Maximiliaan Phelipa: In the Garden of Art

POSTED: 07/21/14 2:10 PM

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – He waits for me patiently by his gate on Front Street. Philipsburg has settled to a quiet stroll in the late afternoon, and local artist Maximilaan Phelipa is standing near the entrance to the garden of his home. He and his wife have converted their backyard into a charming labyrinth of plants and trees – a playground of tropical colors – and it is here that Phelipa does all of his painting. The place is a hidden treasure.

“I don’t feel good if I don’t paint,” Phelipa says passionately. “I love to paint.” He is originally from Curaçao, and retains the distinct accent that marks people from our sister islands to the south when they speak English; but his heart is in St. Maarten. So much so that he married a local girl and raised two sons here after being transferred from Curaçao in 1973 as a police officer.

As a boy, Phelipa explains, he grew up on a farm in rural Curaçao – the knoekoe as it’s called down south – where he says the artist in him was awakened. He was fascinated by nature, he continues, and the myriad colors of the tropics.

He shows me his latest works; a pair of delicately painted single hibiscus flowers in abstract patterns and startling yellow and red hues contrasting on an intense blue background. And another rather large painting of a collection of them that he recently completed and that has never been seen before: a family of hibiscus flowers painted in oil. “Hibiscus are bright,” he says rather matter of factly. “For me, foremost St. Maarten stuff. I bring the colors of the tropics.”

Color for Phelipa is an almost spiritual thing, a coming into contact, perhaps, with the divine. “It has a meaning; we are alive,” he says rather pensively. And when asked again if the colors of the knoekoe of his childhood had an effect on him, he replies, “Definitely, it was all around me.”

Phelipa has been publicly hosting his work in his backyard for almost two years now, and calls it Art in the Garden. “People love the art in the garden system,” he says proudly, of the visitors and tourists that come by. “It’s something different, because of how it is displayed in the garden.” He and his wife are usually busy during the high tourism season giving tours of the garden and his collection, so when things slow down he paints. “In the off season I paint, paint, paint,” he says.

He has brought out a special selection of his works for this interview, rarely seen by the public. These, however, are not for sale and are tender and dear to the artist’s soul. One is of an old relative of his wife, Elise. The portrait exudes the stern charisma of an old matriarch of a now long gone St. Maarten. The proud but down to earth and pragmatic character that was the hallmark of the St. Maarten culture seeps through the image. She is immortalized now in the home of the Phelipas, forever gazing with eyes that don’t lie.

Another is of the folk musician Culebra. The hues are carefully and tastefully chosen. It was painted literally with St. Maarten soil, ground down to make a fine earthy tone that captures the man in his joy, in his moment of rapture and oneness with his music. Some things are beyond the grasp of money.

It begins to rain, and we immediately protect the precious paintings and hurry them off to shelter under a gazebo in the garden. There is no doubt a marked difference in the emotion a portrait elicits compared to that of a landscape or flower. “All that depends on the subject you choose,” he clarifies. “Especially with people you have to be careful not to overpower the person.”

Phelipa speaks fondly, too, of his mentors. The late African-American artist Romaire Bearden, whose wife was from St. Martin, and St. Maarten’s own Cynric Griffith, whom he considers a living master. From Bearden he learnt a lesson that all artists should take to heart. “Whatever you paint, enjoy it.” Whether the subject may be flowers, portraits, or nudes, the lesson is that you should enjoy what you are doing.

Nudity is natural, we agree, and nothing to be ashamed of. In art, Phelipa says, “there is nudity, and then there is vulgarity. I did a few nudes on the island.” But they didn’t last long, he says. Collectors snatched them up quickly.

Phelipa, like many artists on the island, complained of the lack of seriousness that local culture places on the arts or a career as an artist. He was impressed, he says, with the quality of work he saw among students’ work displayed at Taloula Mango for the Art Invasion exhibitions. “We should not discourage young kids from becoming artists,” he lamented, after hearing some kids say their parents told them they wouldn’t make any money as an artist.

“It’s frustrating,” he says of this attitude here in the Caribbean toward artists. To those with a natural affinity for creativity, his advice is not to worry. “It’s already in you.”

“My parents didn’t want me to become an artist,” he says with passion. But he paints because he must, because it is what makes him happy.

Maximilaan Phelipa’s Art in the Garden can be found just past the Oranje School on Front Street. For an appointment you can call 526 9593 or email phelipa@hotmail.com

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