws people into conversation, that speaks to your soul. There is no right or wrong interpretation of any of it.”
The selections in the exhibit are well laid out, each work given ample space for separate exploration. This is particularly important with the 3-D assemblages, multicultural Rauschenberg-like entities that combine metal, cloth, leather, old photographs, Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, a crucifix, Jackie Robinson, slivers of dollar bills and ticket stubs, forks and spoons, political buttons, sea shells, photos of famous people and family members, belts and wallets. This format, in “Self Portrait with American Influences” and “Memories” perfectly captures the jarring clash of cultures and his attempts to find connections between them.
Some of his work, of course, is just fun to hang out with, such as recently completed “Imaginary Marketplace in the Tropical Rain Forest,” in which a lifetime of color experiments seem to have collided head on inside Amazonia.
“I find myself like a conductor, getting the orchestra in rhythm,” says Cromwell, explaining this painting. “Then I can lose control and sometimes can’t remember how it was done, I like to be foolishly playful, especially now that I’ve reached an age where I don’t have to defend anything. If I want to wear my pants backwards, it’s my prerogative. I sometimes want to be a kid again.”
Cromwell’s personal history and larger themes of remembrance, nostalgia, and colonialism fit in well with the Connecticut Historical Society’s mission. One hopes that, with a nice new gallery space, the venerable society will install more energetic and engaging art exhibits like this one in the future.
Echoes from Across the Ocean: From the Caribbean to Connecticut, Works by Stanwyck Cromwell is on view until Oct. 15, Connecticut Historical Society, 1 Elizabeth St., Hartford, (860) 236-5621, chs.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun