Internationally acclaimed artist Bendel Hydes may have grown up in the ‘islands time forgot’ but even as a child his thoughts and aspirations went beyond Cayman.
At the age of six, he spent a year living with relatives in New Orleans.
“While I was there,” he says of the formative experience, “I was introduced to my first everything: first French fries, first statues, first parks, first carnival, first milkshake.”
It was a journey that opened his eyes to a big, wide world beyond the island’s shores and to all that he was missing in Cayman.
When he was 12, Bendel joined his father, who was a seafarer, on a voyage to Cozumel in Mexico.
“I will never forget going ashore and seeing these beautiful palm trees, these villas in between. It was fantastic,” he recalls.
After experiencing the beauty of Cozumel, Bendel knew there was more to the world than just the islands on which he had grown up. As soon as he was able, he travelled abroad to study, first to England, then to the United States, before settling permanently in New York in 1982.
Concrete jungles may not seem conducive to artistic inspiration and creativity, but for Bendel, life in the Big Apple is all about the culture on offer.
“I revere nature tremendously,” he says. “[But] New York was the centre of the art world. Nowhere is like New York in terms of art and culture. It’s just profound. The first five years you are in New York you spend it trying to build a wall around yourself from the onslaught of culture.”
Even after 30 years residing in Manhattan, Bendel has not lost his love for Cayman. His paintings still capture the beauty and magic of the islands.
Bendel’s latest collection, Circumnavigating the Globe, the opening exhibition at the new National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, takes an imaginary tour around the world in 12 large, abstract canvasses, but is inspired by his own childhood and the Caymanian seafaring tradition.
“I was always impressed by Caymanian men travelling around the globe to these distant ports,” he says of the seafaring generations. “The idea for this series was gestating in my mind for around 10 years.”
The first painting in the series, Tortuga, occupies the meridians of both New York and Cayman.
“I sort of came back here to start this journey,” he says. “I wasn’t sure where I was going with this. Like any long journey I began with an open mind.
“Painting is very much about the process itself, the fluidity of the process. It’s not about having pre-conceived ideas and getting that out. You have to use certain parameters and a certain methodology but … it should be very open ended.”
Growing up, Bendel was as determined to paint as he was to experience the world. He describes his childhood as a struggle, in part because opportunities for pursuing and developing his artistic skills were limited in Cayman.
In high school, where the teachers were volunteers sent from the UK by Voluntary Services Overseas, he recalls there were art classes in the first year, but then none again until the final year.
Fortunately, when Bendel was 14 he heard of an American man who had arrived on the island who was rumoured to be an artist.
Bendel enlisted the help of an older family member to drive him to Bodden Town, where he soon found the man he was looking for. He wasted no time in asking the American to give him art classes. That man, Ed Oliver, went on to become a mentor and teacher to Bendel and to many other talented Caymanian artists.
Although his family recognised his talent, Bendel says they did not always appreciate it; they did not share his love or understanding of art.
“They wanted to see me represent pictures like a photograph,” he recalls. “They thought that’s what art was.”
Over the course of his career as an artist, Bendel’s style on the canvas has evolved, which he says is essential to an artist’s survival.
“In the real art world your purpose is to contribute to the language of art itself,” he explains. “Any serious professional artist is going to develop some kind of language. If you can’t develop your own personality in a creative field then you become stuck with repeating the past.”
Does one need to speak his language in order to appreciate his art? Not necessarily, Bendel says.
“What I would like people to have is an open mind – the willingness to be moved in a different direction.”
And being moved is the key, Bendel believes, to good art. It’s not a question of technique, style or concept in his opinion, so much as whether it allows you to think and feel more freely.
“If it’s something that moves you emotionally, something that makes you think, that to me is good art.”