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Painting Bright Colours at Night: Lutai Durante

Story and photos by Dan O’Connor

Lutai Durante prefers the night.

“Nighttime is more relaxing: hear the crickets, no one to disturb me, have a drink and a smoke,” he said, ashing his Marlboro menthol. “It give me more freedom; you can see things more clearly.”

For the BVI artist, the late evening hours afford him creative clarity to bring his emotions and memories to life. Lutai often paints images of the Virgin Islands of the past, when times were tough, but simple. When men herded cattle down steep hillsides to dirt roads; women cooked breadfruit over charcoal pits; children helped their fathers catch fish for dinner; and cruise ships, traffic and bureaucracy were a thing of another world. Many of the images he paints come from stories passed down from his grandfather, he explained.

“I can [paint] how he hook the fish; I can do my grandfather, how he rides way, way back,” he said, leaning out of his chair to demonstrate. “If you look at the posture and the sweat and maybe the happiness in it too—and the tears in it—you would say ‘Wow. These guys had to work hard. They had to build it from scratch, so we have to appreciate it now.’ These are parts of that picture; I can explain it. [My grandfather] told me so I can explain it … so now I can show the children.”

For the 52-year-old oil painter, art is not only a form of expression but a tool for educating.


“I want to go back to my local scenes so we can show the children,” he said. “Nowadays they just want to hear Lady Gaga and all that mess, [but] let’s go back to the fungi days.”

Lutai paints predominantly with oils on canvas, a passion developed as a child but honed in his adult years. He has recently begun to work with woods, too. But his love for art wouldn’t have developed if it weren’t for the inspiring environs of the Virgin Islands.

Lutai was born on Tortola, but moved to St Thomas as a young boy. There, he attended primary school and high school. He still remembers a teacher who saw talent in his early work. They stayed after school and he painted from the stoop outside the building, the bright sun and tropical environment made for a perfect studio. But he soon graduated and moved to New York.

“Man, I missed [the VI],” he said of his move to the big city. “Instead of light—bright lights where I can see shadows—New York was grey, raining and storming, snowing.”

Lutai spent the better part of his twenties and thirties in the States, away from the Virgin Islands. His memories of the bright and saturated greens and blues, and simple living, began to slip. His inspiration to paint dwindled.

“But then I moved back to St Thomas,” he said. “They had police work there—it was fast, fast work, man. I tellin’ ya.”

There, in the midst of hard work and a tough life, Lutai would started his family, with his wife, Carol. He’d hadve a daughter, Alexandra; then another, Andrea; and finally, Edward. He was a busy father, a busy policeman—too busy to paint but at least back in the islands and closer to his roots. Eventually, he’d retired from the force and moved back to Tortola, where “things weren’t so hard—kinda boring—so I painted in the nighttime,” he said.

His work would wassoon be noticed by members of the community, who would displayed his canvases at locations like Scotia Bank and at the Bougainvillea clinic Clinic in Road Town. The exhibitions would sparked an interest among local artists and art lovers, who would ralliedy to bring attention to the burgeoning scene in the Virgin Islands. Soon after, leading faculty from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston would traveled to the territory to see firsthand how local culture was being memorialized through artistic expression. Moved by the collective works, the art teachers toyed with the idea of developing a school of arts in the Virgin Islands, through the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and with the help of the government. Difficulties to bring the plan to fruition stood in the way of the ambitious idea, but it didn’t stop the SMFA faculty to offer Lutai the opportunity to enroll under full scholarship to the institute. And he did.

Lutai would taketook summer classes in Boston, where he’d learned perspective, and observed classes in pottery and be was given advice from the “pros.” He’d casually attended a loose schedule at the school, but no doubt made an impression on his teachers, like Julie Graham, who has fond memories of the artist.

“What stands out for me is Lutai’s innate talent, passion and spirit,” Graham said. “He made an invaluable contribution to the class, offering his enthusiasm and cultural knowledge, which he balanced by his curiosity and desire to absorb [SMFA’s] approach to a contemporary art practice.”

One summer, Lutai stayed with his professor and her husband, where “his great spirit and dedication won the hearts of us all,” Graham reminisced.

The warmth and appreciation from his peers and professors touched Lutai and perhaps fueled his passion to grow as an artist. As his eyes beamed, he said, “It made me cry … to [have someone say] we have some art quality here in the BVI.”

Lutai has yet to receive a degree from SMFA. With his kids all in school and his wife left to bustle around the house, he was needed at home. But that hasn’t stopped his art from moving around the world, from the walls of banks in Switzerland to government houses in St Thomas to Rolling Stone front man Keith Richards’ London home. Diploma or not, his passion for art can now thrive.

“I want to do it eight hours a day. I want to start at 7 [pm] and go to 3 [am],” he said with an animated smile. “My kids, all grown up, I got them sayin’, ‘OK, Lutai, we don’t need you anymore.’ So that’s fine. I can just drink my wine in my studio, relax and paint, and you can come, and we’ll all hang out. That’s life.”

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