THE following are mere re-collections of Dunstan St. Omer, whom I observed from various distances, over 50 years. I first saw him at St Mary’s College (SMC), where he taught drawing and painting. ‘Art’, as it was called, was encouraged at an early age at St. Mary’s. I claimed a liking for drawing from my father who once produced the most intricate turtle shell designs, carvings and engravings into purses for women. In my many travels I never saw anything close to my father’s turtle shell work of art. His creations were fabricated in his spare time as he believed that every man should have a ‘real job.’
Learning at Dunstan’s hands the art of angles, perspective, shadows, and composition of characters I may have caught his third artistic eye. The high point in that relationship came when I was selected with two other SMC students to help paint his beach scenes inside the new ‘Gaiety Club’ in down town Castries. We spent several Saturdays at that work and when completed it met with the approval of the owner Mr. Joseph Adjodha and his many patrons and visitors. Although my part was the small matter of trying to get palm leaves to look alive, I received much encouragement from Mr. St Omer for my effort.
Our ways parted when we both left St. Mary’s on different missions. I had little contact with him afterwards. I was aware he lived in the CDC in Castries a fifteen minutes walk from my home at Rock Hall Road, Marchand. He once invited me to view his paintings and to learn more advanced painting techniques. I declined using pressure of work and a busy sports calendar as excuses. In any event I had taken my father’s warning about artistic talent and finding a real job quite seriously. Art was a God-given talent which was to be exercised part time and secondary, to regular pay cheque.
Later, I witnessed in Mr. St Omer, a sort of pent up frustration perhaps waiting to explode. The movie ‘Rebel without a cause’ came to mind. Such frustration was due in part to official disregard for art in general and in particular to the neglect of his work and the grudging acceptance (and lip service) of that of the Walcott boys, and the St. Lucia Arts Guild. By then Dunstan had worked in the Dutch Antilles and had emerged a connoisseur of the better known European painters. He was at pains to explain that art was neither ‘white’ nor ‘black’ and that excellence was diminished when it was colour coded. Telling that to those who were incapable of hearing or feeling, and having just discovered they were Africans, may have exacerbated his frustration.
Mr. St Omer was a staunch Roman Catholic who may have understood better than most that, the vengeful, and jealous and punishing ‘white’ God was an invention of man. It represented what man had become! The deeper spiritual truth which Mr. St. Omer must have struggled with for a long time is that God is love. That spiritual truth is changeless. God loves and sustains everything He has created. That love is within reach of every person and it is best expressed in loving, giving and sharing unconditionally, and without wanting or expecting anything in return. That’s the God Jesus spoke of and called ‘father,’
I returned to Saint Lucia in the middle of the Black Power storm which Stokely Carmichael and others had started in the USA. That awakening storm was then raging in the Caribbean and African Diaspora. At a discussion in the Castries Town Hall around 1971 on the economic future of Saint Lucia, Dunstan St. Omer arrived late, seeming desirous of sharing his thoughts and experiences with the gathering. That evening he took those who were connected to the new black power gospel of Carmichael to task. At the same time he also appeared to criticize his church for the dominant white images which seemed to deny the presence of people of colour around the crucified Jesus. He reminded me of a mind at war with itself – perhaps one in transition to a better and nobler place.
It’s not always easy to witness a gifted and perceptive mind in the process of drastic change. Such a mind must jettison previously held ideas (and learned ‘cultural facts,’ in the process of transition). Old falsehoods must be discarded when new evidence demands. Reasoning, struggle with suspicion and fear, in shaping a new future. That transformative process may have found its highest expression in the two very different flag designs he produced to mark the island’s constitutional advancement to Statehood. He was dissuaded from submitting the green with a black eagle rising, by friends.
Friends! How many of these will ever journey into Dante’s Inferno to be reborn, refined and re-defined? How many had consulted the last verse of Isaiah chapter forty for a more in-depth discovery of the eagle? Besides, that green flag with a touch of yellow and red at independence, still holding its rising black eagle would have been a far more powerful symbol for an emerging Saint Lucian civilization and Caribbean nation. Alas!
Be that as it may, by the mid-seventies I had immersed myself quite deeply into the politics of Saint Lucia to have cared about the vagaries of a national flag. However, it was with great joy and contentment that I first learnt of Sir Dunstan’s mural at the Roseau R. C. Church. The Roseau and Cul-de-Sac valleys had become the focus for much of my early grass roots education activities (with the Forum) and the people who lived there. I smiled when I dared to think there was some connection between the awakening remnants of slavery and the mural at that church which boldly depicted native folk as God’s helpers.
By then the mature philosopher, the jovial and cordial master had evolved, refined and polished. Visionary leadership within the local Catholic Church saw Sir Dunstan immerse himself with renewed spirit in his many Church murals. I peered occasionally into the Castries Cathedral as he and his sons transformed the interior with their art. Still, I continued to observe him only from a distance. His obvious artistic ability was a rare gift – one which few can truly appreciate.
By the time his friend Derek Walcott was raised to world prominence by the Nobel Committee, Sir Dunstan St Omer had already achieved his life’s purpose. The Knighthood – ‘Arise Sir Dunstan’ – was merely icing on the cake. He had arisen a long time before. Indeed, that rising came even before he was allowed into the church with his murals. The knighthood and such accolades after a lifetime of hard struggle seemed almost meaningless, to me. His crown of glory had long been bestowed by his maker and, supported by his dear wife and family who had borne the burdens of the day with him.
Sometimes a single word will not capture the essence of a character at a particular defining moment. But perhaps ‘phlegmatic’ comes close to the first Dunstan. Then ‘transition’ would accurately define the second. Finally, ‘sanguine’ renders the final product – Sir Dunstan – fit for eyes that wish to see. ‘Let no man write my epitaph,’ may well be a most fitting tribute to a life spent awakening a slumbering people.