A breakaway performed by Canute Caliste, violin, and group, recorded July 30, 1962 by Alan Lomax
Few internationally celebrated artists can have spent their lives working in humbler surroundings than the naive painter Canute Caliste, whose studio was a lean-to shack in the backyard of his wooden house on the tiny Caribbean island of Carriacou, off the coast of Grenada.
Surrounded by chickens and other farmyard animals, Caliste, who has died aged 91, produced fascinating, quirky paintings of island life that attracted a wide fan base in Europe and the United States, where art collectors embraced him as a charming and idiosyncratic painter in the primitive style.
Frequently as eccentric as the paintings he produced, Caliste had a sign at the end of his garden path in the village of L’Esterre that read: “This way to the great artist.” He may not quite have warranted that epithet, but, for many, his awkwardly painted figures and reportage style conveyed the charm and traditions of the Caribbean in much the same way that Lowry encapsulated industrial northern England. His paintings of fishing boats, cricket matches, carnival dances and domestic rows usually displayed a good deal of humour and no particular concern for accuracy – though a devout Roman Catholic, for instance, his painting of the Last Supper depicted 15 disciples.
Working mainly with acrylics on hardboard, Caliste could knock out 20 paintings in a day in his prime, and would run out of supplies almost as soon as he got hold of them. Though he had many other interests – and he was an accomplished musician – he lived to paint, and did so for most of his life.
Caliste claimed to have been inspired to begin painting seriously at the age of nine, when he was told by a vision of a mermaid that, if he followed the Bible, he could achieve anything he wanted. After that, mermaids appeared as a constant theme in his work, but his main preoccupation was the everyday scenes of Carriacou, an island 13 miles square, 23 miles north-east of Grenada.
Though he initially painted purely for his own enjoyment while making a living as a boatbuilder and fisherman, Caliste’s talent was spotted in the late 1950s by a local nun, Sister Trudy, who sold some of his works in a gift shop she ran. As tourism to the island increased in the 1960s, Caliste, by now well into his 40s, began to pick up word-of-mouth trade as visiting “yachties” trekked up the hill to his studio from the nearby harbour – or came by taxi from the island’s capital, Hillsborough – to buy souvenir paintings at a few dollars a time.
When an American, Jim Rudin, arrived in Grenada from New York in 1966 to open the Yellow Piou art gallery in St Georges, a friend of Caliste brought over a selection of his paintings from Carriacou, and Rudin liked what he saw. He exhibited Caliste’s work for the next 20 years, selling in decent quantities. Indeed, it was Rudin who suggested, in the 1970s, that Caliste write short commentaries at the bottom of his paintings to indicate what they were depicting. Caliste took to the idea, and his scribbled jottings, full of spelling mistakes and bad syntax – “Lovers coartin”, “general hurspetal in Grenada” – became one of his endearing trademarks.
Also in the early 1970s, the US-based anthropologist Donald Hill brought Caliste to further attention by including him in a doctoral thesis on Carriacou and buying up large amounts of his paintings, some of which he gave to Smith College in New York.
But Caliste’s big break came in the late 1980s, when another American, Lora Berg, who lived in Barbados and worked in the US embassy there, visited Grenada and happened to see his paintings. She asked to meet Caliste and decided to produce a coffee-table book, The Mermaid Wakes, showcasing his work. Published in 1989, the book brought Caliste to much wider attention, and almost immediately his work was in greater demand. Art lovers from the US and Europe began ringing Rudin to commission Caliste to produce works similar to those in the book, and his paintings even found their way into the collections of George Bush senior and the Queen.
As he became more renowned, Caliste was visited by foreign journalists and began appearing habitually in magazine articles and travel literature. The Grenada tourist board latched on to him as a marketing vehicle for Carriacou, and he was exhibited at venues around the world, including the Research Institute in New York, the OAS Museum in Washington DC and the Pedro De Osma Museum in Lima, Peru.
His paintings – always signed “Mr Canute Caliste” – were so unusual that they rarely failed to elicit a reaction, positive or negative. “People used to walk into my gallery and their eyes would nearly always fall on his work,” said Rudin. “Then they’d either say they were the best things I had in the gallery or ask me how I could exhibit such junk.” None the less, Caliste’s work generally met with puzzlement in the West Indies, where the general reaction was: “My child could do that”.
In terms of quality, Caliste’s golden era was probably in the 1980s, when he also painted some large works on canvas. In his latter days, the quality declined as his sight faded, and although he could still produce good work into his 80s when he put his mind to it, he fell into the habit of reproducing versions of scenes he had done before, rather than painting something new.
Relative to the average income in Carriacou, Caliste made a lot of money from his art, but most of it went on supporting his 22 children (predominantly by two women) and around 100 grandchildren. Even before the death of his wife Vonice – and well into his 80s – he was fond of keeping much younger girlfriends, and would be happy to supply them with various material needs.
As a result, he still lived in the same humble house, with its outdoor oven, that he had built for himself as a young man. He often said it was providing for his children that was the motivating factor behind his prodigious work rate.
Caliste’s lifestyle barely changed; he rarely left Carriacou, apart from a couple of funded trips to the US or to attend an occasional official function in Grenada as a VIP, and he produced many of his documentary-style paintings – such as those on the Grenadian revolution of 1979 – from television images and his imagination.
A quietly spoken but open and friendly man, he was slim and energetic throughout his life, and generous to a fault. If a visitor happened to make a personal trip to his studio, they were likely to come away with an armful of paintings bought for well below their market value. Even Caliste’s more mundane works sold for around $300-$400 and his better ones could fetch in excess of $2,500. But in person, he would happily sell at $10 a time, often throwing a second in free.
In Grenada and Carriacou, Caliste was more widely respected as a fiddle player who specialised in playing music in the endangered quadrille dance style. He performed at weddings and boat launches well into old age, and even featured as the star turn on at least two CDs of Carriacou music marketed around the world. What he lacked in technique he made up for with his dedication to retaining the old culture of Carriacou, which is known for its especially strong African tradition. As a result, the islanders called him, reverentially, “Old Head”.
· Canute Caliste, artist, born April 16 1914; died November 20 2005