“My friends tell me that the Savannah is my office,” laughs Lisa O’Connor. She has been painting Savannah scenes for at least 30 years, constantly drawn to the heritage houses, the activity and the flora, especially the magnificent samaans and flambouyants. “Dry season, when the trees start to bloom...that’s my time.” She rhapsodises about the way the trees complement the old buildings, and the contrast of the light playing across her subjects. You’d expect her to feel insecure spending years of her life in a place where unsavoury elements lurk in shadowy corners, but she has very little fear for her safety. “The coconut vendors are my security guards.” Like cutlass-wielding guardian angels, they keep an eye on her. And why not? She’s become as much a part of the daily Savannah scene as they are. Only once has she ever had a frightening encounter, in which an unstable homeless man stomped up and knocked over her paints. “A driver came to see if I was okay,” she said. “Someone looked out for me.”
Born in Jamaica to a Jamaican father and a Trinidadian mother, O’ Connor moved to this country at age 11. She grew up in a sports-mad family; her sister, Debra O’Connor, is well known in the badminton scene; her father, Donald, was a champion table tennis player back in Jamaica. And though she doesn’t mind knocking a ball around, her real passion is only for her paints. “I feel like I HAVE to paint. I HAVE to capture the light.” But with four young children, sacrifices must be made. Her two-year-old daughter Monique’s earache spurs an impromptu visit to the doctor, and so her paints will sit idle for the morning, and the precious daylight fades. O’Connor’s gift made itself known from an early age. “My mother says, from when I was a little child, she noticed my painting was of a high standard. I remember being very creative, wanting to make things for myself. My father made me a doll-house and I made the stove, the frying pan, everything.” She thinks she sees a spark of that creative electricity in Monique, and while she’s happy to encourage it, there’s no pressure.
Best known for her outdoor scenes, she occasionally does portraits, mainly of her children, and those of her friends. “Now I include people in my paintings, especially if they’re part of the environment. But if they’re not there, I don’t put them. People ask, why don’t you put this person in? But if the man’s sitting all the way down on the bench, so I can’t see him....” She trails off with a shrug. She once tried her hand at ceramics, pottery and tiles, even teaching the subject briefly at Providence Girls’ High School, but it wasn’t for her. “I loved it, but it wasn’t feasible. It used to clash with my painting.” Now that her name is well established in the art world, she’s comfortable calling a realistic price for her paintings, and does think that modern Trinis are willing to pay well for good art, especially if they believe its value will increase with time. “The industry has grown. People appreciate art more and more. Once people know your work is collectible, they are willing to buy.”
Pointing out that Boscoe Holders and Hing Wans have proven themselves as investments, she thinks serious art collectors recognise value when they see it. As such, she has set aside some of her own works to bequeath to her children, knowing they can only increase in value.
While the prices being asked by the younger artists can’t match that of the more established ones, she’s sure that once they demonstrate their passion and devotion to their muse, their paintings, too, will garner attention and eventually rise in value. Now, O’Connor is looking forward to her next local show, due sometime in September. She’s also set her sights on expanding her reach abroad, hoping to eventually do a show in England. As she sits amongst the controlled chaos wreaked by her two youngest children, she acknowledges that motherhood does chip away at her painting time, but she wouldn’t want it any other way. “Family comes first. I live for my children. That’s what gives my life meaning and joy. You try and find the time to work, but your family is your investment; having them grow up knowing right from wrong. Those are the principles they will hold on to in life.” For her, the support of her husband and mother are invaluable, as is her faith in God. “God does answer prayers. But you need to grasp those opportunities. God doesn’t give you anything if you aren’t trying. You have to try first.”