Some artists paint the Caribbean they want to experience—pristine and picture perfect. Bruce Smith paints the one he sees: funky rum shops littered with empties and caps; wooden West Indian shacks flanked by flapping laundry, chickens and goats; island boats under sail or hauled on the beach for repair. It’s the world this cruising sailor seeks, the real one he knows.
In pretty much every painting he makes, there’s a zany sign that existed somewhere for some reason. Maybe it makes sense but chances are it better serves to humor the observer. “If you have nothing to do, please don’t do it here,” “Men, do not sit on de cooler,” “No trees passing,” or how about the one for literate animals, “Goats keep away.” We all know about Mr. Credit. He’s dead. But if you want to meet his accomplice, Helen Wait, or hear his opinions, head to a rum shop or check out a Bruce Smith painting.
Almost all of his ideas were gathered unobtrusively by sketching with a pencil and small pad, no small feat in the Caribbean. Goats and signs are willing models but drawing people can be a trick because some folks just don’t like it. He’s tempted fate on more than one occasion in order to capture an exemplary slice of island life. One near miss happened while Smith sketched in a Bequia fish camp when a giant of a man stepped up to him booming, “You drawin me?”
Smith figured the only way out was humor—so he took a long shot and replied, “No, you too ugly,” which caused everyone, including the big guy to break into sidesplitting laughter. So far he’s gotten out of every jam and made some friends in the process by calling in the island ambassador, rum.
Paint and boats have been the pulse of Smith’s life from the beginning. His Long Island Sound childhood was a natural place for a series of small boats that came and went, always growing in size and speed. When he wasn’t in a boat he was drawing one.
Those pursuits grew larger when he moved to the Caribbean, purchased a 26’ Seabird Yawl and set off to sail the islands, engineless. To support those sea gypsy days he gathered driftwood and painted tropical fish on it. Sold in tourist shops, those simple creations launched a career that branched out to include a string of murals and signs using what has become his unusual signature media, alkyd enamel or, as he says, “You know, Rustoleum.”
Boatbuilding chiseled its way in during those early years after the loss of that boat on a rocky, Antiguan shore, and because he’d spent so much time watching and sketching the down-island experts at work—chopping frames, fitting planks, caulking and rigging the traditional way—skills that were both inspirational and practical. In the mid 1970s he worked with Trini, a shipwright, on the Phillipsburg beach reconstructing an Antigua sloop by day, painting signs at night, building a boat and a cruising kitty.
Some years later, life and a young lady took Smith to Washington State to build the boat of his dreams, a 34’ Venus ketch. Having assisted designer Paul Johnson to build one earlier in St. Barts, he completed his own hull in three months using old growth fir “kiln dried” by the 1980 Mt. St. Helens blast. A year later she was sailing the waters of Puget Sound, sea trials for a voyage that eventually took Smith, his wife and young son back to the Caribbean.
After nearly a decade away, the colors of the tropics lit a fire for Smith to again pull out brushes and paint. Discovering that most of his earlier work had been erased by time, hurricanes and a touch of neon, he made the switch to art that would not be part of a wall but hang upon it.
The very first batch, exhibited in a snooty Nevis gallery, were seized by the police when the less-than-honest owners were booted off the island. After their “showing” in jail, the paintings eventually were bailed out and rehabilitated to lives on someone’s wall.
The Smiths sailed the islands for several years doing art shows and marketing prints and cards. One of the tens of thousands of cards ended in the hands of an American company during the creation of a Caribbean chain restaurant. Bruce became the official artist for Bahama Breeze and, since the mid 1990s, his originals have filled the walls of each restaurant and his images graces menus, billboards and a host of other projects. It’s been a great relationship and not once have they complained that his art doesn’t match their upholstery.
These days the Smiths divide their time between their home in Washington’s Puget Sound and the islands of the Caribbean with a boat and a life at each end.
To view Bruce Smith’s art, boat and adventures, contact him at [email protected]