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A Window into the Past: Ruben Vanterpool

Story and photos by Dan O’Connor

In the old days, Virgin Islanders were very industrious—they were independent and lived off the land. They often used horses and mules to lug timber and large loads up steep hillsides. They grew their own coffee and cocoa; they often made their own clothes. And when smiling school children walked home from class, they’d often take off their shoes, knot them, and sling them over their shoulder and go barefoot to prevent wear and tear. I know this not because I was there or because I read a book that told me so. I know because Ruebeun Vanterpool’s paintings showed me.

Vanterpool’s paintings, seen around the territory on walls and murals and offices and textbooks, tell a visual story of a place many seem to have forgotten. When I sat with the artist in his new studio in Great Mountain, Tortola, last month, he explained why he feels its his duty to a need to contribute to history.“I feel that it’s my duty, being an older head, who happened to a part of the past, to help tell a story—a story that is not generally known by the younger persons,” the 65-year-old artist said. “I feel it is my responsibility to pass it on.”

The Tortola native perks up when I ask him about the past. His lively mood helps to give his stories character as he tells them.

“Our parents told us about the older times by word of mouth,” he said. “We can do better than that. Some of us are writers, some of us are artists, so we can tell a better story. I tell my story through my medium, you through yours.”

Vanterpool has been telling stories for many years, even before he picked up the brush and easel and used his canvas as a mediumstorybook. From 1975 to 1994, the now career artist worked as a public servant—as a teacher. He taught youths of all ages on all subjects. But whatever the class he taught, he made sure to remind his students about the past.

When he retired in 1994, he took his hobby of painting and turned it into a full-time job. When I asked him to explain his style of work, the artist said, “My work is very autobiographical, because of my involvement in life at the time,” he said. “It’s not like I’m not moving on—that I’m stuck in the past—it’s just that I look at that time and like to bring it here through a window.”

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Today, he still teaches and reaches out to the community by offering lessons from his Great Mountain studio. He has also erected another studio on his property that he hopes will allow people from all over the world experience the Virgin Islands of the past through his work and the work of other local artists. He plans to showcase art in a building that borders Ridge Road, a route that up to 80 safari taxis transferring tourists traverses almost daily in high season. There, for a small fee, tourists and community members will be able to relive the past, just as Vanterpool does when he creates his artwork. The oil and acrylic painter said he was inspired to start the project because he’s often asked by visitors how the territory used to be.

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