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On Island Profile: Erik Pedersen

Feb. 26, 2006 – Erik Pedersen is a complicated, spiritual, creole man. Surrounded by an eclectic array of Caribbean religious art and artifacts, along with his own art and components of that art, Pedersen works every day at his craft in a studio designed "only for work."
His art is informed by his nature. Pedersen describes his work in terms of his creole heritage: "It is when cross influences come together and a new life is born."
One piece, entitled "Perilous Journey," brings together an assemblage -as does much of his current work – of newspaper clippings, found objects, beads, cloth and plastic flowers and paint, which depicts the islands of the Lesser Antilles surrounded by beads and trouble.
Some of the found objects, including shards of Royal Copenhagen porcelain, reflect the "Perilous Journey" theme, which Pedersen says is perilous because of money. He says money is "the new god in the region."
All of his current assemblages are part of his Caribbean Reef Series, started at a time when he says he was "rattled by the death of two dear friends." The first two pieces in the series began with a stamp collection issued around that time called Caribbean Reef. The stamps, when mounted, depicted the reef at night and during the day. Pedersen, in a style he has become known for, used the stamps as the base for further drawings and additions of objects. "My art is about conflict," he says. The reef is both beautiful and dangerous.
Another piece, framed in such a way that it must lie flat to be contemplated, is called "Hidden Truth." Pedersen's work is meant to be read, both literally and figuratively – as much of it includes newspaper clippings and headlines reporting incidents of child rape, abuse and molestation as well as murder, drownings of illegal immigrants and HIV and AIDS.
More than any of the other piece, "Hidden Truth" probably reveals what has drawn Pedersen down his particular artistic path of assemblage coupled with social commentary.
The piece, which is grave-like, is what he imagines "100 years from now when developers come and dig — this is what they will find."
The scattered limbs of antique dolls, shocking newspaper headlines, eyes staring up, pieces of a broken mirror (which Pedersen says drive bad spirits away in the Obeah religion of the region) give insight into what concerns Pedersen about the state of the territory and Caribbean region.
"My hope and prayer is that I can seduce people to pay attention to what they are looking at," Pedersen says of the macabre theme.
The disconnected body parts of "Hidden Truth" hearken back to the 1993 brutal murder of a close friend of Pedersen's at the hands of someone he knew. It was that murder and the death of another close friend around the same time that continues to inspire his artistic commentary.
But it's not all grim. Much of his work contains spiritual and religious references – sometimes whimsical, but always meaningful. "I know of no place in the world with so many damn churches," he says. And yet his art spotlights the most horrific of realities – along with the hope for redemption.
One of his smaller pieces is dedicated to the shooting deaths of young men throughout the Caribbean. It has just the heads of a dozen or so men shaped like cameos and adorned with various objects. And the headlines are included. In some of his pieces are found small fabric flowers, which Pedersen calls his gift to the abused youngsters he advocates for in his work.
Not all of his work is commentary. To keep from getting depressed by the social themes, Pedersen sketches –something he has been doing all of his life.
The best part of growing up on St. Thomas, Pedersen says, was spending summers "out east in what was then the country."
"We would run wild in the 'grass piece,' as it was called," he says. "There was a sense of abandonment."
He said back then the island was "all green – just an occasional house."
"We would walk to Coki Beach on moonlit nights," he says. "That was great fun."
It was in those early years that he received his first award for his art. It may also be when his social conscience was born. The award was for a drawing he submitted to the International Children's Drawing Competition, Works of Hans Christian Anderson – sponsored by the International Unity for Child Welfare Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. He was 10.
He had been studying with — and says he owes a great debt of gratitude to – Aline Kean. She was Pedersen's first art teacher. He recalls Kean, "sitting on her perch on Garden Street. She would say 'see what you are looking at.'" Kean is still alive at 105, and Pedersen says he still uses her principal of paying attention.
The worst part of growing up on St. Thomas, he says, was as a teenager, "feeling awkward in my own skin." He recalls he didn't feel like there was anyone he could talk to because "It was implied you were supposed to be all right."
The provincialism that he still sees as part of the community, however, he says he has no problem with since his return in 1983 after a 30-year absence. But, he says – true to the theme of much of his work – "I do have a problem with the provincials." He abhors the corruption, greed and violence he sees as so much a part of life in his islands today.
Pedersen left St. Thomas in 1953 — "around the time the Waterfront was being built," he says — to attend college
On his 30-year journey outside the territory he received a bachelor's of fine arts in dimensional design from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pa., and later a master's of architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.
When he was studying at the Aspen School of Contemporary Art, Pedersen was introduced to the Bauhaus School, which deems architecture as the highest form of art. That is what led him to pursue his architectural studies.
But Pedersen is not just about art.
In 1990, through a man who was doing some work on his mother's house on Government Hill, Pedersen was introduced to soccer. The man, Elvis Anthony, was part of a team called Cool and Deadly. The team needed uniforms and Pedersen offered to help.
But Anthony and his teammates wanted more. Pedersen was co-opted into becoming the president of what went from being a team to a soccer club under his leadership.
Over the years of his involvement, Pedersen took the team to places it had never been – other islands to compete, for one.
That led to his becoming a second vice president of the Leeward Island Football Association (LIFA).
While serving with LIFA, Pedersen took the organization international by bringing it into the Federation Internationale de Football Association. In 2001 Pedersen reluctantly withdrew from his involvement with soccer to pursue his art. But, he says, he loved the work he did with soccer and deeply regrets having to give it up.
During his travels with Cool and Deadly, Pedersen says he got his first glimpse of some of the other islands. St. Kitts and Dominica figure heavily in his sketches, drawings and paintings.
As he walks around his studio, he points out themes and found objects that came specifically from those islands. One sketch, of a man wearing only bush, was done at Carnival on St. Kitts. The bush man is steeped in the West Indian tradition of masks, Pedersen says, "where we take things and decorate ourselves."
Pedersen pulls a shiny, purple garland partially out of a bag on one of his shelves. "I found this at a grave site after a funeral. Isn't it amazing?"
He believes that "Art can be made from anything, providing it answers to the aesthetic of the artist."
Themes from the Bible, voodoo, and the spirit world in general invade much of his work.
A current piece, "Salome," hangs at M
ango Tango Gallery at Al Cohens Mall on Raphune Hill.
The theme of the large multimedia assemblage intertwines the story of the maiden who – betrayed by her mother — seduced Herod, and the modern-day seduction of young girls by much older men.
"I don't see my work as being religious, but the Bible contains stories that are quite inspirational," he said.
And the opportunity and setting for new and different inspiration are part of the near future for Pedersen: He will be spending the next month in residency with 20 other artists at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Virginia. There he will have the advantage of time, solitude and other artists to pursue his work.
The residency was made possible by serendipity, hard work and a grant from Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.
Pedersen is deeply grateful for the opportunity, he says, and looks forward to having the time to focus solely on his work.
Of his art Pedersen says, "I begin consciously, and then there's a time of uncertainty, and then the work tells me what it needs."
Of his life, he says, "I consider myself blessed to be a Caribbean man."
These truths are manifested in his art.
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