The Gi­ant Called Apilo is Gone

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Toni Ni­cholas What do you re­mem­ber most about your fa­ther? church and then hav­ing fam­ily time.” What were the last days with him like? Do you re­call his last words to you? Did he ever speak of hav­ing any re­grets?

One of the is­land’s most renowned artistes and con­trib­u­tors to the devel­op­ment of the na­tion’s artis­tic and cul­tural ex­pres­sions passed away last week. The fam­ily of Sir Dun­stan St. Omer, SLC, KCMG, MBE ad­vise that he passed away peace­fully at 11:25pm on 5th May, 2015. This, af­ter a pro­longed ill­ness that had taken a toll on his body. He died at his home in Union sur­rounded by his fam­ily.

From all I’ve heard, read and learnt about Sir Dun­stan St. Omer, af­fec­tion­ately called Apilo, he loved Saint Lu­cia, his fam­ily and two women: the Blessed Vir­gin Mary and his wife. He loved them all, even above his art. In fact, he used his artis­tic ex­pres­sions to pay homage to the things that he loved.

Born in 1927, St. Omer grew up in Saint Lu­cia and was in­flu­enced by an­other un­sung (at that time) hero and artist, Harry Sim­mons. At St. Mary’s Col­lege, where he was ed­u­cated, he met fel­low Saint Lu­cian Derek Wal­cott and the two soon be­came close friends. Wal­cott also hap­pened to be a painter. The young Sim­mons in­spired St. Omer to paint from his own ex­pe­ri­ence. “What he taught us was to paint our own ex­pe­ri­ence. Up un­til then, the art I had known was Euro­pean,” St. Omer once said. That be­gan to shape the di­rec­tion that he would take with his paint­ings.

Dun­stan St. Omer later be­came well known for his re­li­gious themes, par­tic­u­larly chang­ing the con­cept of a “white Je­sus” into an eth­nic­ity with which most Saint Lu­cians and in­deed West In­di­ans could iden­tify. Stand­ing at the epi­cen­tre were his fa­mous Black Madon­nas. In one in­ter­view he re­called, “There was no tra­di­tion of Caribbean re­li­gious art to draw on. The tra­di­tion was Euro­pean. Je­sus, Mary and the Saints had Euro­pean fea­tures; there was noth­ing re­motely re­sem­bling Caribbean faces or tones. Af­ter a long process of in­ter­nal ques­tion­ing and dia­logue, I got that in­ner rev­e­la­tion which was also my per­sonal lib­er­a­tion.”

St. Omer’s first can­vas to test his new in­ner vi­sion would be the wall be­hind the al­tar of the Jacmel church. To­day it stands as one of his most re­mark­able mon­u­ments. It fea­tures the Holy Fam­ily, de­picted as black, sur­rounded by the cir­cle of life which in­cludes mem­bers of the com­mu­nity - a chanteur, dancers, a chak-chak band, an Amerindian woman and child, a ba­nana worker. From the hand of the Christ child a ray of light em­anates.

St. Omer then con­tin­ued to paint his in­spi­ra­tion at sev­eral other churches in­clud­ing the Cathe­dral of the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion in Cas­tries, de­scribed by some as “the great­est com­mis­sion since Michelan­gelo”. From there he was com­mis­sioned to do other work in neigh­bour­ing is­lands in­clud­ing Mar­tinique and Trinidad.

But amidst his thou­sands of paint­ings hang­ing in hal­lowed halls, gal­leries and homes all over the world, one cre­ation is the most fa­mous: the Saint Lu­cia Na­tional Flag.

Dur­ing his life­time St. Omer also worked for the gov­ern­ment of Saint Lu­cia as Cur­ricu­lum Of­fi­cer for Art in the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion and Cul­ture, im­part­ing his knowl­edge to stu­dents is­land­wide.

St. Omer was mar­ried and fa­thered nine chil­dren. This week the STAR spoke to one of them, Gio­vanni St. Omer, who opened up about his fa­ther.

“The thing that will al­ways stand out for me is that my fa­ther was al­ways a very hum­ble man and his love and his pas­sion was al­ways for Saint Lu­cia and for Saint Lu­cians. For him it was never about self, awards and honours, but about what he could do to raise the con­scious­ness of the black man in the Caribbean at that time. What he al­ways wanted was for Saint Lu­cians to be more con­fi­dent in them­selves and re­al­ize that they are greater than they ac­tu­ally re­al­ize and that they could do great things.” What was it like grow­ing up in the St. Omer house­hold?

“It was ex­cit­ing be­cause my fa­ther al­ways be­lieved in fam­ily. Most of his friends, they had a chance to leave home to pur­sue greener pas­tures, riches and fame. My fa­ther stayed home with fam­ily. He used to take us around to ev­ery beach and places we never new ex­isted be­cause he wanted to ex­pose us to the beauty of Saint Lu­cia and help us ap­pre­ci­ate what we had. As a de­vout Chris­tian, Christ­mas was also very im­por­tant and we would have a great time then, go­ing to You and your broth­ers also got in­volved in the arts; was that some­thing that came nat­u­rally or did your fa­ther en­cour­age you?

“To be hon­est, peo­ple like Derek Wal­cott, Roddy Wal­cott and Ge­orge Od­lum used to be at our house with my dad and there were al­ways th­ese dis­cus­sions about how dif­fi­cult it was for the artiste to make a living. So my fa­ther did not want us to be a part of that, he did not want us to strug­gle. So he worked hard to en­sure we had a good ed­u­ca­tion. But we did not have a choice; we were sur­rounded by artistes, the tools and what have you so it just hap­pened. We started do­ing it for fun at first but he be­came re­ally proud of us when we got into it and started mak­ing our own con­tri­bu­tions in one way or an­other.” In con­ver­sa­tion about his in­spi­ra­tion for the Na­tional Flag, what do you re­call him say­ing?

“The thing is, when my fa­ther was think­ing about do­ing the flag, his thing at that time was that he wanted Saint Lu­cians to be­lieve in them­selves, to never look down and never al­low any­one to look down on them. So that’s why he chose the Pitons as the sym­bol as it is ris­ing, ev­ery­thing is ris­ing and he chose colours that would speak to us, the blue sky and heav­ens we look up to, the glory of the sun­shine, our skin colour. The peaks of the flag speak to our yearn­ing to rise and we should never stop as­pir­ing to reach the top.”

“It was tough. I was one of those around him when he first took ill and had to travel to Mar­tinique.

“We al­ways en­sured that he had some­one around when­ever he opened his eyes be­cause my fa­ther hated be­ing alone and loved the com­pany of his fam­ily. When he came home from the hos­pi­tal he en­sured that we did what­ever we could to just en­joy the mo­ment.

“The last few weeks, how­ever, be­came dif­fi­cult. He would tell us that he stayed alive for his kids, but he is tired now, his work is done and he wants the fam­ily to ac­cept that. My fa­ther is a very proud man; he did not like the idea of not be­ing able to do any­thing for him­self. His body was bro­ken, but his mind was sound. And so that last day he said just let him sleep in his mother and fa­ther’s bed and go to them in peace.”

“Take care of your mother!”

“My fa­ther’s only re­gret, and he men­tioned it many times, was that Saint Lu­cians did not ac­cept Saint Lu­cian artistes and that there still was nowhere one would go to see the works of Harry Sim­mons, Roddy and Derek Wal­cott and him­self. And as his fam­ily, we in­tend on do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to cor­rect this and to carry on his le­gacy.” Talk about his in­spi­ra­tion for the Black Madon­nas and his affin­ity with the Chris­tian faith.

“My fa­ther’s love is for Mary Mother of God. That foetal con­nec­tion be­tween the mother and child was some­thing he was al­ways in awe of. In fact, he of­ten pointed out that it is in ev­ery­thing, that foetal con­nec­tion - mother and chil­dren, coun­try and its peo­ple, church and con­gre­ga­tion. “Once that con­nec­tion could work in har­mony, then ev­ery­thing else would work,” he said. So that’s why he cre­ated the Black Madonna. And he also loved the church and be­lieved in hav­ing faith. He of­ten said that faith is what car­ries ev­ery­thing and that if you have faith it gives you strength, it gives you power to do things and that it can pro­tect you and help you over­come your fears.”

Dun­stan St. Omer sur­rounded by his fam­ily and friends.

Stand­ing tall with one of his great­est pieces - a mu­ral at the

Jacmel Church.

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