Lloyd “Dove” Braffith–The Crucian Painter

Dove—A Crucian Painter

Dove’s “Overview of Frederiksted” Private Collection of Wayne James

[Written by St. Croix-born historian Wayne James in 2002, this article was published in the St. Croix Avis in 2002; included in the Dove Exhibition catalog in conjunction with the 2003 St. Croix Foundation-sponsored Dove Retrospective; and re-printed in 2012 in the St. Croix Avis in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Dove’s death. The article is re-published herein in recognition of the 82nd anniversary of his birth and the upcoming 20th anniversary of his death. In the 2012 St. Croix Landmarks Society Auction, Dove’s painting, “Under the Christmas Lights,” { Lot No. 136; 48″ X 36″} sold for $17,000.]

At Dove’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on the morning of Friday, November 15, 2002, there were, surprisingly, only about 100 mourners. The local intelligentsia were in absentia, the politicians were not present, and the media were missing. His east end clients did not venture west for the service.  Some people said that the four-day interval between the death and the funeral (as opposed to the now-customary seven or eight) was insufficient time for them to prepare.  Others said that they simply had not heard of the painter’s death until after the funeral.  Who were there, however, were his family members, representatives of some of Frederiksted’s oldest families—Brady, Harrison, Belardo, Lucas, Messer, McIntosh, Christian, Henderson, Joseph, Petersen, Milligan, James, Thomas, Prince, Thompson, Wilson—and a handful of artist-friends. Street-artist A. J. Simmonds, cousin to renowned local painter El’Roy Simmonds, was there in a fuchsia shirt in tribute to Dove’s penchant for bold tones. Neo-Impressionist painter Leo Carty, whose canvases are coveted by some of the island’s most discriminating collectors, was there. Photographer-Historian Robert Vaughn was there. Crucian poet Richard Schraeder, Sr., who just two months later would celebrate Dove’s genius in his poem commissioned for the Turnbull-Richards inauguration, was there.  Longtime Dove admirers Angeline Henry and Sybil Francis Joshua made their way down from Christiansted for the service.  Educator Audrey Clendinen Abbot was there. Mary Abbot, who has collected several Doves over the years, said it was her honor to be there.

In his coffin Dove looked ten years younger than he had during his final days on the corner of Company and Market Streets in Christiansted—he looked satisfied and at peace.  Placed with him were some of his prized possessions:  a few half-empty tubes of acrylic paint; his palette, dabbed with seemingly countless hues of the Caribbean; and in his pigment-stained right hand, with its long, tapered fingers, he held three sable brushes.  Dove was the consummate artist to the very end.

In the Virgin Island during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and its aftermath, Black people, regardless of their God-given talents and gifts, were, for the most part, relegated to a life of hard labor in sugarcane fields.  Consequently, people who—had they been permitted to fully participate in society—might have written great works of literature, contributed to cures of mankind’s most debilitating diseases, set and broken athletic records, and delivered spiritually uplifting sermons, for example, went to their graves unfulfilled. But while slave societies did not offer many opportunities for Black people in general, they did provide some alternative outlets for the artistically inclined enslaved population through the practical and performing arts. Creative personalities who under normal circumstances might have developed into fine-art sculptors and painters and poets, for example, were placed in or instinctively gravitated towards the only arts that were available to them—arts such as cooking, sewing, cabinet-making, jewelry-making, and folk music. It is in this historical context and its legacy, then, that Dove’s genius as the first Crucian painter must be understood and celebrated. 

Lloyd “Dove” Braffith’s “Quadrille Dance at Cumberland Castle” Private Collection of Wayne James.

Baptized Lloyd Alphonso Braffith [believed to be a corruption of Brathwaite], Dove was born on February 26, 1940, in “Bailey Yard,” located on Prince Street in Frederiksted, between the Catholic convent and the old Danish Grammar School.  Artistic talent expressed through folk music was in his bloodline. His mother’s father, Charles Harris, was a tinsmith but also an expert scratchband flautist on the side.  His maternal uncle, Willie Harris, was a master flautist, and Ira Samuel and David Heyliger, Dove’s brothers, are locally renown musicians. As for Dove, he sang calypso with the Vibratones, a local band during his early twenties.

But Dove had exhibited an interest in painting from his school days. At St. Patrick’s School, where he studied until the sixth grade; then at the Frederiksted Junior High, located in what is today the Athalie McFarlane Petersen Library; and, finally, during his two-and-one-half years of high school at the Christiansted High School, Dove’s talent as a painter was evident.

“When Dove was at C.H.S., I used to work in the office,” said his brother, Ira Samuel.  “I remember one day when his teacher, Phillip Gerard, came into the office, all excited, with a sheet of paper in his hand.  ‘Miss Christian, Miss Christian,’ he said, speaking to Mrs. Elena Christian, ‘Look at this drawing!’ Mrs. Christian took one look at the pencil-drawing and said:  ‘That’s John David Brady!’

Dove’s “Victoria House” Private Collection of Wayne James.

“My brother Dove never took art lessons,” continued Samuel, “but he could draw anybody, and you would recognize the person whom he had drawn. He had a gift. He never studied art. That day, I told Mrs. Christian:  ‘That’s my brother!’ I was so proud of him that day.”

“I could draw and paint from a small boy in school,” Dove said, in his deliberate, almost-reticent manner. “My teachers, from the nuns at St. Patrick’s to the teachers in public school, always used to talk about my talent. Then one day, when I was on my way back home from Christiansted High School, I stopped off at Schade’s Drug Store—the old Apothecary Hall on the corner in Frederiksted—and bought a watercolor paint set. It was displayed in the window.  I went straight home and painted Lana Turner from a picture of her that I used to keep.”  He paused for a while, as if amazed at himself for speaking so openly, this being, according to him, the first [and only] interview he had ever granted. Then he continued. “That was really the first thing I painted outside of school. I also had pencil-drawings of Elizabeth Taylor and some of the other movie stars. I kept those things for a while, but they are all gone now.”  He paused again, then proceeded.  “I am going to tell you everything. People need to know what I have to say.  Life can be short sometimes.”

After dropping out of high school, Dove had to find paying-work.  And he found it in the places where young men from Frederiksted usually found work in the 1950s and ‘60s:  with the Department of Public Works, digging ditches for the town’s sewer lines; and loading and unloading ships for Merwin at the Frederiksted dock.  Dove, ever the artist, sang calypso on the side.

“Dove had a unique voice,” said Elmer James, former bandleader of the 1950s’ and ‘60s’ group Sonora Santa Cruz.  “He used to sing for Vibratones. He sang in an ‘off-ish’ minor key; so, as a musician, you had to catch him just right. His voice was frig-up, but it was good. It was unique.” 

For many Frederiksteders old enough to vividly recall the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Dove was the town’s strongman.  He was very tall, very muscular, and very friendly.  And children admired him. But it was the day that Dove decided to put down his barbells and pick up his paintbrushes that he made his strongest impact on Frederiksted and on St. Croix. 

“I was in a yard on Prince Street—the yard across from Peter Christian,” Dove said, “when a white lady that I used to call ‘Miss Morning Glory’ saw me lifting weights and asked me if I could paint a sign for her. I guess she had heard that I could paint. Or maybe I had told her. Anyway, she wanted the sign painted in oil paint, and it was to have some pictures on it. That was my first painting-job.”

“The first time I saw Dove, he was painting a sign under the gallery of what is now the Virgin Islands Community Bank, on the corner of Strand and Market Streets in Frederiksted,” said his ex-wife Sherill Jackson Richardson. “That must have been some time in the late ‘50s because we got married in 1961.  In those days, he used to supplement his income by painting decorations on cars and bikes.” 

The young couple lived in the Pond Bush neighborhood of Frederiksted, during which period their first two children, Eugenie and Earl, were born.  By 1964, when the couple’s third and last child together, Elvena, was born, the family was living in Marley Homes.  But by 1965, the marriage had ended in divorce. (Dove never remarried, though several years later he lived with Mae Stapleton and bore a son, Alimayo, with her. Stapleton preceded Dove in death.)

“Durant Tower,” Dove’s “muse.” Private Collection of Wayne James

After the divorce, Dove moved to “New Town,” just outside Frederiksted’s town proper. “I moved there to hibernate and paint,” Dove said. “That was a very stressful period of my life. I didn’t feel like singing calypso anymore, so I left the band. But it was during that time that I really become a painter.”   He smiled, looked down, then continued.  “I decided to paint the inside of the house where I was living. And while doing that, I decided to paint myself floating on a flying carpet on one of the walls.  That is when I really realized that I had talent.”  This time, he did not look down.

Many of the major turning points in Dove’s life involved another person.  Even the manner in which he came to be known across all of St. Croix as “Dove” involved another person.  “I got that name because of Carmen Williams.  I must have been 20 or 21 years old when people started calling me ‘Dove,’” he said. “I had a bicycle that I painted black-and-white, and the bike had a little carry-bag that used to hang from the back of the seat. I had painted a white dove on each side of the bag, and Carmen saw it and named my bike ‘Dove.’ It soon stuck as my nickname.  I kept it because I liked it; it was peaceful.”

Why Dove devoted almost half his life painting the historic buildings of Frederiksted and Christiansted is also largely due to another person:  Orin Arnold. 

“Back in the mid-1970s, when I was still working for Highway Safety, I saw Dove in town [Frederiksted] and asked him to paint Durant’s Castle for me,” said Arnold. “He told me that he couldn’t paint houses—that he only painted signs.  So, I told him that if he could paint a sign, he could paint a house.  So, he agreed.  Months went by. Then one day I saw him, and he said: ‘Arnold, ah have a draft of dih paintin’ fo’ yoh. But ah gon need about thirty dollars to buy dih rest of the supplies to finish it.’ I gave him the money. Some more months went by. Then one day, out of the blue, he showed up with the painting. I asked him:  ‘So, how much ah have fo’ yoh?’ He answered, ‘forty-five dollars.’ Between the deposit and the final payment, I paid seventy-five dollars for the painting.”

Dove never signed the piece with his name.  Instead, he had “stamped” the piece with a unique style that would make his work perhaps the most identifiable of all local artists—so much so that even little children would see one of his paintings and describe it as “a Dove.” 

“Before I painted Durant’s Tower for Orin Arnold,” Dove said, “I used to paint at my house.  People would see me in passing and ask me to paint a sign, or they would come by the house to offer me work.  Some people would bring a photograph and ask me to do a portrait.  But a lot of people thought I was lazy since they didn’t see me working a regular job.  Then when I sat on King Street, across from Durant’s Tower to paint the house for Arnold, everyone saw me in the street and stopped to see what I was doing.  Even little children on their way home from school stopped to see my work and to talk to me.  That is when I realized that painting on the street was good advertising.  And I figured that the best reason to be painting on the street was to be painting the houses in town. That is how I became known for painting buildings.” 

Having established a niche, Dove moved back into Frederiksted proper in order to be closer to his subjects—the wonderful historic building of his beloved town.  And from about 1975-1995, he set up apartment-studios in various buildings in town. He lived on King Street, next door to his muse, Durant’s Tower, until the tower, along with is studio (with several paintings inside) caught afire shortly after Hurricane Hugo; he lived on Hill Street, between Queen and Prince Streets, in an upstairs space in the early ‘90s; then he moved to a long-row, just east of the Ann Heyliger Vegetable Market.  During those years, anyone living in town or passing through could see Dove outside, painting—in the park on the waterfront; on the corner, under the gallery of the supermarket, just south of Cumberland Castle; on the corner of the old Brow Soda Factory. 

Dove’s “Mikey and Suzie” Private Collection of Wayne James.

Those years, especially the years from 1985-95, were also the years of Dove’s best work.  His technique had matured, his colors had become more characteristically bold, his perspective more accurate and informed.  And as a diversion from his favorite architectural subjects, he would paint portraits or historical themes such as Emancipation or Fireburn.  In 1989 he painted Hurricane Hugo with a furious Dove-style sky and coconut trees blowing frantically in the gale.

To see a Dove from his “high period” is to know that he painted straight from his soul to the souls of Crucians.  Each gesture of his subjects, whether “thrashing back” down King Street in a j’ouvert tramp; standing, arms akimbo, on a street corner; the precise—almost signature—placement of a D.P.W. trashcan; or the calico-printed skirts of his old ladies all speak on a level that only a Crucian can fully understand and appreciate.  His style is not “touristy.”  Nor are his subjects contrived or glorified. Nonetheless, tourists adore his work, and his native Caribbean people, naturally, love it.  Whether man, woman, or child, black, or white, people are enthralled by Dove’s work because it is uniquely his and authentically Crucian.  And without ever hiring a publicist or encouraging interviews, without ever having a gallery show, Lloyd Dove Braffith emerged as St. Croix’s premiere artist—of all time.  But what is perhaps even more remarkable are the circumstances under which he earned that distinction. 

When Dove started painting for a living in the 1950s, he had no Crucian role models.  No Crucian, prior to Dove, had ever made his living from painting canvases. And not only did Dove make a living for himself, he also assisted in the financial support of his four children by selling his paintings.  In addition, he always found time to teach his self-taught skills to other artists. For a while in the 1980s, he tutored Wayne “Bully” Petersen (like Dove, a musician-painter) but the two men had a falling-out, which never fully reconciled; Phyllis Branch was a Dove “groupie” for a while in the early ‘90s; and 1980s’ Dove protégé Denley “Sutu” Joseph, who would eventually abandon painting altogether for a life on the streets, credits Dove for much of his technique as a sign-painter and canvas-artist. In the early 1980s, in government-sponsored summer youth programs, Dove also taught painting to children from the island’s public housing communities. 

Some time around 1998, Dove moved to the town of Christiansted, again staking out corner-territory to do his work.  Some Frederiksteders assumed he had relocated for inspiration; others simply felt betrayed. 

Lloyd “Dove” Braffith in photo by Roger Thompson.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Dove had moved to Christiansted,” said one lady.  “I vividly recall actually feeling jealous. It was like, ‘wha’ mo’ they want up deh! Yoh mean to tell me that they want Dove now toh?’ “

“I knew Christiansted well from in my high school days,” Dove said.  “And I also used to come up here when I had to sell paintings to pay my bills and pay child support. Luz James—the father—used to buy plenty of my paintings.  And I also had some white customers.”

Just as in Frederiksted, wherever Dove painted, people gathered—and many of them were street people.

“I got a lot of criticism—even from family members—because I live somewhat of a street life and keep company with street people,” Dove said. “But it is the street people who go to buy food for me while I paint on the corners.  It isn’t like I can just walk off and leave my canvases and paints to go looking for a cookshop to buy a meal.  So, the street people get my food for me; and when I eat, they eat.  That’s the way my mother raised me.  ‘Eat you alone, hungry you alone.’ When you break bread with people, you and they bind to one another.”

There was widespread speculation of Dove’s occasional or habitual use of drugs, evidenced, some said, by his deliberate underpricing of his paintings to encourage quick sales.  Others claimed that he would sell commissioned work to support his lifestyle, then have to start all over from scratch just before or upon the arrival of the client to collect the painting.  Still, others complained that Dove would paint the same subject too often, the critics at least somewhat, overlooking the uniqueness of each of the artist’s pieces and the fact that French Impressionist Claude Monet, for example, painted several “Haystacks,” various “Rouen Cathedrals,” and lots of “Lilly Ponds”—all of which are worth millions of dollars today.  What is for certain, however, is that Dove was generally described as a soft-spoken, peaceful man throughout his life, and he is believed to have sold more paintings in his lifetime than any other local artist—Crucian-born or otherwise. 

Dove attributed much of his self-respect and respect for others to the solid moral instruction he acquired from his mother when he was a boy.  He was the son of Cecelia Harris and Hezekiah Braffith of Frederiksted. 

“I knew that my mother was satisfied with me from the day she stopped calling me ‘Lloydy,’ when I was about 14 years old, and started calling me ‘Mr. Braffith,’”  Dove said.  I consider my mother the greatest woman in the world.  Women, because of the influence over their children, can save the world.   My mother saved me. It was because of her that I avoided trouble throughout my life, and it was because of her that I did not give up on painting.   It is also because of her that I took up an interest in writing.” 

Cecelia Harris died in July of 1981; and by the mid-1980s Dove had started carrying around a black-and-white copybook, filled with his essays on his philosophy on life, much of it based on his early experiences with his mother. Increasingly, he said, he felt the burning desire to be recognized for his writing in addition to his painting.  But he felt that because he had not achieved a high level of conventional education, people were not prepared to accept him as a writer.  It was around that time, perhaps 1985, that Dove, almost defiantly, started signing his paintings with the letters “B/T,” an abbreviation for “Best Teacher.”  Dove felt that “The human brain was created by God to learn through watching, studying, and working with nature. But in our world today, humans go to school and lock themselves in a classroom away from nature, where they learn from information without work.” He felt that as a person who has learned how to paint purely from nature, his learning was a true, uncorrupted learning, which he was qualified to teach. He also felt that in the process of closely observing nature, as he was learning how to paint, he had learned other lessons of life, which he believed he was eminently qualified to teach to others. In one of his essays he writes, “I lived in Frederiksted for many years and never got into problems with anyone. I never made a lot of money, but I have always felt proud of myself—not so much as a great artist only, but as a good teacher.”  

By the time Dove moved to Christiansted in 1998, his health was in significant decline.  Ove the years he had contracted high blood pressure and diabetes, thereby jeopardizing his vision and his body’s ability to heal its wounds.  But he had to continue painting since it was the means by which he earned his living.  The work of this period to those who intimately knew his “high period” was more hurriedly executed and lacked some of his characteristic depth and soul.  But on the rare occasion, Dove would rise to the challenge and paint a piece that could almost parallel his best work.  From underneath the gallery across from Holy Cross Catholic Church on Company Street, Christiansted, he would work each day, pushing his canvases and supplies to and from work in a supermarket cart. And his petit entourage of artist groupies and friends would follow him to and fro.  Then, when that building was marked off for renovation, he moved up Company Street to the corner of Market Street, in the heart of a thriving street community.

It was during his Christiansted period that one of Dove’s east end costumers [Mr. Don Weeden] decided to become his official patron.  The deal was this:  Beginning on February 26, 2002—on Dove’s 62nd birthday—in exchange for food, clothing, medical care, painting-supplies, and payment of his other bills, Dove would paint every day, allowing a representative from the St. Croix Foundation to select his best works for a show to be held the following January or February. The proceeds from the sale of his work at the show would then be put into a fund administered by the St. Croix Foundation to take care of Dove’s needs.

“The patron is one of my clients,” Dove said. “He has bought several of my paintings in the past.  Under our agreement, he takes me shopping for clothes, I get money to buy food, and whenever I need to go to the doctor, or to the hospital, he covers the bill.

“This will be my first show,” Dove said.  “Before, I used to have to sell my paintings every day to live. Now, with this man who is helping me, I can afford to put aside my paintings for an exhibit next year.  I was honored by the legislature under Edgar Iles, and I once received a plaque from an organization headed by Willard John.  Now, I have an exhibit.”

The Foundation was able to collect a few of Dove’s better pieces. But Dove was Dove. And if a person walked up to his corner, took out cash, and offered to pay for a piece on the spot, Dove would sell it and eventually start from scratch on another canvas. It was a hard habit to break—after all, he had done it that way just about every day for thirty years.

On Sunday, November 10, 2002, nine months after entering the agreement with his patron, and a little over a year from the date of his first showing, Dove suffered a massive stroke.  He was rushed to the Juan Luis Hospital.  Some hospital staff, knowing of his earlier marriage to Sherill Jackson Richardson, now a registered nurse at the hospital, informed her of his arrival.  She responded.  His children flew in immediately from off-island.  Dove was pronounced dead the following day.  Almost immediately, a makeshift shrine was established at the corner of Company and Market Streets.  A few people brought flowers and simply laid them there.  Someone wrote on one of the walls of the corner:  “Dove Is Above.”

Then all the rumors started circulating:  that people had broken into his studio and stollen his paintings as soon as he was taken to the hospital; that a mysterious man had made off with his writings. Then there were all the stories of people who had supposedly paid cash deposits for paintings just before his untimely death, or people who were just about to buy their first Dove but did not arrive on time.  Then there was all the talk about how much his paintings would increase in value now that there would be no more Doves ‘flying” off the corners.

Some of that same talk ended up in the church yard on the morning of the funeral.  But for the most part, mourners talked about how shocked they were at the sparse turnout.  

“Whe’ pah all dem senator and t’ing deh?” asked Lithia Brady.  “Yoh mean toh tell me that none ah dem so-called leaders of this ya lan’ couldn’ come down ya to west end to sen’ off Lloydy? ‘Tis a cryin’ shame.  Da wah mek we cyan’ mek it. We ain’ got no respect foh we own.” 

During the service, Dove’s first-born, Eugenie, who is completing her Doctor of Philosophy degree in Florida, described how her father’s face would light up whenever she and her siblings would visit him at one of his painting-sites on their way home from school.  His niece, Hollis McIntosh Silvest, talked about his strength and his kind, gentle manner.  The service was simple and dignified.  Then, without much pomp and circumstance, and devoid of the distractions of social intellectuals, public figures, reporters, and ladies who lunch, Lloyd Alphonso Braffith, arguably one of the most significant Virgin Islanders of the 20th Century, was buried in the Kinshill Cemetery—not in a tomb, but like Jessica Tuteiin Moolenaar, in the raw, natural earth of St. Croix. 

As people left the graveyard, some took solace in the thought that when Dove’s century is summarized, and most of his conventional contemporaries have been relegated to names atop filed-away office memos or to leaves on a family tree, Dove’s name will soar high.  They could sense that it is his name, along with that of painter Albert Daniel of St. Thomas, that will open the chapter on fine arts in the Virgin Islands. And they could sense that when the ancestral townhomes of some of the island’s most celebrated families have all but crumbled into obscurity, it is Dove’s paintings of those very buildings that will enable Crucians to recall the former splendor of St. Croix’s historic towns.  And when young men and women who grew up in Frederiksted and Christiansted leave their homeland in pursuit of careers in the arts, they will know of the commitment that is required to ensure success because they will have learned of true commitment to the arts from Dove. 

“I believe I lived a great life,” Dove said during his interview.  “I did everything to the best of my ability. The truth is that I am your most original artist. Your most original person. Your most original new writer. Your best teacher. All this because I’ve learned the most from God.”

It is clear that Dove recognized his impact on St. Croix.  It is clear that he was satisfied and at peace.   

[One of the provisions of Dove’s agreement with the St. Croix Foundation is for the Foundation to erect a tomb to mark his gravesite.  Per Dove’s request, the tombstone should be surmounted by a dove.  As of the date of this blogpost, Dove’s grave remains unmarked and in danger of being lost to the ravages of weathering or reuse.]

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