Life in the West Indies, Illustrated Over 20 Years

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Woman Reading on Beach© David Coggins

David Coggins’ bright new book documents 20 years of trips to the idyllic island of St. Barts

In 1994 David Coggins packed his bags for a month-long trip to St. Barts. Fast forward 20 years, and the journey has become a tradition, an annual ritual that takes place every March. In Coggins’ latest book Blue: A St. Barts Memoir, the artist and writer pays tribute to the times spent with his family on the West Indies island through a series of moving anecdotes and delightful watercolour paintings.

Blue is my second illustrated memoir,” Coggins tells AnOther. “The first, published in 2015, was Paris in Winter. I have always kept notes and made drawings while travelling. Eventually, as I got older, I decided to shape and refine this material and put it into books. The Paris book was successful, so Blue seemed an obvious second act.” In similar style to his Paris paintings, Blue sees Coggins conjure up his experiences of the St. Barts sea, the landscape and the people he has met over the years through colourful sketches of idyllic veranda views, giant iguanas and crowded beaches.

The book opens with a painted view of the island from a plane window, the turquoise water punctuated by boats and plots of green land. Coggins recalls his first touchdown in the local airport, before reciting stories of mornings spent swimming in the pool, conversations had at the lunch table and evening strolls along the harbour. “The illustrations relate to the book’s stories and vignettes sometimes in a direct way, sometimes indirect,” he says. “The overall goal of the drawings was to describe visually both the fact and the feel, the atmosphere of the island, its pleasures, its culture. The drawings complement the text but shed a different kind of light, offer a different kind of understanding.” Whether they’re dragon fruit still lifes or depictions of the St. Barts Carnival, his illustrations function as colourful interruptions to the text, lending poignancy and sentimentality to the nostalgic narrative. 

“I studied literature and took studio art classes in college and later at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design,” Coggins says of his schooling years. “I started as a writer – I wrote a novel while living in Holland in my early twenties. In my thirties I took up painting full time.” Blue is a product of his far-ranging expertise; over the years, the author and artist has delved into various practices including painting, drawing, collage, printmaking, photography, set design and book-making. Coggins seamlessly weaves his captivating mini-masterpieces into the text and, in so doing, skilfully harmonises both modes of storytelling.

In Blue, Coggins describes St. Barts as “edenic” with the “sea and clouds framed by rocky hills and a spread of lush green trees”. His confident brushstrokes and assertive colour choices reveal a desire to depict a form of paradise in his drawings, too. “I tried to capture over the years the charm and beauty of the Caribbean world, our place in it and affection for it,” he says. The sketches, with their instinctive, visceral quality, are clearly crafted from the heart; his vibrant palette pumping life into his affectionate words. The memoir is, in this sense, a visual testament to Coggins’ love for the small West Indies island.

Blue: A St. Barts Memoir, by David Coggins, is out now, published by Powerhouse Books.