A furniture store and photographic studio make the perfect housemates for Avril Ward’s gallery, an exciting hybrid space that demonstrates how artworks can enhance every home.

Avril Ward in her gallery. Photos by Stephen Clarke

Halfway through my tour of the Awardart Gallery, owner and multi-media artist Avril Ward does something highly surprising: she reaches out and touches a painting.

‘Kintsugi’ – private commission by Avril Ward.

There are accepted codes of behavior in art galleries, namely speaking in hushed, respectful tones (or not speaking at all), nodding thoughtfully and certainly keeping your hands to yourself. But Avril wants to do things differently.

“Galleries can be very formal and intimidating, so we’re trying to create something much warmer and more user-friendly,” she explains. “People think they’re going to say the wrong thing about art, but there’s no right or wrong; it’s completely subjective. It’s really okay to look at a piece and say, ‘I like it, but I don’t know why.’ After all, art speaks where words fail.”

Opening in Caymanian Village in late 2017, Awardart is located under the same roof as two other creative businesses: Absolutely Fabulous, which sells high-end furniture and accessories, and Deep Blue Images, Julie Corsetti’s photographic showroom. Avril describes it as a “destination collection of stores to browse and enjoy.”

Displaying paintings and sculptures by an assortment of local artists among furnishings selected from Ab Fab’s range, the effect is a marked departure from the typical “white cube” gallery space.

Curating a space

When the shop adjacent to Ab Fab became available last year, Avril leapt at the opportunity to collaborate: “I thought it was an absolutely brilliant idea, a no-brainer. There is a nice synergy between the artwork and the furniture, and the client base is the same because you’ve got people looking to enhance their home. It works really symbiotically.”

As well as being a commercial gallery, Awardart offers art consultancy and curatorial services. Her first step is to have a one-to-one discussion to get a sense of the client’s personality and tastes. Some clients are searching for a single piece, others to build a collection and decorate a whole home. While admittedly the art “usually comes secondary, because most people already have their basic furniture in place before they accessorize,” she advocates the alternative of taking a beloved artwork as a starting point for an interior design scheme.

Choosing where to hang artwork is also key, taking into consideration its format, color and visual impact. Apparently regular visitors to the gallery sometimes remark that a piece is new when in fact it has only been rehung in a different spot.

Avril Ward, ‘Melt’ “I love green – it’s my favorite color – and I love roses, so I just started playing around. Underneath the paint I used a lot of oil pastels, and then turpentine for all the vertical drips you can see. The media pretty much dictated how this turned out,” says Avril. “That’s one thing I’ve learned: to take chances and stop controlling things intellectually, letting it flow more from your spirit and emotions.”

Local talents

Scott Swing, ‘Taking Flight’ With touches of shimmering paint and unfurling, twisting metal “wings,” this torso has real presence. “It would be a gorgeous courtyard piece or entrance to a home,” Avril says. Scott is also an accomplished photographer, capturing Cayman’s sporting and fashion events.

The gallery arose from what Avril perceives as a need on island to find “proper representation for artists – not just an art shop where there’s a whole lot of work, but a space where artwork is carefully curated and represented knowing the artists personally.”

Her aim is to show the world that Caymanian art and artists have far more to offer than simply depicting beautiful ocean and palm trees; as such, her target markets are residents and discerning international buyers rather than tourists. “I do have a very specific feel I want for the gallery – contemporary, interesting, discussable and emotive. This does tend to make a lot of the work I have abstract.” The bottom line: “I have to believe in the art and the artist.”

Artists currently represented include Nasaria Suckoo Cholette, Randy Cholette, Renate Seffer, Yonier Powery (who was the subject of Awardart’s first solo show in April), Horacio Esteban, Sue Howe, Al Ebanks, Maureen Lazarus, and Scott Swing, The majority are Cayman-based, along with one or two overseas artists she has discovered though social media or at art fairs in the U.S., which she attends twice a year.

Avril’s own artworks are also scattered around the gallery, a wide portfolio that ranges from figurative bronzes to abstract oil paintings, all created in her Bodden Town studio. “I’ve always worked in different media. I choose the medium depending on the image I have in my brain; some lend themselves to oil paint, others to bronze or encaustic.”

Horatio Esteban, ‘Where Pigs Fly’ Horacio makes unique, playful sculptures out of reclaimed wood and other local natural materials, such as Caymanite. “This was 200-year-old cedar wood from his property,” says Avril. “It’s fun, it’s great, it’s comical. I love the way he leaves the natural texture and embraces the forms he sees in it.”

Less unfamiliar to many gallery goers, encaustic is an ancient technique of painting with heated beeswax and resin. A heat gun is used to fuse the pigmented wax and oil into the canvas, after which point other materials and marks can be imbedded into it. It dries with a consistency like a hard candle.

“I first saw it 16 years ago and was fascinated with the translucency of it. It’s so versatile – this one here is really thick and painterly, then this one is thin and smooth. You can carve into it or buff it.” She taught herself what she could from YouTube tutorials, experimenting on a small scale by painting onto ceramic tiles – some of which are on display in the gallery now – before taking a course in America.

Renate Seffer, ‘The Onlookers’ Australian-born Renate settled in Cayman 20 years ago. Acclaimed for her contemporary take on island scenes, everything from Seven Mile sunbathers to bus stop queues and cyclists have been given her signature bold, joyful treatment. “I love how spontaneous and painterly and vibrant her pieces are,” says Avril.

Therein lies another advantage of the gallery-retail collaboration: it frees up her time to continue painting. “I don’t have to be here 24/7, there’s always someone minding the space. So, although the place is open six days a week, I’m not tied down.” She contrasts this to the small solo gallery she ran back in her native South Africa nearly 20 years ago, when she quickly sold out of her own works but had no spare time to paint more.

The art of commissions

Yonier Powery, ‘Life Flow’ This Cuban-Caymanian artist’s talents span painting, engraving, drawing, sculpture and ceramics. His early interest in art was sparked while playing with discarded fragments of clay at the factory where his mother worked. While some of his canvases depict scenes of Cayman’s traditional seafaring culture, others, like this example, explore abstract expressionism.

Like many of the artists represented at Awardart, Avril produces works of art on commission. “People can be surprised it’s not hugely expensive,” she adds, noting that commissions are charged at the same rate as ready-made artworks. “It’s really a myth that art has to be unaffordable.”

“I start by finding out what sort of pieces they normally like, looking through some examples in the gallery, because it’s so subjective. Generally, I like to see the space the art is going into, too,” she explains. “I love going to people’s homes and meeting them, and then making something really personal to them.”

One recent commission, “Kintsugi,” was named after and inspired by an ancient Japanese art form, in which broken pottery is repaired with gold, silver or platinum lacquer. The practice (which translates as “golden joinery”) creates something precious out of breakage and celebrates the repair as part of the object’s history. As such, it chimes with the wider Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, a belief in the beauty of imperfection.

Briefed to create an artwork to celebrate the union of a new family, Avril realized that kintsugi offered an apt metaphor. She decided to depict a turquoise vessel in collaged paper and oil paint on canvas, the names of the client, her partner and step-children subtly incorporated into the surface. And so, this single image elegantly tells a complicated, personal story; another example, as Avril puts it, of how “art speaks where words fail.”

Al Ebanks, ‘In Crowd’ Born and raised in George Town, Al’s work is featured in the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, Heroes Square and The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, as well as collections in Miami, Chicago and beyond. Preferring an abstract style, his pieces are often on a large scale, with some canvases measuring 15-feet long. “His art is consistently of a high standard,” says Avril. “I never see him produce a work I don’t like. He paints from his own studio in George Town and occasionally exhibits there as well.”

Avril Ward’s beginner’s guide to collecting art

Buy what you love, makes your heart leap and moves you emotionally.

Don’t be afraid to speak to artists. Many are very accommodating, so if they see you love a piece but are worried about the price, they might help you out with a discount or payment plan. We just want people to love our work.

Pay attention to scale and space. It’s very important to find the right format. Art needs to have space to breathe, and to be displayed somewhere conducive to showing the works properly.

No need to be matchy-matchy. There’s a saying that you must never buy art that matches with your sofa. Art is often your best opportunity to break free from the confines of color palettes in the home, so don’t get stuck thinking you can only choose shades that are already in the rest of the space.

Art doesn’t have to be on your wall. Sculptures can be wonderful displayed in the patio or garden, especially larger pieces that need space.