Hurricane watching is a Bermudian ritual; the irresistible pull to the ocean front a staunch reminder of the sheer force of nature and our vulnerability in the face of it.
Many rushed to the beaches to watch the towering swells created by Hurricane Teddy roll in earlier this week; the age old tradition given a renewed potency by video footage which quickly spread on social media, allowing even those who stayed home to witness the wildness of the seas in real time.
The awe and excitement of this uniquely Bermudian pastime is encapsulated in the 2000 Bermuda Biennial artwork Hurricane at John Smith’s Bay by John Gardner. Inspired by Hurricane Gert, the work feels as topical today as it did when he painted it twenty years ago.
Weather and the ferociousness of hurricanes has always fascinated the five time Bermuda Biennial artist. As an architect – he trained at Rhode Island School of Design, where he also taught Advanced Architecture – John understands precisely how powerful a storm can be.
As we emerge from a week bookended by Hurricane Teddy and Hurricane Paulette, we caught up with the artist, who did the original architectural and interior work on the Bermuda National Gallery, to look back at the painting and discuss why, as islanders, we will always have an inherent fascination with extreme weather.
BNG: You have a long history with the Bermuda National Gallery. Could you please tell us about it?
JG: I was a member of the original committee in the late 1980’s that was looking to build the National Gallery. At this time the BSoA existed and the Dockyard Arts Centre had just opened.
Through my work with the Corporation of Hamilton, I discovered that the East Exhibition Room of City Hall & Arts Centre was underutilized. I was able to match-make the BNG group with the location with the help of then Secretary to the Corporation of Hamilton, Herman Leseur. I then did the architecture and interior work for the renovation.
Later I was asked to re-join the board in the context of the BNG doing an exhibition on architecture. The exhibition did not transpire, however I stayed on until early plans for retirement started to guide my decisions toward being a creative versus managerial.
BNG: How has the gallery evolved since its early days?
JG: I feel it has evolved in two ways: First, its artistic relevance has grown as it naturally matured to be increasingly professional, sophisticated and international.
Secondly, it has become more relevant and essential to Bermuda as its education programme has supported countless young people to be creative and to understand others being creative.
As a side note, funding has always been a burden, as it is for many non-profits. I wish the BNG could evolve further with a significant endowment from a couple of benefactors, an even stronger collection and the phase 2 expansion that was always part of the vision.
BNG: Hurricane at John Smith’s Bay is 20 years old but is as relevant today as it was then; indeed it always will be given that hurricanes make up part of the fabric of life in Bermuda. Have you always been intrigued by storms?
JG: Yes. I am obsessed by weather. But, this painting is not about storms per se. It is about Bermudians who are obsessed by the ocean’s relationship to land in extreme weather. There is something psychologically reassuring in our ability in Bermuda to experience such power safely from a very close distance. There is also something relevant in us being inexorably drawn to theatrically view the transformation of a picture-perfect setting under siege knowing it will recover.
BNG: Have you done any other paintings of hurricanes?
JG: I have not. This work is the product of a moment. Having just been at John Smiths Bay, I went home and drew what I recalled and painted it before the power went out.
I am very happy with Hurricane at John Smiths Bay. I think it is a significant work, yet it happened spontaneously without desire for that status. It has a timeless vernacular quality in its representation of Bermudians casually doing what we do in dramatic times.
BNG: I understand that the artwork was a study for a mural 30 feet long. Could you please tell us about it?
JG: The mural idea came to mind as the work was painted and as it took on a layered look reminiscent of the Federal Art Project. There was no mural commission but by suggesting it I hoped someone might want to commission it as a mural or even as a mosaic. I still hope someone will commission it at a larger scale.
BNG: The image depicts a scene from Hurricane Gert. What inspired you to capture this hurricane in particular?
JG: I believe that it was the juxtaposition of the dynamic towering waves, near and far, so grey against the collection of people, the flotsam and jetsam. I had just been there with my very young daughters. It was a moment worth capturing, probably subconsciously, for them.
BNG: The painting captures the Bermudian ritual of hurricane watching. Do you take part in this?
JG: Yes, I did in a limited way just before and after the hurricane and, yes, from John Smiths Bay. Interestingly Hurricane Gert was much more fierce but less visible than Hurricane Teddy.
BNG: Why do you think that hurricane watching is so ingrained in our culture?
JG: It is spectacularly beautiful and so accessible for us on this rock in the middle of thousands of square miles of wild ocean. It is irresistible. I believe its inherent wildness, so close but separate, makes us feel safer.
BNG: Hurricanes are an inevitable part of life in Bermuda and something that you contend with every day in your architectural work. Could you please talk us through the ways in which our vernacular architectural shields us from the storms?
JG: The story of the Three Little Pigs comes to mind. Residentially, we build very heavy masonry houses on rock foundations and with particularly heavy (stone) or highly fastened (board and foam) roofs. They cost more to build this way and we work hard to pay for them but they don’t blow down or blow apart too easily.
BNG: You mention in your 2000 Bermuda Biennial artist statement that your architectural work is very public and your artwork is very private. It is rarely exhibited and never for sale. Why is this?
JG: Architecture is a very collaborative profession with a community of professionals and oversight in the formative stages of the work. Once complete, the work is visible for all to see and judge for some time. Visual art is more easily undertaken privately and offers a greater opportunity for reflection without judgement.
Having said this, the statement made 20 years ago is somewhat out of date as my work has become more public as a result of more artistic collaboration such as The Triangle, a 2014 Bermuda Biennial artwork with Tiffany Paynter (spoken word) and Anna Clifford (dance) which was written up in the New York Times.
I have also since developed the Painting on Planes series, which was featured on CNN Travel and TedX Bermuda 2018. I hope to be able to present a serious and well-regarded body of work one day.
BNG: Why is it important for you to keep the two disciplines separate?
JG: Architecture is a tough business. I have not wanted my independent artistic work to operate in that environment. Also, I have found it is hard to do both simultaneously. The creative process between the two is, for me, very different and the time needs to be put in to create work at a high standard.
BNG: Do they overlap in any ways?
JG: I am sure they do as the same mind is making decisions. How they overlap might be a good discussion to have in the near future. I don’t know the answer, yet.
Follow John Gardner on Instagram at @noj.design