Oh, What A Knight!
For many Saint Lucians, holding the Saint Lucia flag high is the best expression of national pride. In all walks of life, the flag stands out prominently and serves to inspire Saint Lucians about their nation’s aspirations, achievements and artistry. In fact, the man who designed the flag some decades ago believes it’s actually the best flag in the world.
Acclaimed painter, Sir Dunstan St. Omer, has spent most of his life painting some of the most captivating scenes, many of which reflect various aspects of Saint Lucian life. After a sterling career that saw him teaching art from 1971 to 2002 and increasing the national consciousness through his church murals, he was conferred with a knighthood in April 2010.
Having interviewed him at the time he received his knighthood in 2010, I wanted to delve deeper into the life of the man most Saint Lucians know as painter and flag designer. The following is an extract from an interview I conducted with the 87-year-old icon at his home on Sunday, February 8 this year in anticipation of Saint Lucia’s 36th anniversary of Independence.
Before we get into the interview, here are some quick facts on Sir Dunstan.
• Born and raised in Castries, near the Columbus Square (now Derek Walcott Square)
• Entered a national competition that offered $100 for the person who came up with the best flag design
• At the time of the competition, Sir Dunstan was in his late 30s
• The flag was designed for Saint Lucia’s attaining Statehood in 1967
• Taught art for about 30 years before retiring
• Served as sub-editor and later editor of The Voice Publishing Company Ltd.
• Got a one-year scholarship to Puerto Rico in the 1950s
• On being named a Saint Lucian icon: “It’s only now that I can appreciate the fact that people decided to promote me as an icon. But the benefit of being an icon, I think, was afforded to me in the past six to eight months when I got sick and had to go to hospital. The kind of treatment I got and still get has been great. If it were not so, maybe I wouldn’t have been here today.”
• Joke about being black and getting the knighthood: “I’m not dark (as night), eh. I may be black, but not dark.”
• Prior to receiving the knighthood, he was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), and he received the Papal Medal for his murals in churches around Saint Lucia and an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of the West Indies (2009).
• Was designated a Saint Lucian icon in 2010
• Is the father of the artistic genre known as “Prismism”
• Has nine children – five daughters, four sons
Question: How did you end up being the designer of the Saint Lucian flag?
Answer: There were two motivations for me deciding to design the flag. The first motivation was that naturally anybody would want to be the one to design the flag for his country. Number two, there was a little money involved, so I said, ‘Why not?’ Fortunately, I’m a painter. So when you do something, you want it to communicate (a message). So by having the opportunity to design the flag, I wanted to make my own little contribution by telling the people what I would want for Saint Lucia. And so I put various elements that I had in mind to make it what it is. Today it is considered one of the best flags in the world. It’s beautiful. I know that many people who make the flag do not use the right colours and proportions to do so. But if they used the right colours and proportions, it’s an absolutely beautiful flag.
Question: When are you proudest of the flag?
Answer: I feel proudest of the flag whenever I see it in an international forum. Saint Lucia is like a dot on the map of the world. In the last Greek Olympics, it led the whole procession as the number one flag. That made me feel good.
Question: What prompted you to get into painting?
Answer: My grandfather on my father’s side was a violinist. So the artistic gene must be in our blood. Now look at Giovanni son and his costumes and all the things the boys are doing. You know what I mean. It’s in the blood.
Question: Why painting?
Answer: I took up painting because it was the only thing I could do by myself. I’ve always had it in me ever since I was at school. No matter what school I went to I loved painting because it has always put me in an imperial position that I had to be subject to the teacher. It was all part of growing up and I moved from water colours to murals and so on.
Question: Who were your childhood influences?
Answer: Harry (Harold Simmons) was one of the fellas that influenced Derek and I more than anyone else we knew at the time. Harry was a person that was so different in his time. Harry was a brilliant little man: he was archaeologist, historian and everything else you could think of. All of his work seemed to centre on Saint Lucia. Because of him, we got to look at Saint Lucia with different eyes. Before then we saw everything as being European but he told us to paint what we saw. And that’s what he did as well all his life.
Question: Poet and contemporary, Derek Walcott, has quoted you in his work. What’s the relationship between the two of you been like?
Answer: Derek and I were at St. Mary’s College together and were both certain about the direction in which we were going. I took the lazier path which was what I was gifted with and Derek took his way which is to me a more difficult way. But we both has one thing in common and that was we could never tolerate the idea of people looking about Black people as being inferior. We were not. We were born at the time of colonialism and grew up during the colonial period. At that period in my life when I looked around and saw people around me getting independence, I would ask about when we’d be getting ours.
Question: What inspired you to come up with that design for the flag?
Answer: Even before the competition, the design of the flag was in my mind already. Not that I had thought that I would be designing a flag. But I was already thinking about what I would want for it. In fact, I submitted two flags. It was the time of Black awareness, so I had a green flag with a black eagle on it. That was too radical for them. Some of my best friends told me that was too much, even though they became as radical as I was afterwards. So the authorities chose to go with the milder flag. With things like these, you cannot simply say that you achieved them; it’s just things that happen to you.
Question: Any high points early in your career?
Answer: When we went to the first CARIFESTA in Guyana (Derek’s twin brother) in 1972, Saint Lucia staged two musicals there – one by Derek and the other by Roddy. I was working at the Ministry of Education at the time and I was invited to be part of that.
Question: What are artists like?
Answer: Artists are people who like to think that there’s nothing they cannot do. Just give us a challenge and we’ll do it. And so we never say no.
Question: Do you think Saint Lucians have a true appreciation for the arts?
Answer: It’s a difficult question to answer. If you grew up among artists who were older than you and in the business for quite a while, then you shouldn’t be complaining that government is not helping you. That’s one way of looking at it. But you’ll always find that among the ordinary people it’s as if there’s a kind of art aristocracy, a kind of appreciation. It’s amazing. The people love the arts. I guess it’s because they don’t have the money to spend that they wouldn’t go spending the little they have on paintings. The thing about it is that you cannot go around selling paintings for $25 and expect to survive, although I did it for a long time selling paintings for $10. When I got my first $10 from a painting, I was happy. In those days, that supported me for more than a day.
Question: How has family life been for you over the span of your career?
Answer: There are too many things that I’ve done that I would have wished I’d done. However, I think did do them in the course of living and making a living and keeping my pot boiling. I’m keeping my head high because the only people I’ve ever worked for would be the government. I’ve never had to go hat in hand asking anyone for a job. I’m still like that – I’m independent like hell. Right now, I’m even more independent. That’s one thing we have and the children appreciate even more. They’re now seeing and experiencing things that I wouldn’t have. All I know is that I was dreaming about the things that I needed to do and they were being done and turned out to be very good. So I had a good life and did the things I wanted to do. My wife would tell you I’m a damn ass because it all seemed too impractical at times: I never looked for money or wealth; I always looked at keeping the pot boiling. As long as the pot was boiling, I could do my work. I can stay in my little corner and think my thoughts, paint my pictures and think of whom I’m going to sell them to and so forth.
Question: Being a painter must have been challenging. What kept you motivated all these years?
Answer: In life, we have to make certain choices – live or die. And if you’re selfish, your sail will get burst. In order to survive, you have to have a generous purpose, somehow. For fellas like Derek and I when we were much younger, we were so fortunate that we had all the materials to work with in the direction we were going. We were emerging from colonialism and we had a nation to realize, so all the materials were in that situation. So we didn’t have to look for ideas because they were all there. But we got through that part very well and, fortunately, we had Harry there to tell us to look at ourselves and not Europe. So he really started the ball rolling. He was the one who started to paint our canoes and our women in their madras. I had never seen Black people in paintings before. I was also able to merge my patriotism with my religion.
Question: Derek Walcott was able to gain international fame by leaving Saint Lucia and working overseas. However, you remained in Saint Lucia and were able to achieve fame nonetheless. Any regrets?
No. The thing about it is that had Derek stayed in Saint Lucia, he would have been headmaster at the Teachers’ College. I wonder if he’d be getting a pension. He was able to achieve what he now has because he had to go to a bigger country, a bigger world and he had to have a bigger landscape. There you have great minds and when they can recognize you, you’re one of them. At one time, Derek was one of the most-recognized and appreciated people in the world.
Question: What was your response on being told you had been considered for a knighthood?
Answer: You get the news that you have been accepted as a knight, you know, a real knight. All of my dreams about it had been about the knights at the round table. So I asked myself, ‘How could St. Omer be a member among the knights at the round table?’ But it means that you’re one of the Queen’s closest friends. When I was a kid, we used to see in magazines that came from England admirals, generals and these kinds of people got knighthoods. When I got the knighthood, I said I was the poorest knight in the world. I mean, you might have some things as childhood dreams but there are certain things you never expect to happen. We never thought that Derek would get a Nobel Prize until he began to move towards it. So, yeah, I’m a knight. That is what I wanted all my life. The life you’re seeing me live on a wheelchair now is a bonus. Before I had been struck down by a series of illnesses and so forth, at the back of my mind I knew I was invincible. I put no date for that to be announced. So you can curse or criticize me as you feel like, you’re only showing how ignorant you are. I’ve seen people try hard to gain certain honours or positions in their communities. I’ve always said that the easiest way to do it is by doing something for your community. You’ll be promoted not by yourself but by the people in the community. Although they say you shouldn’t blow your own trumpet, Derek will tell you that he’s never found a fella that does it better than me.
Question: What does the knighthood mean to you?
Answer: I don’t want to mention any politician’s name or anything but the only fella I’m very appreciative of is Stephenson King. I belong to no political party; he knows that and all the others know that. But that didn’t prevent him from singlehandedly – against his own committee — defending his suggestion that I got a knighthood. Everyone said ‘No’ but he singlehandedly worked it out. So I’m grateful to him, Her Majesty, the Saint Lucian people for their appreciation. In fact, when I got it, I said it was not for me but for my country and people. I didn’t have to go gallivanting all over the world. From the time I was a little boy, I used to dream of going to the States and be an artist because I always knew that Saint Lucia couldn’t support an artist. But why did I stay here instead, I do not know. I guess it’s just part of my complex of wanting to do what’s best. It’s such a beautiful and complicated situation.
Question: What’s life like for Sir Dunstan St. Omer? What’s your philosophy on life?
Answer: I base my life on two principles. The first one is that if you have to live a good life, you have to find the right road. I found the right road in christianity because if you do good, then why should you be afraid? If good is not a greater power, forget it. The other side of me is that I’m a black man and the whole world is open to me to make a name not just for myself but for my people. No man can really be great by himself; he has to be part of his people.
Question: What would you have wanted to do now that you wished you had?
Answer: Writing a biography would be impossible (to do) right now because my memory is really shaky. But what I’m talking about is my feelings.
Question: Obviously, achieving all that you have wouldn’t have been possible without a supportive family, especially your often-spoken-about wife, Lady Cynthia. What impact has she had on you?
Answer: She’s God’s gift to me. She knows it but she prefers to hear me say it. But when a thing is too good, don’t pound it too much. You must know the right time to say it so that it takes effect. In human relationships, you must have sincerity. You might know me in certain respects that she does not know me. As she keeps saying, ‘How is it that we remained married for 62 years?’ She can’t understand how that can happen. How could you do it? In fact, as a result of that, I believe in everything because it’s easy to do that now. All my life I wanted to analyze things so as to believe in them. But it suddenly struck me while I was on my hospital bed where I was totally incoherent for months and hallucinating. Then I just saw the whole world in a kind of perspective and I left there saying, ‘At this point, I have seen everything that had to be seen and as a consequence I believe in nothing and believe in everything.’
Question: Do you still paint?
Answer: Not these days. I got a stroke while I was sick and now I can’t even write my name properly.
Question: Are you proud of where we’re at today as a nation?
Answer: I cannot tell you what I really feel about Saint Lucia right now. I’ve been on my back for over six months now. The farthest I can see is my watch (on my hand). I used to be very hungry and thirsty about knowing what was going on in the world because I’ve always seen Saint Lucia in a world perspective – never as a little island. It all depends on the mind you put in the constructive of things. I’ve always felt that Saint Lucia could have been like a Hong Kong but it needs imagination to do that. It was possible, but we missed it. I don’t regret that we missed it because maybe that’s how we’re most comfortable. But we can’t go down. This is a blessed country.
Question: What would you want to tell Saint Lucians this Independence Day?
Answer: I would say something that I would normally not have said before. We have problems, much of it because of our smallness and whole history and so forth. But that does not mean that we’re small. A person of a country is as big as its people. We are the only people in the world with two Nobel Prize-winners for a nation with about 170,000 people. That’s history forever. So I know they will make it; they just have to have that ability to make it. No matter what they do, they will make it. Do not be afraid. Just hold tight and continue as you are being very artistic, creative. Sometimes I want to say I love them but I love mostly the women, of course. But I have great hope for them. I can only see the future positive for them.
Question: Any final comments?
Answer: We must believe in our hearts that we are the greatest. That’s the only way we can move effortlessly.