Bequia’s Mango Tree Gallery is open if and when the need arises; by appointment only. The small, West Indian structure, camouflaged by blooms that wind and bind the place into a botanical knot, opens to determined visitors via a filigreed gate, some cockeyed steps and a wooden door. Inside, one tiny room morphs into the next, each defined by a series of walls bearing one story after another, told with paint and brush.
The paintings, bright, bold and bursting with energy, are reflections of their creator Julie Savage Lea. By appointment, or if you happen to stumble in at the right time, you’ll meet this woman, infused with enthusiasm – about her work, the island she calls home and the back story that sailed her there.
Amidst a collection of art supplies, we chatted in what was once a living room, now the hub of business. A miniscule but busy place with filmy curtains billowing from windows and easels and tables heaped with work in progress. A zany cutaway to the kitchen frames treasures – more evidence of an art-steeped life. Outside, a bright mural shouts “look at me.”
“It began early,” she explained. “I started drawing as a child. Parental praise kept me going.” Drawing spawned thoughts of studying architecture but, because of the times, the idea was squelched. Lea headed instead on a cross-country pursuit of creativity, ultimately earning a degree in painting and drawing from George Washington University.
She launched into the art world in Washington D.C., eventually moving to Virginia with her husband and two sons. In the historic town of Waterford, Lea established a gallery/studio to showcase her talents. She taught, exhibited and, along the way, collected honors and accolades. In the 1980s, her work took a road trip with a Smithsonian Exhibit; in the 1990s it was featured in House Beautiful; but throughout those decades, a constant case of island fever grew within her soul.
Lea met the sleepy island of Bequia in 1978, the year she and her family ventured south from the Virgin Islands on a charter boat. “I saw the island for the first time from the deck of Ishtar, a 38ft steel ketch.”
They sailed into Admiralty Bay at dawn, just in time to witness the awakening of a place caught in time. Back then, Bequia wasn’t much; the Friendship Rose was the ferry to St. Vincent; the Frangipani was the only ‘hotel’ and the beach was a busy boatyard.
For Lea, it was a brief encounter but one that made a lasting bond; she was smitten. “Coming to Bequia—it just changed my life. All my money went to a fund to come here.” From the deck of Ishtar, pen and paper in hand, a collection of sketches began, capturing the charm of fishermen, whalers, market ladies, and beachy bliss.
During the mid 90s, one of life’s twists precipitated a lengthy stay on island pushing Julie and Douglass Lea closer toward moving there. Not long after, a serendipitous meeting sealed the deal. Julie had packed a beach bag with a towel, cover-up, the usual necessities but she also threw in some slides of her work. She took the bag to meet a friend and along the way was introduced to a sales manager from the Caribbean division of McMillan Publishing. “The three of us had lunch,” she recounted. “I showed him slides of my work. The guy picked one up and said, ‘This looks like a book.’”
For five months, Lea combed through sketch books, finding just the right elements that would tell Bequia’s story—relay its charms—the ones that had captured her heart. The project came together and in 2000 that same fellow brought Bequia Reflections, An Artist in the Caribbean, to Bequia for a launching. The party, held at the Frangipani, was attended by Prime Minister, Sir James F. ‘Son’ Mitchell. “He was so happy to have the book,” Lea said.
Lea works primarily with acrylic on wood and occasionally on canvas. “It’s thick and thin,” she explained. “Here in the tropics I have to keep them in the bottom of the fridge.” A prime example of her energetic, full color is a 3ft by 8ft piece that hangs upstairs in Bequia’s Gingerbread Hotel.
Her latest book features the work of Australian sailor Peter Carr, another lucky artist who painted Bequia before its awakening. In her studio were two 4ft by 7ft paintings which were rescued from the island’s St. Mary’s Anglican Church, then undergoing renovation. Lea was asked by the Bequia Heritage Committee to restore the paintings, no small feat considering that they’d been under attack by termites and rain for years.
To view the work of Julie Savage Lea, visit: www.juliesavagelea.com and www.mango-art-studio-bequia.com
Sailor, writer, teacher Jan Hein tacks between the Caribbean and Washington’s Puget Sound with a boat and a life on both ends.