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On Island Profile: Karen Bertrand

Oct.23, 2005 — Raised in a small town in Georgia, Karen Bertrand intended to pursue a career in fine arts — until she met Willie Wilson, a writer from the Virgin Islands.
"Had we not met, I would have been on a slightly different track," Bertrand said. "At the time, I had a degree in painting, had served as a freelance artist, and intended to continue pursuing my education in art."
Upon meeting Wilson, however, Bertrand said her focus shifted a little, transforming her direction from a more "self centered" art career, into shared life experience.
The two encountered each other in 1976, when Bertrand was an usher at a play Wilson was attending at the University of Virginia. "We met at the cast party, after the play, and talked for six hours," Bertrand said.
The next day the two were able to meet again, and from that point, continued to speak and write over the course of the following two months. When Wilson, who was raised in the Virgin Islands, came back to St. Thomas in April of 1976, correspondence with Bertrand continued through letters.
"They weren't romantic letters," Bertrand said. "He wrote these descriptive stories, which made me fall in love with him so much. So, I threw all my caution to the wind, and moved down here for a blond-haired, surfing poet."
Looking back on the 25 years the couple have spent together, Bertrand said it is not a decision she regrets making. On the contrary, she calls their story the "crux" of who she is, and her decision to move to St. Thomas "remarkable," both for her heart and her career.
"I've been able to do more art here that has a depth to it," Bertrand said, speaking of the history and culture she's come across in the V.I. — an experience which she has been able to blend with her childhood in the South.
Growing up, Bertrand's father was the president of a small liberal arts college, one of the first in the South to become racially integrated. Her brother marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and, while Bertrand was part of a Christian household, there were always reminders of other religions and cultures in the foreground.
"We had little statues of Gandhi, and other things around the house. And my mother used to read a lot, and she would often say 'you're just as good as anybody, but not a darn slight better.' These things always help me when I'm struggling with things like prejudice, people discriminating against others."
Bertrand said her mother further influenced her by the good things she did for others in the community. Also an artist, Bertrand said her mother Anna Bell Lee was someone with a quiet passion for helping others without drawing attention to herself.
Her southern upbringing and her experience in living for several decades in the V.I. show themselves in Bertrand's art—which ranges in medium and subject. The artist herself characterizes her work as "heavy," either creating rich scenes from parts of island history, or producing works which show a struggle with personal identity.
In one series of paintings, for example, Bertrand depicted a history of her family, building from copies of old photographs into an installation of small abstract pieces. The paintings were displayed in Italy during the 1980s, during a year that Bertrand says was one of the most important of her life.
"It was 1982, and I had received a grant from the Arts Students League. I started off the year in Italy, and decided to stay there because I found a house-sitting position," Bertrand said. Since Bertrand and Wilson were living in New York at the time, the couple had to spend the next 11 months apart.
"I recognized that I could have, if I wanted to, abandoned the relationship. I was exhibiting my work; some of my paintings were selling for up to $5,000. I could have stayed and been successful. But I chose instead to come back to St. Thomas and be with Willie."
Once the two were living on St. Thomas full time, Bertrand began marketing her art on her own. However, after awhile, her efforts began to be redirected toward other activities.
In addition to running a summer program for students called the School of Visual Arts and Careers at Fort Christian, Bertrand and Wilson began to collaborate on a number of projects. Wilson, who was a teacher at Antilles School at the time, also directed school plays, while Bertrand did the sets.
Bertrand illustrated Wilson's first book, Up Mountain One Time. Bertrand has illustrated works by other Caribbean writers including Isidor Paiewonsky.
Eventually, she was offered a position in 1997 teaching art at Antilles School. "I was respected in the community as a private art teacher, and I had occasionally been a substitute at Antilles. I was always involved in extracurricular activities, like Willie's plays, as well," Bertrand said.
At that point, art was a part-time program at the school. However, since Bertrand felt there was need, especially on the high school level, for a larger department, she helped expand the program, making it full time.
While she and Wilson were never "fortunate enough to have children," Bertrand said her students play that part for her. "I've been able to pass on to them the wisdom that my parents gave me, how what matters more than anything is the spirit of an individual."
These days, Bertrand can still be found at the school, and she is also continuing her collaboration, in love and art, with Wilson. Bertrand and Wilson recently published Glass Bottom Days a 10-year labor of love written by Wilson. Bertrand created the art for the book's cover.
"There is still a lot of music left in me," Bertrand said while sitting in her classroom on Sunday afternoon. "And I know that we're going to keep doing things together, moving forward."

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