A Conversation With Maxwell Taylor: Bahamian Artist Occupies UT Art Studio This Week

By Claire Farrow

This week, down the winding halls of the R. K. Bailey Art Studio, in STUDIO-F, Maxwell Taylor can be found working on a unique woodcut print in collaboration with UT Master Printer Carl Cowden.

Taylor, in his native country, is considered the “first artist of the Bahamas,” and his work has been exhibited around the world– the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, the International Printmaking Exhibit in 1971 in Santiago, Chile and in 1977 in “Bahamian Art Today” at Bahamian artist Brent Malone’s Matinee Gallery. His work is also part of several private collections owned by various people, including the late Nat King Cole and Sir Harold Christie.

While Taylor was growing up in Nassau, Bahamas, most trained artists in the Bahamas were non-native Bahamians now residing in the country. This was because “no one, not even the government placed much emphasis on [the arts].” Art galleries didn’t formally exist.

“Any of the art galleries you found were probably selling things like greeting cards or Christmas cards,” Taylor said. “And most of the artwork that was exhibited at that time were seascapes or landscapes. There were very few portraits.”

However, despite the lack of a formal artistic atmosphere, Taylor and other artists emerged. The lack of art galleries prompted Taylor and his contemporaries Kendall Hanna and the late Brent Malone to venture into the local bookstore and buy books about European art. It was at this time Taylor was introduced to the work of the Dutch artist Rembrandt.

“I still have the book that I bought about Rembrandt,” Taylor said. “I’ve always liked Rembrandt. I always liked his paintings and his etchings.” Through these books, Taylor was exposed to a wide and rich world of art that captured his artistic interests.

At the time there was only one art teacher in the entire Bahamas, a man by the name of Horace Wright, who “had the responsibility of going from one school to the next school to teach drawing.” While drawing lessons may have helped in Taylor’s introduction to creating art, inspiration hadn’t hit yet. Soon after this introduction, Taylor, along with other young Bahamian artists of the ‘50s, attended Don Russell’s Academy of Fine Arts and learned about drawing and other mediums. However, it was David Ronsley and Chelsea Pottery that “…[were] instrumental in helping a lot of young artists in the Bahamas.”

In 1959, Taylor began an apprenticeship at the academy, and he stayed until it closed in 1966, after which most students went their separate ways. Taylor remained in the Bahamas for a few years before moving to New York, where he studied at The Art Students League from 1968 to 1972. He remained in New York for several years, and later studied silk screening at The Pratt Graphic center in 1972 and printmaking at Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop from 1969 to 1977.

While he has learned and studied many different art forms, Taylor’s greatest passion has always been woodcuts.

“I was taken aback by woodcuts when I saw the work of [Ernst Ludwig] Kirchner,” Taylor said, “one of the German Expressionists and Emil Nolde, who was a fantastic printmaker. I didn’t know anything about woodcuts until I went to The Arts Students League… at that time, not many students were [learning about woodcuts] but I had a very good teacher. So I concentrated on woodcuts… Living in New York, I had a closet in the apartment where I would do all the work on my woodcuts. Somedays I would work six days a week, but every chance I got I was working on woodcuts. And in a sense that’s how I got to perfect the technique of it.” 

During his time at The Arts Students League, Taylor has the opportunity to work with and in proximity to a wide variety of artists, many of whom African-American, who would later become innovative and trailblazing artists in their own right.

“I also studied with a lot of African American artists,” Taylor said, “like Richard Mayhew, Alvin Hollingsworth, Hughie Lee-Smith, and Hale Woodruff… And I didn’t know what kind of giants they were until after I left The Arts Students League, because you didn’t hear too much about African-American artists during that time period, there weren’t a lot of books on African-American artists and so forth.”

Taylor’s art mainly reflects social realism, which he says can be equally fascinating to and repulsive to audiences. It makes some uncomfortable to view. For him, there is nothing uncomfortable. This subject is beautiful and authentic. Social realism is an international art movement. The works created by painters, printmakers, photographers, and filmmakers draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working class and the poor, and are critical of the social structures that maintain such conditions

“When you look at art now it’s changed considerably, but for individuals to understand social realism, a lot of people don’t like it. And when I say that a lot of people don’t like it, you do have a lot of people who do like it, but you find more people who would prefer buying something more pleasant, though I don’t think my work is unpleasant at all. It’s moving and emotional, that’s the way I look at it, but that doesn’t really stop me from doing social realism.”

In his art, Taylor mainly portrays women.

“I think that my mother went through a lot, and not only that, but women throughout the whole world have and are still going through a lot because the system still consists of male dominant individuals. And I think even if a woman were to have a position in the United States or many other parts of the world, [they] have a lot of pressure on them to do better and [my work] is sort of based on those things that happen all around the world, not just in the United States, but also in Africa, South America, and all those other places.”

Students will have the chance to meet Taylor and view the completed monoprints on Friday Feb. 26 at 6:00pm in the Scarfone/Hartley Gallery in the R. K. Bailey Art Studio.

Claire Farrow can be reached at claire.farrow@theminaretonline.com.

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