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Island Expressions: Eunice Summer

Sept. 7, 2008 — The bright red walls of Eunice Summer's living room are lined with about 30 paintings, mostly portraits and landscapes that come alive in a variety of different colors and styles that Summer says are intended to capture the emotions of her subjects.
Entering her living room for the first time is certainly a visceral experience: The viewer's eyes are drawn in a multitude of directions all at once, trying to soak in every nuance, brush stroke and pose. The tone of each painting — whether the subject is surrounded by heavy blues or blacks in the background, or framed by bright yellows and reds — strikes a chord within you, so much so that you find yourself rooted to the same spot for minute after minute, still gazing at Summer's intense works. And that's exactly what she wants.
"I'm an expressionist," Summer says. "I'm accomplished technically, but anyone can do that. What I try to do is bring an enormous emotional impact to my work. They are very powerful paintings — and there's no real trick to that. It's about getting your arm, your hand and your brush to elicit that kind of feeling you're seeing in the people that you paint."
Her flawless technique — nurtured by well known V.I. artist Thomas St. Vincent — only make her portraits all the more lifelike, reminiscent of Dutch painters such as Rembrandt with their counterplay of light and dark backgrounds, heavy fabrics and deep facial expressions. But Summer's style is very flexible, as the classical painter in her also gives way to the free spirit that comes out when she's talking, morphing itself onto canvas in a variety of beach, Carnival and Caribbean scenes that show off her immediate surroundings.
A few batiks — a medium that Summer recently picked up during her travels to Malaysia and Bali — are also thrown into the mix. But these prints are not so traditional: Instead, Summer has used the wax like a brush, creating elaborate figures on the pink, lime green and yellow backgrounds.
Annual trips to Europe and Asia are a Summer family tradition.
"We spend weeks there sometimes," Summer says, referring to her two sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. "And recently, I was on a small island in Asia called Tioman. My son had been there before, and told me about an artist there. One day I was walking down some road, and there he was, doing batiking. I worked in his studio for awhile, and after that, I went to Bali and found a studio there to work in."
Born in Pittsburgh, the 77-year-old Summer started out as a sculptor but, after moving to the territory in the late 1970s, found her calling in oil painting. Though she does work in other mediums, such as batik or enamelling, creating elaborate portraits on wood panelling or canvas continues to be her true calling — one that has won her repeated commissions and plays into her love of travel and adventure. Going through the pieces on her walls — her living room serves as the gallery for most of her work — Summer points to scenes she has painted of different Caribbean islands and models she has worked with in locales such as Virgin Gorda and Dominica.
"In the old days here, there used to be a big show, where art collectors from the States would come here to buy, and that's when I first started selling my work," she says. "Then people would see my work through other people and become interested, and we just became this whole network of friends."
Collectors of Summer's work include renowned actor Morgan Freeman (of whom Summer has painted a portrait), international opera singer Noel Velasco and Dr. James Clayton, along with several local philanthropists. A piece entitled "Edmie's Garden" was also selected to appear on an Anguillan postage stamp. Most recently Summer was commissioned to do a Carnival scene in Virgin Gorda, a place where she has lived and continues to visit.
"What are my other plans for the future?" Summer says. "To travel and paint. Painting is an adventure for me, too, and I just started about four months ago to paint every day. And that's really what I want to do for the rest of my life — to travel and paint."
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