Joanne Sibley: A Life of Art
Words by Natasha Were. Photography courtesy of the Cayman Islands National Gallery
Artist Joanne Sibley lives and breathes painting. It’s part of her genetic make up. Whatever she is doing, whether driving, walking or talking, part of her is always assessing the scene and composing pictures in her mind’s eye.
It’s the habit of a lifetime. No matter where she has been living – Canada, Jamaica or the Cayman Islands – art, drawing and painting have always been central to her life.
Even as a child in Winnipeg, Canada, Sibley was drawn to art, no doubt influenced by her father, Newton Brett, who was a skilled designer and artist.
“At home I would sit beside him drawing and painting while he worked at his easel,” she recalls. “He taught me many things but stressed drawing. Practice now, he would tell me, as you will never have the time you have now, later on.”
In the Cayman Islands, Sibley is perhaps best known for her charming watercolours which depict local scenes familiar to many, but that also capture the gentle rhythms of island life.
“I love painting seascapes and landscapes because for the most part they are painted on site and in Cayman that can be quite glorious,” she says. “The sun, the shade, the gentle breeze and the quiet… it’s a wonderful way to spend a delightful and often challenging morning.”
Painting outdoors is a multi-sensory experience, she explains, where everything – from birdsong or the sound of the sea to the warm air or a boat sailing past – influences the final painting. Ultimately, her hope is that the viewer enters the scene with her, not only seeing what is there, but feeling it as well. It is this ability to paint warmth, tranquillity and harmony that make her landscapes and seascapes so appealing to so many.
The shift to painting scenery and scenes of daily life coincided with her move to the Cayman Islands in 1980. Prior to that Sibley and her husband lived in Jamaica for 25 years but, she says, painting outdoors was hard to do there, as a crowd would always gather. In fact, in Jamaica, Sibley was better known for her portrait work. It is an aspect of her work that is not so well known in Cayman, perhaps because much of it resides in private collections, but she was honoured to be asked to paint George William Gordon, a national hero, as well as portraits of several prominent Jamaican businessmen.
She credits Barrington Watson, the Jamaican portrait artist, under whom she studied for several months, with helping her hone her technique and style. For Sibley, portraits are a very different and more demanding type of work; one that requires hours of planning before you even put pencil to paper, let alone brush to canvas.
“You are not only trying to achieve an attractive piece of work, but also a pose that is interesting and an excellent likeness of the subject,” she explains. “You are hoping to achieve the feeling that the person is about to speak to you, so that the image takes on a life of its own. Successful portraits are the most challenging work to achieve.”
Now aged 86 and an artist to the core, Joanne Sibley continues to draw, to paint, to accept commissions, but most of all to learn. She goes to drop in art groups and classes, where she experiments, studies, learns from other artists’ work and tries new ways of doing things. “The more knowledge I gain the more I realise, as Jaime Lee McMahan said, 'how deep the ocean is.'”
Art shown: Fishermen, watercolour, 2005; Harbour Drive, oil, 1995; Portrait of Joanne at five, by her father Newton Brett, oil, 1935; South Sound, oil, 1995; Contemplation, oil, 1964; Andrea and her three loves, oil, 1985; Dorothy Bush's Home, watercolour, 2005; Mountain Woman, oil, 2016.
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