It is unlikely that artist Charles Long would ever be described as a loud and verbose man. Instead, a man of few words, and somewhat private, seem more fitting descriptions. However, through his art, Charles’s voice booms through the ages.
Opera singer Beverly Sills was once quoted as saying: “Art is the signature of civilizations,” and Charles Long is evidence of this with his work showcasing Cayman’s scenes and telling of ways of life from yesteryear and into the present day with bright colors and whimsical imagery.
Journey to Cayman
Born in Kaduna, Northern Nigeria in 1948 where his father Athelstan was stationed as a district officer, Charles went to England soon after in an effort to distance himself from tropical diseases, a possibly fruitless endeavor as he already had malaria upon his arrival.
What followed were years traveling between Nigeria and England before moving to Swaziland with his family. There he attended Waterford Kamhlaba school, which later became a World College – a prestigious school since attended by Caymanians Martina Jackson and Kellie McGee, recipient of the 2015 Young Caymanian Leadership Award.
Charles’s father’s colonial postings eventually led the family to Cayman.
“I was 20 when I came to Grand Cayman,” explains Charles. “My father was the last administrator and later became the first Governor of the Cayman Islands.” Charles chose to remain after his father’s Governorship ended and his parents moved to Anguilla.
He soon began capturing the everyday scenes of this quickly evolving island with his paintbrush, and it did not take long for him to make an impact on Cayman’s art scene, becoming a founding member and first secretary of the Visual Arts Society of the Cayman Islands.
A lifetime of art
Charles’s relationship with the easel has been an extensive one. “I was always interested in painting, ever since preparatory school in England,” he says, and a creative streak runs in his family. “My grandmother on my father’s side was a well-known novelist – she wrote as Marjorie Bowen.” Bowen – whose real name was Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long née Campbell – was born in 1885 in Hampshire and wrote more than 150 novels under six pseudonyms, including “The Viper of Milan” and “The Man with the Scales.”
Charles did nurture this creative gene, undertaking formal training in his artistic passion. He gained an Art A level in Swaziland, and also attended the Farnham school of Art in Surrey, U.K., now the University for the Creative Arts.
Since arriving in Cayman, his work has transformed from the sculptural three-dimensional forms of the ’60s and early ’70s, to the acrylic two-dimensional style he employs today, which Charles describes as “expressive realism.”
Of his style, Natalie Urquhart, director of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands (NGCI), says: “Works by Charles Long, though realist in essence, have a highly stylized, and deceptively child-like quality. His purposefully flattened, frieze-like landscapes in bright colors, transform the environment into a myriad of patterns that capture the often patchwork-like quality of the natural foliage.”
Charles notes that his influences are wide and varied. “I am inspired by artists such as Rousseau, Picasso, Gauguin, Klee, and many more, including Caribbean artists.”
These inspirations all use color to dramatic effect in their works, and Rousseau specifically uses two dimensional images, as seen in Charles’s work, letting the colors and impact of the scene do the talking as opposed to realistic brush strokes. Also like Charles, Rousseau takes great care to document foliage.
“Since living in Cayman my art has been influenced by my surroundings and Caribbean art.” Of Cayman’s artistic offerings specifically, Charles says, “I am impressed by a lot of local art, particularly artists that paint Cayman, such as Miguel Powery, Chris Christian, Teresa Grimes, and many more.”
The Caribbean influence has led to his work becoming more colorful since arriving in Cayman. This feature has become a trademark, and weakens the often-made comparisons between himself and L.S. Lowry, who uses two-dimensional images but lacks the use of bright colors.
As Charles’s artistic career in Cayman has spanned such a long stretch – nearly 50 years – his subject matters naturally follow changes in Cayman’s landscapes and society. This extensive career, and his ability to show scenes as they are, unaltered by personal views or symbolic narrative, has led to him being called a chronicler, with his paintings providing social commentary and a visual representation of Cayman’s changing landscapes and history over the last quarter century.
Traditional aspects of Cayman can be seen in the twisted thatched framed house and intricate porch railings portrayed in “Caymanian House” (c.1975); the small thatched beach hut and lone boat on a peaceful East End Beach in “Road at East End” (1988); and the quiet lane and tall palms of “Pedro’s Bluff” (1999).
The “Radio Cayman” Mural (1975), which spent 25 years at the station’s studio and is now housed in the NGCI, shows many aspects of old-time Cayman in the mid-70s, with traditional Caymanian dresses and thatched hats, fruit trees, donkeys, and working boats.
The importance of maritime industry is also glimpsed by the inclusion of seafaring vessels in many works such as “Shedden Road by the Waterfront” (1969) and “Mitch Miller and His Ting” (1973). The latter is a lively piece showing American musician, and regular Cayman visitor, Mitch Miller driving his yellow Volkswagen. The backdrop depicts a boat on the azure sea, and the foreground includes a variety of trees and people going about their day-to-day lives. Their representation may be two dimensional, but they certainly are not.
Many of Charles’s works show the intermingling of old and new and the evolving identity of the island. “Untitled” (1980) shows breadfruit trees, palms, and a wattle-and-daub house contrasting with the car depicted in the foreground, while “Brown Truck,” a 2012 work, also shows a modern vehicle against the Caribbean backdrop of palm trees. “Another fishing boat off Strathvale House” portrays the juxtaposition of old fishing boats and modern buildings – Casanova Restaurant and Strathvale House to be precise. Some more recent paintings portray historical activities, such as “Quadrille Dancers,” showing that these traditions do continue into modern day.
Local and International displays
Charles’s work has been displayed both locally and internationally. There are eight Charles Long works in the NGCI Permanent Collection. He was the subject of a retrospective, fittingly entitled “A Chronicler of our Times,” at the gallery in 2002, and his work can also be found in the Cayman Islands National Museum.
Overseas he was exhibited in Biennial of Painting in Santa Domingo in 2003, and The Caribbean Festival of Arts in Guyana and Venezuela, and he has also been displayed in the Dominican Republic.
Arek and Sandra Joseph have the largest collection of Charles Long work. The Josephs began collecting his work in 1972, starting with a thatch rope-framed oval piece depicting a young boy standing in the sea next to his boat. Their collection has since expanded to more than 20 pieces, including eight or more never-before-seen private commissions.
Having spent time working at the Turtle Farm, with Nor’Wester magazine, the Cayman Islands National Museum, and the Department of Environment, Charles can now focus more time on his painting.
His creations are formed in his concrete, single-story octagonal studio in Savannah, which he says is a peaceful place to work, far removed from the hustle and bustle that even Cayman has succumbed to over time. The walls are adorned with his work, filling the room with color, no doubt further inspiring the artist.
Here in this studio haven, Charles gathers ideas from his past paintings and from photographs and spends time creating new masterpieces.
“My usual 2’ x 3’ painting usually takes about a week to paint,” he says. “It takes a while to get started on a painting, but once started, it does not take long to finish.” For this his admirers are thankful. Charles has produced thousands of pieces, and says he can now create up to 40 works per year.
Just as we can look back at his work from previous years and see Cayman in times gone by, future art devotees will do the same with the work he creates today, marveling at the Cayman of 2017 and comparing it to the scenes outside their windows.