Les Anderson is known in the Caribbean for several hard-earned reasons. As characters go, he’s near the top of any list. The beloved boat he built is believed, some say, to be the prettiest on the planet. Many consider him the face of Foxy’s because of the dozens of t-shirt designs and posters he’s created for the Tamarind Bar, Foxy’s Wooden Boat Regatta, Firewater Rum and Old Years Night blowout. But it is his fine art that gives him the most recognition; soulful paintings and sculptures that leave observers with a lasting impression of the islands; timeless images of tranquility and tropical splendor.
How he came to call the Caribbean home is not such an unusual story but when he did it is. In 1969 he bought a one-way ticket to the USVI. Leaving behind a budding but unfulfilling career in technical drawing, he hooked up with a young woman and together they settled on the beach in St. John’s Coral Bay. Their house, literally built from beach-combed wood and treasures, was a work in progress. Each day they dinghied to town to sell their paintings and, on the way home, scoured the shore for art medium and construction materials; Artco and Home Depot all in one.
Their next home and project was Banchee, a forty year old Cape 25, built in Durbin. Like many old boats, Banchee had issues. “One trip we took to Martinique,” Les explained, “I slept with my hand touching the sole in case the water got too high.” It was on that wet trip that he met the king of Cowhorns, Augie Hollen, who not only told him to get a new boat but told him how and where.
Hollen sent Anderson to Avery’s boatyard in St. Thomas where an abandoned Cowhorn project sat waiting for a savior. A pile of gommier wood, fifty five gallons of glue, a rudder, sheer clamps and endless determination got the artist started on the project that today he calls, “the greatest sculpture of my life.” Like all great art pieces, it didn’t come easy. “It took me six months to figure out what to do,” he recalled. “I’d never even held a chisel before. I read lots of books. The only help was the loan of Augie’s power planer; Manfred helped to tow the wood to Hassel Island and to make the sails. It was all by the seat of my pants and I didn‘t know if it was going to work.”
When Penelope hit the water in 1972, one friend described her as an artist’s conception of a boat. Certainly she is pretty but also wickedly fast. She won her class at the first St. Bart’s Regatta, the second, third and many others. She’s still hard to beat. Anderson did confess to using a secret weapon for those early races. He and his crew kept a well-proportioned, naked woman below, inviting her on deck only when the competition got too close. “It worked every time!” he exclaimed.
All during the time of building and sailing, Anderson was painting and working hard, living the life of an artist which, of course, has something to do with starving. “I’ve gone through many hard times, times of little money; living hand to mouth.” Early on he attempted to sell his creations on the St. Thomas waterfront. “It didn’t work with the cruise ship people. When they got off the boat, all they could see was the sign for Norman’s Liquor!”
An enduring relationship with Foxy and Tessa Callwood began in the early 70s. Les helped build the first Tamarind Bar on Jost Van Dyke that, back then, had an honor system. “Whenever we got started with t-shirts, Les did the art for them,” Tessa recalled. “He did all our early posters for the boat races. His style was perfect back then.” She dug deep in a closet to pull out old specimens and in almost every poster I found a fox and a Cowhorn. Last year his art graced the advertisement for the 40th anniversary celebration of the legendary bar on the beach.
There were times when life took precedence over art. For a few years Anderson’s creativity went into a partnership building Wet Willies Bar in St. Thomas. His beloved Penelope was nearly lost to fire, requiring a major resurrection, and years later, when Hugo blew his St. John house away, it took substantial time to build anew.
But these days he’s doing what he loves, trying his hand at terra cotta sculpture and making oil paintings from composites he creates using photographs, sketches and his rich memory of the old Caribbean. He well remembers when boats and island houses were made of wood, everything built by hand; when fresh produce sailed in on a down-island vessel. Good old days that Anderson keeps alive with a canvas and a brush.
His work is scattered around St. John but for the best show, visit him in his cliffside St. John studio. For appointments, call 340-693-5053.
Jan Hein divides her time between Washington State and a small wooden boat in the Caribbean.